A Blues Party On The River
The 2001 Mississippi Valley Blues Festival represented a grand celebration by the Quad Cities and their ability to overcome the devastating effects of the Spring Floods of 2001. Because of the flooding that severely damaged the usual festival site (LeClaire Park), the 17th Annual Festival was held in two parking lots immediately adjacent to the park. Thanks to the close proximity of the alternate site, festival goers were still able to capture the blues atmosphere created by the combination of the music, U.S. Highway 61, the Rock Island Railroad and the mighty Mississippi River.
The Mississippi Valley Blues Festival remains one of my favorites because of the consistently great lineup of performers delivered by the members of the Mississippi Valley Blues Society. Along with the performances scheduled on the Bandshell and Tent Stages, the Festival offers great food, informative workshops, a photo exhibit and the popular BlueSkool for kids.
Despite the fact that this festival is much more compact than the five stage extravaganza in Chicago; with over 30 scheduled acts (many times scheduled simultaneously), it is not possible to see and hear everything that transpires over the three days. Hence, here are the highlights of the 17th edition of the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival.
Day 1 - Friday, July 6
The Festival began at 5:00 p.m. on Friday with beautiful weather and an opening performance by Roy Book Binder on the Tent Stage. The man that everyone calls "Book" put on his always entertaining show, filled with music, humor and stories about becoming a bluesman with the usual references to his mentor (Reverend Gary Davis), his ex-wives and his time in college and the military.
The Bandshell Stage fired up about an hour later with guitarist Anthony Gomes.. Gomes is a charismatic young guitarist who represents part of the new wave of young blues performers. It was first opportunity to see Gomes perform live and I came away quite impressed with his talent. On one of his originals, "You Done Me Wrong," Gomes left the stage, climbed into a waiting golf cart and was driven around the perimeter of the audience as he continued to play, never missing a note.
Moving back to the Tent Stage, 87 year old David "Honeyboy" Edwards was playing a three encore set that had the entire audience roaring its approval. I have seen Edwards perform several times over the past few years and his eccentric guitar style continues to fascinate me. With performances that recall the classic Delta blues style, Edwards is always a crowd-pleaser. Anyone who missed Honeyboy's Friday evening performance had a second opportunity to catch him on Saturday at one of blues workshops which offered Honeyboy in a more intimate setting.
The Friday night shows featured to of the greats of Chicago blues and two emerging performers from the great State of Louisiana. At the Tent Stage, Chicago blues harp great, Carey Bell, displayed his magical talents on the harp along with his strong vocal presentation. The nattily attired Bell is still one of the great Chicago harp talents, combining great chromatic solos, excellent fills and great interplay with his band mates. Bell's fine performance was followed by an exceptional performance by the "Zydeco Sweetheart," Rosie Ledet. Ledet's show was packed with energy and exuberance, featuring her fine vocals and accordion fronting an excellent Zydeco band. The ongoing cries of "Et Toi!!" filled the area throughout her performance, completing the activity on the Tent Stage for Friday.
Back at the Bandshell Stage, Anthony Gomes was followed by another exceptional young performer, Louisiana guitarist Kenny Neal. Neal is always a crowd-pleaser with his swampy, Louisiana blues style and charismatic personality. Although Neal's set offered nothing from his latest release, One Step Closer (he told me they would start performing numbers from that recording the following week), the set featured a number of songs from the late Jimmy Reed, including "It Hurts Me Too," "Let It Roll" and "My Babe."
Friday evening closed with a stellar performance by the reigning "Queen of the Blues," Ms. Koko Taylor. Koko was the recipient of the first of three Riverroad Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Mississippi Valley Blues Society for 2001. The presentation of the award for her 40+ years of entertaining blues audiences across the globe included a plaque, a commemorative poem written by blues poet laureate, Dr. Sterling Plumpp and the Key to the City of Davenport from Mayor Phillip C. Yerington. After the ceremony ended, Koko put on a fabulous show filled with youthful energy and a mix of high energy and slow burning blues. Her set closed with an extended version of her classic hit, Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle," leaving everyone looking forward to the next two days.
Day 2 - Saturday, July 7
Although the music was superb all day long on Saturday, the weather went from beautiful to oppressive overnight. As soon as I walked out of my hotel, I knew that I would be contending with a VERY hot, steamy day at the Festival.
My first visit on Saturday was to the Union Depot to attend the Festival Workshops. From Noon until 2:30 p.m., I sat and listened to back-to-back performances/presentations by Honeyboy Edwards and North Carolina bluesman, John Dee Holeman. The two elder blues performers spent their time discussing the development of the blues in their areas, answering questions and providing some examples of the great music that has come out of the Delta and Piedmont Regions of the United States. With a double dose of Honeyboy under my belt, I was prepared for a similar portion of Music Maker artist John Dee Holeman as well, as he was scheduled to appear again later in the day at the Tent Stage where he would also receive the second Riverroad Lifetime Achievement Award at the Festival.
My early afternoon wandering eventually took me over to the Tent Stage to see blues scholar and musician Scott Ainslie. Ainslie, a noted blues writer and the acknowledged "expert" on the music of Robert Johnson, is also an exceptional guitarist, songwriter and storyteller. During his set, Ainslie told an interesting story about his personal experience with the 2001 Spring floods on the Mississippi that resulted in him ending up on the roof of his house with all of his guitars, knowing that there certainly had to be a blues song engraved somewhere in the disaster.
One of the big surprises of the day was a set by the Titanic Blues Band from Springfield, Missouri. Any early potential disappointment with the band's performance because of the fact that its most noted member, bassist Don Shipp, was absent due to illness, was quickly erased by an electrifying performance by harp player Clayton Goldstein. Goldstein worked the crowd into an absolute frenzy, jumping the barrier between the stage and the crowd and playing his way deep into the audience while the stage crew frantically attempted roll out the microphone cord to accommodate him. At a festival that featured a quartet of great blues harp players, Musselwhite, Bell, Branch and McClain, Goldstein laid a valid claim to be included among the esteemed crowd.
Much of the remainder of my Saturday was split virtually 50/50 between the two musical stages as I attempted to see and hear the competing acts; John Dee Holeman vs. Big Bill Morganfield (4:00 p.m.), Algia Mae Hinton vs. Billy Branch (6:00 p.m.), Jerry "Boogie" McCain vs. Joe Louis Walker (7:30 - 8:00 p.m.) and Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women vs. Charlie Musselwhite (9:30 - 10:00 p.m.). As I moved back and forth between the two stages, it appeared that the heat was taking a greater toll on performers at the Bandshell Stage, some who left the stage ready to collapse at the end of their sets. The intense heat, however, seemed to have little effect on the actual performances. All of the harp players; Billy Branch, Jerry "Boogie" McCain and Charlie Musselwhite were as cool as ice and gave it up for the audience with songs like Branch's autobiographical "New Kid On The Block," McCain stalking through the audience on "I Am The Viagra Man" and Musselwhite's worldly "Blues From Brazil."
The guitarists did not leave anything in the tank either. Big Bill Morganfield was excellent, performing a number of songs that his father (Muddy Waters) made famous backed by a band that included Twin Cities drummer, Rob Stupka. Morganfield seems to get better every time that I hear him perform. Joe Louis Walker played until he was ready to drop what a band that included sax player, "Sax" Gordon Beadle. With his hair longer and in braids, I did not even recognize Walker until he climbed in stage to perform his set!
Those who braved the heat for the final performances of the evening, could choose between the irreverent, satirical blues of Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women and the smooth, way cool sounds of Charlie Musselwhite. Memphis Charlie is one of my favorite performers and I see him whenever I get the chance. Charlie's ability to play off of and with all of his band members never ceases to amaze me. Seeing the ever- cool Musslewhite was the best way I could imagine to end such a hot day.
Day 3 - Sunday, July 8
The final day of the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival began rather ominously with a driving rainstorm that flooded streets and included a lightning strike on a power pole that was way too close to the Bandshell Stage. The storm was so fierce that both stages were closed for some time; the Bandshell Stage until 6:00 p.m.!
The bad weather resulted in the cancellation of a performance by Iowa Blues Challenge State winner, Elixir featuring Claudie Smith, and moving the popular Holmes Brothers from the Bandshell to the Tent Stage. Even with the cancellations and a couple of shortened sets, the music ended up running 1-2 hours behind schedule on the Tent Stage for the remainder of the evening. The Bandshell Stage reopened at 6:00 p.m. with the scheduled performance by guitarist John Primer and the Real Deal, with special guest Ken Saydak who had performed earlier in the day on the Tent Stage. The adjustments to the schedule that delayed the performances on the Tent Stage, allowed the Bandshell to run on schedule until it was closed out after the spectacular performance by Sunday headliner, Buddy Guy.
Far and away, the greatest highlight on Sunday was the performance by living legend and activist, Odetta. My first chance to see the folk/blues great will reside in my memory for a long time; especially her performance of "Rock Island Line" right next to that line's very tracks. I sat wishing for a train to come by all though the entire song to make the image complete! Odetta is a gracious and kind woman with enormous talent. It was no wonder that she was the third an final recipient of the Society's Riverroad Lifetime Achievement Award for 2001.
Buddy Guy's performance on the Bandshell Stage was one of the finest I have ever seen, featuring a large number of complete songs and not a lot of snippets strung together, as characterizes some of Guy's performances. The show included a couple of songs from Buddy's latest recording, Sweet Tea, that were even better live than on the recording. Buddy displayed his usual charismatic personality on stage, performing in his characteristic "so funky you can smell it" style. For sure, no one left the Bandshell Stage disappointed with Buddy Guy's show.
As it turned out, Buddy Guy did not represent the end of the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival as expected. The delays at the Tent Stage resulted in the duo of Corey Harris and New Orleans piano player Henry Butler closing out the festival after 12:30 a.m. on Monday morning, long after Guy's departure. Anyone who stayed to the end (and there were quite a few people in that category), were treated to a performance by one of the pest piano players around, accompanied by the world beat influenced blues guitar and vocals of Corey Harris. It turned out to be an exciting and intimate performance that left many fans in awe of the versatility and style presented by Butler and Harris. In addition to songs from their collaborative recording, Vu-Du Menz, Butler and Harris also performed songs from their solo recordings including Harris' Greens From The Garden and Butler's Blues After Sunset. The mix of jazz, blues, and world rhythms were combined in a great final performance for the 2001 Mississippi Valley Blues Festival.
As in years past, I left Davenport the next day feeling really good about the performances I witnessed over the three days. I also realized that even the less than desirable weather had not taken away from this fine event. I am already making plans for the 2002 Festival (July 5-7) and give the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival my highest recommendation.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, 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.