Like many others, the blues bug bit me while vacationing in Chicago. However; it wasn’t long before I awakened to the thriving blues scene in Detroit, Michigan. There is a pile of local blues talent in the Motor City and each January it’s showcased at the Anti-Freeze Blues Festival. Now in its 7th year, the event is the Detroit Blues Society’s biggest fund-raiser of the year and it was held again at the Magic Bag Theater in Ferndale, Michigan. It has become the best cure for the winter blues in Detroit. The fest’s artistic directors were Jeremy Haberman, R.J. Spangler and Jeff Grand. Stage announcements where handled by R.J. and local disc jockey Willy Wilson.
First up was the bugs Beddow Band and their trombone-driven party blues. Bandleader Beddow is part of a dying breed of blues trombonists. However, this hasn’t impacted his career. In fact his band was voted Best R&B Band at the year 2000 Detroit Music Awards. Their far too short set included songs sung by different band members. Duffy King’s killer vocal chops were backed by his rockin’ guitar. The dynamic and energetic guitarist thrilled the crowd with his onstage antics. He played blistering leads with the guitar held behind his head and jammed wildly on top of the amps. However, it came across as if he was trying to upstage headliner Lonnie Brooks. "Woman Crazy Man" featured powerful solos from all including an outstanding sax solo from James Morse. Bandleader bugs delivered the best vocals of the band. On "She Caught The Katy", he hit as many notes with his voice as he did with his Holton TR158 trombone. It was a raucous version that had us stompin’ our feet to the beat. The band was white hot with their excellent vocal blend, high energy danceable rhythms and driving horns.
Randy Volin loves used guitars. He says, "a 40-year old guitar just sounds better." In the early 80s, he achieved regional success with pop rockers The Look. He returned to the blues in 1986. His current band, Sonic Blues, is a power trio that delivered a fully charged set of hard driving rock edged blues. They began with a Texas shuffle instrumental where Randy played using his pick, fingers, thumbs and even the back of his hand. He brought out some of his favorite guitars: 1960 sunburst slab Stratocaster, 1963 sunburst Strat and a 1989 Squire Strat. Their version of Albert King’s "Personal Manager" featured plenty of that killer Volin tone. Drummer Vinnie D played so hard, it made the former movie theater’s floor shake. Had he played any harder, the stage would have collapsed. Randy pulled out a slide for "Dust My Broom". After "Let’s Work Together" they squeezed in a storming version of "Boom Boom". Randy, Vinnie and bassist Bob Hecker all sang different verses of the song which made it unique. The set carried a lot of feeling from rough to soft to everything in between.
R.J. Spangler is best known as Johnnie Bassett’s drummer. However, he is also the DBS chair, manager for Alberta Adams and Joe Weaver and is a Detroit roots music fanatic. His connections enabled him to put together a Detroit soul/blues revue featuring singers who were at the top of their game in the 50s/60s. He assembled a top notch supporting band including: Tim Brockett (piano), Kenny Brinkley (sax), Tim Marks (bass), Paul Carey (guitar) and himself on drums.
Kenny Martin had 5 singles on the Federal label. He recently moved back to Detroit after spending 30 years in NYC. His vocals on Bobby Bland’s "Further On Up The Road" brought chills to the spine. Stanley Mitchell had a #5 Billboard R&B hit w/ "4 o'clock in the Morning" for Chess Records. He also sang with the Royal Jokers on Detroit’s infamous Fortune label. He came out and sang a version of "Thrill Is Gone" which would have had BB green with envy. Paul Carey’s Gibson ES guitar enabled a tone frighteningly similar to King’s. Joe Weaver had a band with Bassett called the Bluenotes and they became the house band for Fortune Records. After R&B’s heyday ended, Joe opted for a day job with the Ford Motor Company. Now, he is retired from Ford and has put his music career back on track by releasing his first CD. Joe began his portion of the Revue with "I Found A Love". He laid down its heartfelt lyrics with his ideal R&B voice. For the big finale, Kenny and Stanley joined Joe onstage and performed his most famous song, "Baby I Love You So". The entire audience was touched by their dynamic and emotional performance. It was the most authentic roots music played throughout the entire evening.
Jeff Grand and Jimmy McCarty then stormed the stage with their amps turned way up past 10. Grand is lead guitarist for alternative rockers the Howlin Diablos. He is fondly remembered for his days playing lead with the Butler Twins Blues Band. McCarty played with Mitch Ryder’s original Detroit Wheels then caught a glimpse of superstardom with the Rockets. Since then he has been in numerous Detroit blues acts and currently fronts the band Mystery Train. These 2 Detroit guitar gods traded riffs off one another until it hurt. They started with the instrumental "Jeff’s Boogie" and then played tributes to masters Jimmy Rogers and Muddy Waters. There was plenty of pushing and bending of strings throughout their set. These guys played such loud searing leads, earplugs were required.
Headliner Lonnie Brooks, the ‘Voodoo Daddy’, was the crowd favorite thanks to his flashy stage persona, innovative guitar licks and powerful voice. Born Lee Baker Jr.,
Brooks now 67 has been on the scene for nearly a half-century. His band has been a breeding ground for the next generation of blues greats.
Here are a few that Lonnie has mentored along the way: Dion Payton, Osee Anderson, Ken Sajdak and most recently his son Ronnie Baker Brooks. Now, Lonnie’s youngest son is the rising star in the band. Wayne Baker Brooks takes the essence of early Chicago blues, combines it with the raw power of Memphis soul, adds a little Texas rock and produces power blues. The 31 year old singer/songwriter/guitarist assaulted the stage with his father’s band and warmed up the audience with his contemporary blues. His passionate, booming vocals complemented his wicked yet tasteful leads played on his 1999 Gibson BluesHawk guitar. Thanks to Wayne, the band was on fire by the time Lonnie joined them.
Once onstage Lonnie threw the sounds of rock, country western and zydeco into his set of bayou lightnin’ music. It’s a style that mixes swamp blues from his native Louisiana with the harder edge of Chicago blues. He began with "Boogie Rambler" and then charged into "Eyeballin’" with his deep, strong vocals and his amazing guitar playing. Due to the lack of horns, the song didn’t have the power of the original studio recording. However Lonnie’s organist did a fantastic job trying to fill in the gap. Wayne’s youth brought a rock edged sound but Lonnie’s experience ensured the band delivered pure blues. "Feel Good Doin Bad" from the successful Lone Star Shootout CD featured lyrics that all could relate to.
Then it was time for some staples of his live show. The funky "Two Headed Man" was laced with classic Lonnie Brooks riffs. Yes, you know the ones I mean, you have heard them on CD and in concert. The hypnotizing rhythm and descriptive lyrics of "Wife For Tonight" was enough to let your imagination run wild. "All My Money Back" featured the highlight of any Lonnie Brooks show. Here he walked through the mob jamming madly without missing a note. He played guitar with his teeth and with his tongue. Then he picked up someone’s empty beer bottle and used it to play slide.
Even though it was already 2am, no one was going anywhere until Lonnie came back for an encore. That he did and to the sheer delight of the hometown crowd, he brought Detroit’s blues diva Thornetta Davis onstage with him. They started into a traditional version of "Sweet Home Chicago" but Thornetta and her choir-like voice became spontaneous. She quickly changed pace and broke into "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On" and "You Can Have My Husband". Throughout she bantered with Lonnie, egging him to take her on. He got more than he bargained for with Ms. Davis as he clearly looked stumped as to how to keep up with the blues queen’s musical advances. At one point he pulled out his hotel room key. In the end they returned to "Sweet Home Chicago" leaving the stage arm in arm and the audience breathless.
Other acts on the 2 evening bill included Saturday headliner Johnnie Johnson (the father of rock and roll piano) with George Bedard and the Kingpins, Thornetta Davis, the Millionaires, Lazy Lester and the Blue Suit Band, and the Alligators. Throughout the festival, many songs and even entire sets were played in honor of 2 local legends who passed away over the holidays. Detroit Blues illuminary Famous Coachman was the former host of one of the longest-running blues radio shows in the country. Each weekend people tuned into his late night program on WDET 101.9FM to hear his blues and his instantly recognizable voice. Like so many others before him, Arkansas born Willie D Warren moved north in search of better things. He eventually landed in Detroit, picked up his signature 12 string Gibson guitar and brought the blues to the people. His deep soothing voice and his soft and gentle guitar playing will be missed.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Tim Holek, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.