by Michael Machosky
Published: Wednesday, July 18, 2012, 8:40 p.m.
Updated 7 hours ago
The Pittsburgh Blues Festival has an exceptionally strong, diverse lineup this year, including actual legends like gospel singer Mavis Staples and blues-soul giant Bobby “Blue” Bland.
The old-timers still are the biggest draws, and that’s OK — they’ve earned it. But what will happen when they finally hang up their microphones and guitars for good?
To find out, it’s worth showing up in time to catch some of the lesser-billed artists, who will someday have to carry on the blues tradition alone. People like Albert Cummings, who plays at 3 p.m.
Cummings still isn’t entirely sure how a middle-class white guy from small-town Massachusetts arrived at the blues. But he certainly got there. The singer-guitarist was inspired by the electric guitar pyrotechnics of Stevie Ray Vaughan, but has lately been charting out his own, personal take on the blues.
“I don’t know how it happened,” Cummings says. “I grew up in a real rural community, in Williamstown Massachusetts. ... There’s no such thing as blues there. My father had a small farm. Country music is all I listened to. I was a senior in high school and didn’t know who Eric Clapton was. My brother-in-law used to give me cassette tapes, and gave me some Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
He went to college, then came back to work in his family’s custom home-building business. He played guitar constantly, and won multiple awards — for building high-end custom homes.
Then, the recession hit the business hard. But that opened up an opportunity.
“Right now, times are terrible, and building isn’t doing well, so maybe the other thing has a shot,” he says.
Blues music has always been associated with suffering and hard times, but it functions differently for Cummings.
“One thing I say about the blues is that it helps me stay positive, even though it’s considered a depressing music. But it’s really an inspiration to me. That’s what I try to do in my music. Blues is a really fun, up music. If you let it in, you’ll see. It’s not all about ‘My baby left me/I got run over by a train.’ ”
Many have remarked that Cummings has a flashy, Texas blues style of playing, in the vein of his hero Vaughan. It’s also possible that angle has been oversold a bit.
“I think I’m more of a melting pot,” he says. “Delbert McClinton, Stevie, Clapton, Jimmy Thackeray — I love all these guys. I see us all as completely different. We all have different voices.
“The only thing I can say is I’m Albert Cummings. I’m not good enough to be anyone else. I just play my own stuff. If I sound like someone else too much, I change it. My motto is ‘Be yourself, because everyone else is taken.’ ”