Backstage at The Utah Arts Festival 2015: Lena Prima, Santa Fe and The Fat City Horns, Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo, Erin Harpe highlight Day 2 headliners

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The Utah Arts Festival’s second day of headliners honors some of America’s greatest musical institutions from the cities of Las Vegas and New Orleans to the great tradition of American song and jazz standards translated beautifully in the music of Lena Prima and to the virtuosity of two great guitar players and the contemporary interpretation of the grand tradition of the Mississippi Delta Blues.

Lena Prima with the Salt Lake City Jazz Orchestra, 10:15 p.m., Festival Stage (sponsored by Jazz Arts of the Mountain West)

PrimaFor the family and children of Louis Prima, one of the most beloved American song artists and entertainers during the 20 century, there always were two cities of great musical tradition in their lives: Las Vegas and New Orleans. Lena, the youngest daughter in the family, began high school in Covington, Louisiana but graduated in Las Vegas. College at UNLV came and the younger Prima split her days with a non-music job and music at night. By 28, she began performing full-time on the Vegas  touring circuit with groups such as Sweet Louie & The Checkmates and The Spiral Staircase (known for I Love You More Today Than Yesterday). And, in 2000, she debuted her own show, which became instantly popular.

A decade later, as she describes it in an interview with The Utah Review, “Vegas had changed and so did I.” Then came the 2010 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. “It was an honor to be invited to perform and it felt so great,” she recalls. Two weeks later, she decided to move from Vegas to New Orleans, knowing she could continue to honor her father’s legacy (he died in 1978) and cast her own footprint in the city’s greatest jazz traditions.

Soon after she relocated, Prima started collaborating with the local singer Ingrid Lucia, who was compiling songs from various female artists for the album project The New Orleans Nightingales. Prima’s contribution was appropriately titled, Come On Back To New Orleans. Another song Silly In The Middle solidified her own take on the swinging style that was so prominent in her father’s music. With her husband (Tim Fahey who also plays bass), she set the tracks for her first album after the move: Starting Something.

She says being back in New Orleans has given her a lot of insight appreciating how her dad’s sound and musical influences “happened.” She adds, “for me ideas happen naturally whether I am driving or I have dreamed a song.” Living in The Crescent City, she has expanded her musical palette with the edgy funk and southern roots rock that are just a part of one of the country’s most cosmopolitan musical scenes. Her album Since The Storm and her rendition of her father’s songs such as Sunday Kind of Love suggest how the natural jazz roots so integral to the city have subtly given her own unique sound and aesthetic.

One of her mainstay weekly gigs is at the city’s Hotel Monteleone and she is always impressed by her musicians’ capacity to adapt to any situation, even an emergency discovered right before they are set to perform. Part of the city’s uniqueness is that musicians appear to be everywhere. “One night three minutes before we hit the stage, a trumpeter did not find a mouthpiece in his case. He went out to find one and he was back in his seat before the end of the first song. And, this happened twice,” she recalls. Likewise, her husband found a last-minute replacement in the hotel elevator for a trombonist who suddenly became ill.

Indeed, life in New Orleans has been more than musically satisfying for Prima.

Jerry Lopez’s Santa Fe and The Fat City Horns, 9:55 p.m., Amphitheater Stage

For their appearance at the Utah Arts Festival, Jerry Lopez’s Santa Fe and The Fat City Horns are packing musical power for this road gig from Las Vegas: 15 musicians with full horns, rhythms and vocal sections.

“We’re a musician’s musician band,” Lopez says in an interview with The Utah Review. “For us, even on the worst of days, when we get on stage and start playing, that’s when all the bad feelings go away and the healing begins. And, we know that giving the audience a great show is going to make everyone feel better.”

Santa Fe The band is a well-known and popular musical institution in Vegas, playing every Monday night at the Palms Hotel and Casino. Guest artists sit in occasionally, including Bill Champlin, Kenny Loggins, the Carlos Santana Band, Tower of Power, Will Lee, Armando Peraza and many others. “We’ve had Bruno Mars come check us out,” Lopez says, adding that he stays alert to everything on the musical radar.

He is enthusiastic about new groups such as Snarky Puppy, a fusion band formed in Texas but now based in Brooklyn as a collective involving more than 40 musicians. They have played with many artists including Snoop Lion, Erykah Badu and Justin Timberlake.

Listen closely and one quickly recognizes just how familiar Lopez’s voice is. Starting a professional career before he was 14, he has played and sung as well as led bands and composed music in virtually every setting. He has performed with artists such as Celine Dion and Bette Midler, written and recorded television jingles and appeared as an instrumentalist on numerous recordings. He contributed to the album of one of New York’s hottest salsa groups Ritmo de Vida 3D as well as the popular release All That Jazz by The Tortilla Factory.

Lopez says staying busy is vital for any musical to make it a viable livelihood. “It’s feast or famine for a lot of us.”

Likewise, Lopez is committed to keeping the art of live music as vibrant and relevant as possible every way possible. And, he stays open to technological enhancements that can help the art survive and, more importantly, thrive. For Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines two latest addition to the fleet, the band created virtual concerts to be played twice weekly on the ships in Room 270, with 270-degree angles and ultra-high resolution screens that bring stunning realism to the point that people believe they are watching a live performance. “We recorded the concerts with green screens and it took a bit for us to get used to not having the audience up close and sense the instant gratification they get from the live performance. So, we focused on generating that much more energy between the musicians to recreate the feel of a true live show.”

Lopez says the musician’s challenges do not end at the end of a gig. “We use some of the money we earn to help fellow musicians down on their luck or who are facing expensive medical bills.” The band also has funded scholarship opportunities for music students in New Mexico.

Lopez says the band’s festival show will not be aimed exclusively at jazz lovers.”We’ll probably do 60 percent original and 40 percent covers,” he adds. Some of them will include The Beatles’ Come Together, Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City and James Brown’s I Feel Good. “It will be a hybrid mix of funk, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, jazz and salsa,” he explains.

And, at the end of a scorching day, the band’s music, sizzling for sure, will be the perfect healing medicine for festival crowds.

Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo, 9:10 p.m., Festival Stage

For a couple of guys of playing guitar – what Frank Vignola humbly describes in an interview with The Utah Review as a “dying art form” – Vignola and fellow musician Vinny Raniolo are doing more than respectably well. Vignola says he averages 200 gigs a year.

Vignola-Raniolo-2“We’re like the traveling salesmen for the guitar,” Vignola says cheekily. More seriously though: the duo puts on a blistering display of virtuosity, thoroughly delighting audiences with impressive arrangements of everything from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to timeless songs such as Stardust and Killing Me Softly, a concert that fuses the spirit of Louis Armstrong with great guitar virtuosi such as Les Paul and Bucky Pizzarelli.

His PBS special, Four Generations of Guitar produced by Peter Berkow, premieres this year as part of the Music Gone Public series. And, education is a major component of Vignola’s schedule.

Earlier this week, he returned from a guitar camp in Louisiana where he led workshops for 90 students. Young guitarists are familiar with Vignola’s pedagogy, with music books from Mel Bay Pub­li­ca­tions, one of the giants in the music education industry; video courses at Truefire.com, and his own online les­son and work­shop courses that have registered nearly 150 stu­dents within the last two years. Clinics and master classes at university music schools and conservatories round out his commitment to music education.

Vignola was committed to the guitar by the time he was a teenager. “My father played tenor banjo and had records from Paul and Pizzarelli. However, once I heard Django Reinhardt’s Limehouse Blues, I was hooked. And, we had jam sessions with the musicians who came to our house.”

As for Raniolo, almost but not quite a generation younger than Vignola, joining to make a duo, Vignola heard him at a New York City jam session 11 years ago. “He already was so talented and passionate about music but he just got better and then five years ago we decided to take the duo on the road,” he recalls. “For me, it has been the best act of the last ten years.”

Vignola says proudly he is in the “happiness business,” comfortable to “give people what they want to hear.” Asked to name his most memorable gig, he says with barely a pause two instances: playing solo banjo wearing a Santa Claus outfit in New York and the Sydney Opera House with Tommy Emmanuel.

He is looking forward to returning to Salt Lake City this weekend for the festival. “It is a great jazz city. I remember the great response for a concert eight years ago at the Capitol Theatre and at the [downtown] Sheraton Hotel. I thought we were going to have a small venue but more than 1,200 showed up in this gigantic ballroom.”

Erin Harpe and The Delta Swingers, 8:15 p.m., Amphitheater Stage

The Utah Arts Festival is just one of the stops on a nationwide CD release party for the newest album Love Whip Blues by Erin Harpe and The Delta Swingers. Blending in soul, funk and reggae, the band is gaining acclaim for a rollicking dance music style emanating directly from the Mississippi Delta Blues of the 1930s.

imageFour original songs join six others that include Harpe’s interpretations of the classic blues standards and a hugely different take on Angel From Montgomery, the John Prine song made famous by Bonnie Raitt.

Harpe is backed by Jim Countryman (bass), Bob Nisi (drums/vocals) and Sonny Jim Clifford (slide guitar/harmonica). Utah is one of more nearly 20 stops in a fast-paced tour this summer before another tour later this year and one in Europe next year.

Maintaining a grueling schedule – seven gigs in the last nine days – Harpe, wanting wisely to rest her voice, graciously agreed to answer a few questions by email.

TUR: Delta Blues has always been a core part of your musical nature but you also have absorbed so many different styles into your songs and group’s performance approach. You make it seem so effortless in finding a place for any influence in your music and performances. How did this come about both individually and collectively for you and the Delta Swingers?

EH: In college I did a study abroad in Kenya, where I got really into African music, which continued when I moved to Boston after graduating. Boston has always had a very diverse music scene, it was easy to see all kinds of music from Afropop to reggae and ska coming through town doing shows, and there was a scene of local music influenced by this. Jim and I started a band called Lovewhip that was based around African rhythms and interwoven guitars, and there were other bands doing ska and punk mambo and other creative world music amalgamations. We all influenced each other. Lovewhip is still going and at this point has evolved to incorporate electronic dance elements and funk into the mix. The lineup of Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers and Lovewhip is the same right now, so there’s a lot of each band influencing the other, which is fun, they are both dance bands! That’s where some of our other styles come from. Lovewhip is doing a few shows on this tour as well.

TUR: As important as contemporary influences are, you have paid special attention to the work of the some of the greatest early blues artists. For you personally, what have been the greatest takeaways from these singers and early blues artists in developing your own style and music?

EH: Memphis Minnie was my first favorite 1930s Delta Blues artist. I love her guitar playing, the fact that she was known to be a better guitar player than many men and used to beat them in guitar contests. I also love her spunky lyrics and great vocals with attitude. I try to channel her in some of my songs like the Love Whip Blues (the title track of our new, debut album). My dad, Neil Harpe, is my other big blues influence, he’s a very talented delta blues player, and taught me how to play many of my favorite songs by people like Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Lucille Bogan and Lightnin’ Hopkins. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that each had their own unique style, so after listening to all the old records many many times, I didn’t try to copy them exactly, but incorporated aspects of their playing into my own individual style of playing and singing. A lot of blues players like to copy exactly as a way to honor the blues, but I think it’s more in keeping with the tradition to put some of your self into it, change it a bit and make it your own, that way it’s still a living, evolving art form.

TUR: Venues like the Utah Arts Festival seem like the perfect platform for the infectious dance energy of your band and music. On this latest tour with your most recent album, what have been among the most memorable or special performing experiences?

EH: We are really looking forward to getting the crowd dancing at the Utah Arts Fest! So far, my favorite show was in St. Louis at the Blues City Deli. It was a packed house, our first time in a new city, and yet already so many connections, people we’d met in Memphis at the IBC, someone who knew of my dad, people who’d been following us and waiting for us to come to town. Lots of dancing! Tonight is only the fifth gig if the tour, but the response has been pretty similar everywhere we’ve been so far. Selling lots of CDs and merch too! We are bringing lots of cool stuff to the festival: CDs, stickers, t-shirts and girly tees, tote bags, koozies, bottle opener key chains, lighters and sunglasses – all with the logo I designed myself!

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