Blues on the Range once again proved a very entertaining mix of blues and blues-related music provided by a good blend of local and national acts. Blues fans endured the onslaught of tent caterpillars at Ironworld all weekend and a brief, windblown rainstorm during the last act Friday evening. All of the bands, starting with locals American Hip on Friday afternoon and ending with Walter Trout Sunday evening were well received and played their hearts out for the crowd.
Day one started with the funk / blues / rock of American Hip on the Pavilion Stage. The energetic mix of music by the Duluth natives got the small, early crowd off to a good start. Then Michael Burks pumped up the energy on the main stage with his powerful guitar playing, including some wicked slide on his Flying V guitar. Michael is an expressive, energetic guitar player who walked through and worked the crowd to a standing ovation as he played. His band played a nice mix of covers and originals from his two CD's, including his new one, Make it Rain. While his voice was hoarse from the road, his deep, raspy vocals nicely complemented his brilliant guitar playing. Next up were the Twin Cities own Hillbilly Voodoo Dolls, who rocked the Pavilion with their rockabilly, honkey tonk beats, and roots rock sound. The band mentioned they will be releasing a new CD in a month or two and played cuts from it.
Sonny Landreth headlined Friday evening and treated the crowd to his unique, vigorous slide guitar as he worked his way through a number of his solo hits from his CD's South of I-10 and his most recent release, Levee Town. The latter's title song is a blues rocker with a little swamp and Cajun feel to it. Sonny achieves multi-harmonic, rippling sound where one chord washes into the next, achieving an ethereal, ringing slide sound that is immediately recognizable. Sonny's combination of slide and finger picking has to be seen and heard in person to be truly appreciated. In the middle of his show the wind blew so hard the rain hit the crowd in the first few rows. Not missing a beat, he commented "This is nothing. We get hurricanes down in Louisiana and have a drink by that name down there." Sonny had the dance floor in front of the stage full of dancing people grooving to his upbeat, rocking sounds as he put an exclamation point on the first day.
Day two started with nicer, warmer weather and fewer worms, which everyone appreciated. Northern MN locals Mel Sando and the Juke Joint Junkies kicked things off with their traditional blues. They played a good mix of traditional blues covers from Muddy Waters and other legends along with some original songs with a traditional blues feel and clever lyrics. Twin Cities jam master Moses Oakland and his Quartet took the main stage and provided a tight set of traditional blues with Moses' solid guitar work and some nice, growling vocals. Steve Clark, Twin Cities saxophone master, sat in on a couple of songs and added a nice touch.
Back at the Pavilion, Twin Citians Paul Metsa (guitar, vocals) and Bob Wilson (harp, vocals) proved that two good players can achieve a nice, bare bones blues sound without a rhythm section. Paul's husky vocals, lively guitar, and Bob's strong harp and vocals met with an enthusiastic response from the crowd. With what was becoming a theme for the festival, the pair covered a Bob Dylan song, as several bands had before them. Californian Mitch Woods and his Rocket 88's then had the boogie woogie beat pumping next at the main stage. Mitch is an upbeat, always smiling, energetic electric keyboard player who sported a maroon, pin-stripe suit and a wide tie. In spirit and sound Mitch and his band channel the classic boogie woogie and jump blues sound of artists like Louis Jordan. By his second song, the crowd was up jumping and dancing. Steve Clark on sax walked and played his way through the crowd to an enthusiastic response. Mitch ended his set by standing and playing on his keyboard as he worked the crowd to a rousing finish.
Locals the Keller Brothers Band then rocked the Pavilion with their blues rock sound featuring Mike Keller playing a brilliant lead guitar and the capable keyboard playing of Matt Farrell. Matt and Mike split vocal duties as the quartet provided an energetic set of mostly covers from rock to blues to boogie woogie. James Solberg and band then lit up the main stage with James' great guitar work, passionate vocals, and strong support by his band. There were many moist eyes in the house when James sang a very heartfelt tribute to his late band mate, Luther Allison, on "LA Blues." Continuing the festival theme, Solberg covered Dylan's "How Does It Feel?" James commented that when he was a kid his family at one time shared a duplex with Dylan's family.
Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, from Southern Louisiana, closed out the second day with their mostly Cajun music that included a dash of zydeco, swamp rock, and a little country blues. Steve is a triple threat as a strong vocalist, accordion player, and second fiddle player for the band. Even though most of the songs were sung in Cajun, the strong danceable beat had the dance floor filled with whirling, gyrating dancers. Roddie Romero on lead guitar provided a wicked slide sound, while David Greely on sax also doubled as the main fiddle player. The double fiddle sound on some of their songs gave the band a rich, boisterous sound. The Playboys covered some famous Louisiana songwriters such as Slim Harpo and Butter Charles as well as playing cuts from their latest CD, Happy Town. This is definitely a band you want to get up and dance to so you can feel the passion of their Cajun music and culture.
Day three was the warmest and nicest of the weekend, kicked off by Duluth's own The Busters. The band provided an interesting mix of traditional sounding blues originals and covers from Commander Cody, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Tommy Castro. This band provides simple blues with solid playing and some great vocal harmonies. Ross William Perry lit up and literally burned down the main stage next as he played covers by Hendrix and Albert Collins and originals. With his powerful, passionate guitar work and steadily improving vocals Ross had the crowd standing and cheering for more in the middle of his set. After his 13 minute version of "Superstition," where he demonstrated all of his guitar pyrotechnics, Ross had many in the crowd rushing to pick up his latest CD and get it signed before they were gone.
Michael James and the Headliners, a Twin Cities band, then provided some more traditional and rocking blues back on the Pavilion stage. This band features Michael on lead guitar and vocals. The band worked their way through some great covers by Albert and Freddie King and originals from their CD, Live at Famous Dave's to an enthusiastic response. Next up on the main stage was LA's Becky Barksdale, a Texas native who comes from the same home town as Janis Joplin. Becky is a solid guitar player and a very sensual singer, singing with great range and emotion punctuated by her hot guitar licks on her rocking blues. Becky played barefoot, as she did at Bayfront last August. She worked the crowd to a frenzy, changing direction and tempos suddenly as she played mostly originals and a few covers from her CD, Real Live. As she sings passionately with her black hair flying about as she moves all over the stage, her emotional performance evoked the spirit of Janis.
Big George Jackson and his band from the Twin Cities provided some solid, Chicago blues with George doing an excellent job on blues harp and with his deep bass vocals. Big George's band features two excellent local guitar players in Jeremy Johnson and Phil Schmid. Big George worked the crowd well as the band played some good originals, such as Big Shot, the title song off their CD, along with some solid covers. This is a solid band that served as a nice alternative to all the blues rock served up over the weekend.
What better way to wrap up a festival featuring so many excellent guitarists than with the incredible playing of Walter Trout and the Radicals? Walter plays guitar brilliantly, able to play fast and furious, achieving sounds with his guitar like a violin, a woman crying, or a person talking. Even in his slower tempo songs Walter plays guitar fills where a dozen rapidly played notes make a wonderful sound without changing the tempo of the song. Walter is also a showman, playing to the crowd with great facial expressions as he held and bent a note, made his guitar howl or whine, or played one-handed as he brushed back his hair. At one point a tent caterpillar dropped down on a thread, landing on the neck of his guitar as he played. Walter brushed it off and said, "He must be a blues fan. Probably wants to see how I do that." While often cited as one of the greatest guitarists in the world, Walter still plays with a sense of humor and gets right to the edge of the stage to directly connect with his fans. When he says he and the band enjoy playing for their fans, you know he means it. Walter closed out his set with an encore, playing "I Don't Want My MTV," a Chuck Berry-styled rocker that pokes fun at the music featured on cable TV, and then a brief blues instrumental. As Walter said, "You have to close a blues festival with the blues."
This review is copyright © 2001 by Richard Benson, 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.
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