Back in March of 2017, I had the pleasure to attend a rather stunning live performance by the legendary Southern soul singer-songwriter William Bell at downtown’s Ships of the Sea Museum.
Bell is perhaps best known for co-writing singing blues guitarist Albert King’s late ’60s hit “Born Under a Bad Sign” (which would later become something of a blues and rock standard, covered by everyone from Cream and Jimi Hendrix to Buddy Guy and Etta James). He was also responsible for a slew of emotion-drenched laments, ballads and mildly raunchy love songs throughout the ’60s and ’70s, including “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” “Any Other Way,” “Everybody Loves a Winner” and “Easy Comin’ Out (Hard Goin’ In).”
Bell was riding high on a late-career resurgence that found him writing and releasing the Grammy Award-winning 2016 Americana LP “This Is Where I Live,” his first new record in three decades.
That exhilarating show came to town courtesy of the Savannah Music Festival and saw Bell backed by a 10-piece funk and soul band whose lineup included female vocalists, a Hammond organ and a tight horn section. In other words, all the ingredients required to properly reproduce the nuanced arrangements of the beloved musical style which Bell and his peers, such as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Al Green and James Carr, helped to create a half-century ago.
In my review of that concert for Do Savannah, I wrote, “In the wake of this rapturous master class in Southern soul and stately roots rock, let’s hope the SMF can convince Bell to return sooner rather than later for another appearance while the creative fire of one of the last remaining living legends of those genres still burns so brightly.”
Well, folks, I’m thrilled to say they have.
At 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9, the festival announces next year’s schedule with a high-profile season kickoff concert at the Lucas Theatre, headlined by Bell and the same crack band he had in tow the last time he graced our city. The show coincides with the first public reveal of the SMF’s 2019 roster. Tickets for all the announced shows (which focus on classical, jazz and traditional musical styles from around the world, and run from March 28 through April 13) will go on sale that morning via the Savannah Box Office.
Opening for Bell and his band will be Jontavious Willis, an old-school, acoustic blues guitarist and singer from the small town of Greenville. He was inspired to take up the instrument in his early teens by a YouTube clip of the great folk blues icon Muddy Waters. Now, at the tender age of just 22, his self-produced debut album has been named the Best of 2018 in the International Blues Challenge competition. He’s being hailed by critics and many elder statesmen of the genre as a dedicated and versatile prodigy primed to take up the mantle of this venerated rural art form and maintain its integrity into the next generation.
In fact, only four years after he first attempted to learn a blues song, he was hand-selected by the living legend of country blues, Taj Mahal, to be his support act on a major tour. Mahal has openly praised Willis’ talent and potential, calling him “My Wonderboy, the Wunderkind ... A great new voice of the 21st century in the acoustic blues.”
Ryan McMaken, the SMF’s longtime marketing and managing director who was recently promoted to the position of artistic director, said this is the first time in the festival’s history that they have held their annual lineup announcement show at a venue of this size, all in recognition of the unusually impressive nature of this double-bill.
“William Bell's performance in 2017 was definitely one of the great ‘feel good’ concerts in SMF history,” says McMaken. “With the chance to host a young blues phenom like Jontavious Willis for his Savannah debut on the same stage, we saw an opportunity to celebrate the opening of the 30th festival season with a concert spotlighting the importance of Georgia soul and blues.”
McMaken says that unlike some performers who continue to tour long past their prime, there’s never been a better time to catch Bell than right now. “At 79 years old, he’s found a sweet spot as both a singer and entertainer,” he opines. “His voice is as strong as it has ever been, almost 50 years since his first full-length Stax Records album was released.”
He also says the opportunity to enjoy a buzzworthy young artist near the very start of his career makes this an even more unique event.
“Jontavious Willis came across my radar through a few different sources at roughly the same time, including Larissa Davidson, a staff member here at the Savannah Music Festival. After listening to him a good bit, we heard about his opening run with Taj Mahal, and thought that a 30-minute slot at the front end of William Bell's set would be a great fit. This is the first show they have played together, to my knowledge.”
Between the beautifully restored, acoustically impressive environs of the Lucas Theatre and this never-before pairing of critically adored, musically compatible acts, all signs point to Friday night’s show as being a “must-see” for blues, soul and R&B fans of all ages.
Says McMaken, “You have two artists of vastly different ages — each at the top of their game — representing the 'joyful noise' that is inherent in Georgia soul and blues. This 30th festival season kickoff concert is a celebration of that important heritage.”