A fleeting, magical moment at a Florida music festival led to a collaboration that has had fans of roots and blues music raving ever since.
It happened three years ago at a post-festival party jam session hosted by a club that sponsored the festival. That was the first time Damon Fowler, J.P. Soars and Victor Wainwright played together. They are now known collectively as blues supergroup Southern Hospitality.
"We all got up, started playing, jamming and, just naturally, it felt really good," Fowler recalls in an interview from his home near Tampa. "There was a guy there that was like, 'Hey man, I want to hire y'all for this event that we have every year and I want this lineup right here to come down and do it.'"
Though guitarists Fowler and Soars and pianist Wainwright are all bandleaders on their own projects, they agreed.
But to make it worthwhile for Wainwright, who lives in Memphis, to come back to Florida — the home base for Fowler and Soars — they organized a mini-tour of the state with about seven dates, Fowler says.
The jam band didn't even have a name. They just called it the Southern Hospitality Tour, Fowler says. But by the time they reached the event, they were getting offers for more work.
"We didn't have a website or a CD and we were already booking gigs," Fowler says. "It was a project that just sprouted legs and started running.
"We didn't recognize it as magic," Fowler says. "We were just like, 'We play well together — cool.' But the response from the very beginning has been very magical."
On Thursday, Southern Hospitality is scheduled to play Musikfest's Americaplatz stage. While it will be the band's Musikfest debut, it will be its second visit to Bethlehem this year.
In February, the band played a joyously raucous set at ArtsQuest's Blast Furnace Blues Festival at SteelStacks. Needless to say, Southern Hospitality made a good impression on attendees and organizers alike.
The venue also made an impression on Fowler, who asked if this show also would be at the SteelStacks complex.
"That's a great venue and I'm really excited to come back there," he says.
"It should be great. We've been rehearsing and the rehearsals have been turning out awesome. I think it's going to be really cool. Southern Hospitality has been a great opportunity for us to stretch our music and craft new relationships."
Since those initial Florida shows, there have been numerous live gigs across the country and one critically acclaimed CD, "Easy Living," which was produced by acclaimed Louisiana guitarist Tab Benoit and released last year on blues label Blind Pig Records.
Unfortunately, Soars, who Fowler describes as the Michael Jordan of guitar players, will not be with the group for its Musikfest appearance. He is currently on tour in support of his newly released solo record "Full Moon Night in Memphis."
Instead, Nick Black, the guitarist in Wainwright's band, will sit in.
Wainwright has been named the "Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year" for the last two years by the Blues Foundation. His showmanship at the keyboard was one of the highlights at the Blast Furnace festival.
"Victor is an entertainer. He's a musician. He's a great person. Very special," Fowler says. "I feel very fortunate to be playing with those guys."
Wainwright and Soars most likely feel the same about Fowler, who at times seemed to be channeling Duane Allman as he played his slide guitar solos during Southern Hospitality's first trip to Bethlehem.
His playing has been compared to legends like Jeff Beck and Johnny Winter, who died in July and was on Fowler's mind during the interview.
"He was a huge influence on me growing up until this day," he says. "I wouldn't play slide guitar if I never heard Johnny Winter."
Fowler's uncle, who played guitar in country bands around Tampa, introduced a young Damon to Winter, giving him a copy of "Nothing But The Blues," a 1977 album the Texas bluesman recorded with Muddy Waters' band.
That same uncle gave him some of his earliest guitar lessons, helped him write his first songs and gave him his first chance to play guitar on stage with his band.
As a teenager, he acquired a reputation as one of the hottest guitar players on the scene. But he also developed virtuosity on the lap steel guitar and Dobro.
Signed to Blind Pig Records as a solo artist in 2009, Fowler has released three CDs of his own, most recently "Sounds of Home," which came out in January.
Fowler says working with Southern Hospitality has helped him evolve more as a musician. At the same time, he jokingly complains that working with two other great musicians who sing makes him "lazy."
"I don't have to sing as much. I don't have to work as hard with Southern Hospitality, man," Fowler says. "I only sing a third of the material.
"I do notice when I go back to doing my own project, it's like I haven't been to the gym in a while. There's shortness of breath and your muscles cramp real bad."
There are plans to for Southern Hospitality to go back the studio this winter to make a second record. This time, however, there will be less preparation in advance of the recording sessions — deliberately, Fowler says.
"With this record, we're going to have ideas, but no finished tunes and we're going to come in and kind of write them together," he says. "It's not good to have too many pre-conceived notions because the stuff on the first record that turned out the best was the stuff that we just came up with on the spur of the moment."
Just like the way the band got its start.
Daryl Nerl is a freelance writer.
Jodi Duckett, editor
•When: 9 p.m. Thursday
•Where: Musikfest's Americaplatz stage, Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks
•How much: Free