BENNINGTON -- Active members of the local music scene since the late ‘60s, the musicians of Blues Sanctuary have watched the music world change before their eyes, and they're still going strong.
"We're like the bees," said drummer Ken Pallman. "Radiation has hit, and we're still living. Everybody comes and goes, and we're still here." Soon to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame through the Albany chapter, Blues Sanctuary formed in early 2002 as a trio with Rick Burgess on guitar and vocals, Pallman on drums and Jeff Bentley on bass, and has since expanded to a quintet with Bruce Mariani taking over on bass, Joe Candal playing keyboards and John O'Rourke adding a second guitar to the band.
Although the core of the band has been playing together for over a decade, Pallman said their current lineup feels better than ever before.
"John coming into the band brought us a whole new breath. It finally felt complete, and that was seven years in," he said. "John came in with a completely different sound. He has this Eric Johnson, Jeff Beck sound. It brought a whole different dimension to the band." Pallman said adding O'Rourke has turned Blues Sanctuary into two bands in one, matching the classic, "old-school Chicago, down and dirty" style that Rick Burgess brings with his vocals and guitar playing with O'Rourke's contemporary style.
"With John in the band and Bruce's modern, higher-pitched voice, we were able to start playing things like Joe Bonamassa and covering some things that we weren't able to do before," he said. "It brought a new voice to the original stuff that we had written before too. It was a whole new voice completely."
"John's got some big you-know-whats to go out and play some of the stuff that he plays," he continued. "We do ‘Cliffs of Dover' by Eric Johnson, and it takes some guts to go up and do that.
Pallman said O'Rourke's mastery of such complex, acrobatic guitar songs are especially impressive, because an accident left him without feeling in his left index finger, a critically important finger for a guitarist.
"He needs to watch where his fingers are, so when you watch him he always has his head buried in the guitar," Pallman said. "He's playing incredible stuff, but he looks stone cold because he's concentrating on where his finger is on the fretboard. It's truly amazing." While O'Rourke represents the contemporary element of the band, Blues Sanctuary stays connected to the roots of electric blues through Rick Burgess, the band's central singer. With his growly vocals, Burgess taps into the sounds made famous by legends like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and B. B. King.
Burgess says he first learned about the blues when he was introduced to B. B. King by one of his bandmates in Pure Lard, a popular local band in the late 1960s.
"We had been playing a lot of really good venues -- we played in concert with the Byrds and the Guess Who," said Burgess. "The agency that handled them wanted to send up on a tour for the whole summer, and unfortunately we couldn't do that tour because we had a female singer in the band at the time who was going to Bennington College. So that was the end of that. But that girl turned me onto B.B. King. Right off the bat, the emotion and feeling that he played with really touched me."
Since then Burgess has played in other local bands, like the Off-Balance Blues Band, and he spent 13 years working in physical therapy at the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington, where Blues Sanctuary played a concert July 16.
"We love playing for the vets at the vets home," said Pallman. "A lot of them are Vietnam vets now -- they come from the rock era and they love the blues. They're a rocking crowd, they were digging it. It was a joy to play for them."
Although they say they don't often have the chance to play hometown shows, Blues Sanctuary have a handful of Bennington concerts lined up over the next few weeks, performing for Bennington's Battle Day celebration at Willow Park on Aug. 16 at 6 p.m.
"I dont know if we're going to overstay our welcome here," Pallman joked.
After leading the local music scene for decades, Blues Sanctuary seem to know they will always be welcome here in their hometown. For more information on Blues Sanctuary, visit their website at http://bluessanctuary2012.com/.
If you go ...
What: Bennington Battle Day weekend
When: Celebration Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 16 and 17, with parade, cannon, soldiers and ceremonies. 5K race and fun run Parade 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
Living history encampment
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days
Where: Bennington Monument, 15 Monument Circle
What: Battle of Bennington
Where: New York State Bennington Battlefield Historic Site, Route 67, Hoosick Falls
When: Begins 4 p.m. Saturday
Open camps with re-enactors
11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.Sunday