The 17th annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival featured a great line-up of well-known blues legends, blues artists representing several generations of players, and a nice mixture of traditional and contemporary blues. The theme of this year's festival was surviving, which both the festival and many of the veteran artists have in common. You just can't keep a good blues player or a good festival down. After serious flooding in Le Claire Park, in downtown Davenport right on the banks of the Mississippi, the festival moved to spacious parking lots just another block from the river. The members and volunteers of The Mississippi Valley Blues Society (MVBS) did a wonderful job taking the change in stride, making their guests comfortable, and supporting the blues.
The festival had a little of something for everyone, particularly harp lovers. Carey Bell, Jerry "Boogie" McCain, Steve Bell (Carey's son), Clayton Goldstein, Billy Branch, and Charlie Musselwhite, provided different styles and tempo of blues. For guitar fans, Anthony Gomes, Joe Price, Sherman Robertson, Wendell Holmes, Joe Louis Walker, Kenny Neal, Roy Hytower, John Primer, Big Bill Morganfield, Scott Ainslie, and Buddy Guy all provided hot guitar licks. The history of the blues was represented by 86 year old Honey Boy Edwards, John Dee Holeman, and Algia Mae Hinton, all three guitarists and vocalists.
The first day acts included the Piedmont Blues guitar playing of Roy Bookbinder, who was taught and toured with the Reverend Gary Davis. Anthony Gomes is a young Chicago style blues player who provided an energetic performance on guitar and vocals with material ranging from current, funky blues to more traditional sounding tunes. Honey Boy Edwards played deep down, gritty, traditional Delta Blues while performing solo on the more intimate Tent Stage. Honey Boy's voice was a little thin, but his guitar playing was solid, particularly for someone who just celebrated his 86th birthday and can honestly claim to have played with blues legend Robert Johnson. If you ever get a chance to meet Honey Boy, be sure to listen to the great stories about all the blues legends he has played with and known over the years. Kenny Neal then wowed the crowd with his smooth, expressive guitar work, polished vocals, and charisma. Kenny worked the crowd well, laying down his well-worn Fender to play some nice harmonica while ranging from contemporary to swamp blues.
Back at the Tent, Chicago harp legend Carey Bell served up traditional Chicago blues where his rich, full harp sound matched the soaring guitar chords on "When I Get Drunk." Carey had the enthusiastic crowd cheering his solid, chromatic harp work and strong vocals. Carey came down off the stage to play right in front of the crowd, which included Charlie Musselwhite clapping and cheering his fellow harp player on from the VIP area. Rosie Ledet next provided energetic, rocking zydeco with her playing on accordion and sultry vocals. She definitely brought the heat and humidity of her native Louisiana with her playing. Rosie had the crowd up and moving with that infectious zydeco beat.
Headlining the first night at the main stage, a rejuvenated Koko Taylor had the crowd on their feet cheering with her energetic, powerful performance. Still a strong singer who can belt the blues in her deep, husky voice, Koko also danced and moved with enthusiasm on stage, harking back to her younger days as a young Chicago blues singer. Koko sang mostly traditional numbers, including crowd favorites "Hound Dog" and her signature song, "Wang-Dang Doodle." It was great to see Koko looking and sounding so strong after all of the hard years she has put in on the road singing the blues. Koko was honored before her performance with a lifetime achievement award by the MVBS and the key to the city by the Mayor of Davenport. While she may not have the vocal range she once did, Koko is a gracious, hardworking lady who could teach any young woman blues singer a great deal about surviving and succeeding in the blues world.
Day two continued the theme of surviving (especially for the fans) with a day that hit 95 degrees and humidity around 90%. Roy Hytower and his band Motif started things out in the Tent with Roy's great finger playing on his well-worn hollow body and his strong, clear vocals. In the middle of his set Roy had a dozen local boys and girls that were learning harmonica in the festival-sponsored Blues Skool join him on stage to play with his band and sing some back-up. While clearly nervous, the warm crowd welcome and gentle coaching from Roy allowed the kids to enjoy a moment they will probably never forget. Roy played a good mix of covers and original, contemporary Chicago-style blues. Next up was the Whatever Blues Band, a local Quad Cities band featuring the strong vocals of Rachel Knight. A solid band, they gave the crowd a nice mix of current blues covers spiced with originals. Scott Ainslie, a blues historian who has written about Robert Johnson followed with a solo performance on acoustic guitar. Playing syncopated, Piedmont Blues and Delta Blues while singing in his baritone voice, he provided a blues history lesson as he covered Robert Johnson, the Reverend Gary Davis, and other blues legends. The Piedmont Blues continued with a solo performance by blues veteran John Dee Holeman, finger playing on electric and singing in a smooth, husky voice. John was also awarded a lifetime achievement award. Algia Mae Hinton took the stage next to play Piedmont Blues on acoustic guitar, sing, and give a brief demonstration of "Buck Dancing," a North Carolina tradition of dancing in time to the music while singing or playing guitar. This has to be seen to be appreciated.
At the main stage, Don Shipps and The Titanic Blues Band played some great contemporary blues with energetic, powerful harp player Clayton Goldstein dancing all over the stage and through the crowd. Big Bill Morganfield dealt up some solid guitar playing and vocals on current Chicago Blues. Billy Branch then provided a show-stopping performance on harp and vocals with his energetic, up-tempo Chicago blues. He paid tribute to the late, great Junior Wells by covering one of his songs and imitating his harp style. Billy had a tight band that featured Chicago blues singer Delores Scott on a couple of numbers. Delores sings with a clear, powerful voice and demonstrated great range. Jerry "Boogie" McCain was next up with a slower, fluid, sensual harp style that he accented by moving in perfect rhythm to his playing. A solid songwriter and arranger, Boogie provided danceable music with clever lyrics on songs like "Viagra Man."
At the main stage Joe Louis Walker and the Bosstalkers played a good mix of originals and covers featuring Joe's brilliant guitar work with ringing, howling chords and vocals. Joe also played a little harp and proved he could play slow and subtle on guitar as well as fast and furious. Closing things out for the day at the Tent, Saphire, the Uppity Blues Women, provided spirited blues from a woman's perspective with solid instrumental work, clever lyrics, and smooth vocal harmonies. They performed previous hits like "Silver Beaver" and "Music Making Mama" and a new cut, "He Really Makes It Hard to Sing the Blues" from their upcoming CD. While still "uppity," their newer material performed seems to be more positive about human relationships, without losing their sense of humor or spirit.
Closing out the first day on the main stage was another blues survivor, harp legend Charlie Musselwhite. Playing in a smooth, expressive style all his own, Charlie kept the show moving despite the high temperatures and humidity that had barely subsided at 10:00PM when he started. Even the always cool Musselwhite was sweating hard and asking the crowd "Man, is it still as hot out there as it is up there?" The crowd roared their approval and Charlie kept playing, sometimes leading, sometimes blending his harp seamlessly with his tight band. Charlie can hold, bend, and repeat a note with any harp player. While he was playing and singing ".44 Special," (which he renamed .38 Special) fireworks unrelated to the festival were going off to the North, adding some special effects to the sky to the great playing on stage. Charlie did "Lost in the Blues" and "Blues from Brazil," the latter a song with a Brazilian street he picked up some years ago while touring in South America. While Charlie is one hip, cool blues performer, his hot playing managed to make the steamy crowd even hotter than before. Despite the heat, people were up dancing and cheering as he played.
Day three dawned wet and steamy after severe early morning thunderstorms. Local Iowa Blues legend Joe Price opened things up with his raw, primitive playing on acoustic guitar. Joe finger picked his guitar, playing country or delta blues filtered through an old amp that distorted the sound a bit. Joe played some good covers and clever originals, including his song "25 Below" about car trouble in winter climes. Then as he was still playing and they were just beginning the Blues Jam on the main stage, the "Take cover immediately!" message was announced from both stages and the skies opened up with heavy rain, lightening, and thunder. For an hour and a half the rain poured and lightening struck all around. Some of us were a lot closer to Blues Heaven than we cared when lightening struck a light pole 75 feet away. After a total delay of 2 and ½ hrs, they got things dried out enough to play. Chicagoan Ken Saydak started things up again with his brilliant piano playing and solid, husky vocals. Ken played a boogie woogie piano while performing mostly originals. Still at the Tent, The Holmes Bothers brought their tight instrumentals and vocals to the Tent as they played their unique mixture of Gospel, Blues, Country and Soul. Their tight playing and strong vocal harmonies impressed the crowd, as did their passion and faith.
Finally, they had things dried so John Primer could take the main stage. John is an excellent guitar slinger, playing that Westside Chicago blues. He had a great band, backed by Ken Saydak on piano and Steve Bell on harmonica. After working his way through some good covers and originals, they closed with "Sweet Home Chicago." Back in the Tent, trumpeter Malachi Thompson and The Africa Brass played a mix of horn-driven music with a polyrhythmic, African beat, jazz, and blues that they sum up as "great black music ancient to the future." At the end, the band sounded more like Duke Ellington's jazz band. The band consisted of 2 trumpets, 4 trombones, piano, stand-up bass, drums, and sax, although the mix constantly changed.
Sherman Robertson then stormed the main stage with his solid guitar work on his mix of East Texas Blues / Cajun/ New Orleans Sound music. Sherman got the crowd going with some solid, fast-paced blues guitar and his strong vocals. At the Tent, Odetta, "The Queen of American Folk Music" captured the crowd's undivided attention with her powerful, polished vocals and great range. Odetta paid tribute to the great singers of the past by sharing some of their history and covering songs by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, and Billie Holiday. Such was her control over the rapt crowd that when she asked for silence they immediately complied. If you like great female vocalists, definitely see and hear Odetta if you ever have a chance.
Corey Harris followed at the Tent, beginning solo on guitar and vocals playing some African rhythms and country blues. He was then joined after a few numbers by Henry Butler on piano. Henry is a great, energetic piano player. The interplay between his piano and Corey's finger picking and slide, as well as swapping vocals on country blues songs like "Down Home Living" made for an entertaining show. The pair played a set of traditional Delta Blues covers and originals with a little New Orleans and country blues mixed in.
Buddy Guy wrapped up the stage with his powerful, polished guitar playing and smooth vocals at the main stage. He energized the crowd right from the start with "Got My Mojo Working," pausing only due to difficulties with his microphone and waiting for the frequent trains to pass by. Flashing his million dollar smile and posing for the crowd, Buddy demonstrated once again why he is considered one of the greatest living guitarists and top showmen around. He played "I'm Not the Same," a traditional-sounding blues song on acoustic guitar, following with "Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You." The latter began as a slow tempo song with soft playing on acoustic. Buddy switched to electric guitar in the middle and finished the song with a rousing climax. He then launched into "Damn Right I Got the Blues." Buddy kept the crowd moving higher and higher as he played "Feels Like Rain," and "I'm Going Down." Buddy's great performance and personal history of struggle for success, as well as the weather the fans endured over the weekend all wrapped up into the "survivor" theme the festival started with.
Both Saturday and Sunday many of the performing artists assisted in providing instructions on singing, instrument playing, and songwriting during the free afternoon workshops, directed to anyone, and the Blues Skool, geared to kids. For example, Roy Hytower and Honey Boy Edwards both led sessions on guitar playing, Billy Branch on harp, and Ken Saydak on keyboards. At the Blues Skool they gave free harmonicas to kids as well as lessons on how to play them. The MVBS also supports Blues in the School, where they pay for blues artists to go out to schools around Iowa during the school year to instruct youths on playing and explain the history of the blues. All of these extra thing make this the most family oriented festival I have attended.
Next year's festival will be held July 5, 6, and 7, 2002, back in LeClaire Park in Davenport, IA. Davenport is an easy, 6-6 ½ hour drive from the Twin Cities. Parking is ample and easily found for free. This years ticket prices were $10 per day / $25 for three days. Children 12 and under and adults over 60 are free. Concessions were varied and reasonably priced. Hotels and motels in the Quad Cities are plentiful and moderate. I would definitely recommend this festival for any blues fan. For 2002 festival information, check the Internet at WWW.MVBS.Org.
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.