Detroit Blues is once again achieving the national recognition that it deserves. This can be attributed (in part) to a recent feature and cover story in Living Blues magazine plus a slew of popular blues releases from Johnnie Bassett, Alberta Adams and Thornetta Davis. Each January, for the past 8 years, the Detroit Blues faithful unite for an indoor blues festival. It lasts for an entire weekend and showcases the city's finest blues and roots music talent in addition to national headliners. This year the City of Ferndale teamed up with the annual Magic Bag Theater event to create the first ever Ferndale Blues Festival. It took place at a mixture of clubs, bars, restaurants and a church all within walking distance of one another. Local bands performed or recorded blues music was played at the venues with the proceeds going to benefit Ferndale's Youth Assistance. Meanwhile the Anti-Freeze event benefits the Detroit Blues Society who do a fantastic job of supporting local artists. Magic Bag club owner, Jeremy Haberman explains one of the reasons for the success of an indoor festival that takes place in a City with one of the country's harshest winters: "This is a weekend when there isn't a whole lot going on and so it's a lot easier to get people to come in -- there's not a lot of competition."
Native Detroiter, Robert Jones, holds the following credits to his name: singer, storyteller, instrumentalist (guitar, slide guitar, harmonica, mandolin, fiddle, quills, and banjo), blues historian, teacher, songwriter, radio host (of WDET's Blues From The Lowlands) and ordained Baptist minister. In the late 80s, Robert was asked to emcee a Sunday night jam session at what was then Detroit's premier blues club, the Soup Kitchen Saloon. The initial idea was to have the popular disc jockey spin records between acts. Instead Jones decided to bring his acoustic guitar and sing. As he was not musically in the same class as the people that he was introducing, Jones worked on developing a rapport with the audience that would often include jokes and storytelling. Now, he has conquered the art of interspersing acoustic Delta blues with stories that capture the listener's attention.
He commenced the festivities on January 5th in magnificent style with a song by Robert Johnson. Then he asked the question, 'where do the blues come from? You got to go to Church because it comes from the spiritual' he answered as he began playing "Ain't Nobody's Fault". Then he brought out his prized 1931 National Steel guitar and articulately played Booker T's "Miss Ettareen Blues". Without a doubt, his B.B. King routine on "I Can't Play Like B.B. King" was a sheer hit with the sold-out crowd. Throughout his set, this master minstrel involved his audience and made fun of the challenges of playing acoustically. He mentioned that electric artists can strike a note and have time to walk off stage, enjoy a break and come back just as the note is fading. Not such the case for the acoustic artist whose notes fade within seconds. His light-heartedness and humor could not hide the fact that deep down Jones was relaying an inspirational message of being able to celebrate the differences that make us all unique.
Next was the triumphant return of two of the Motor City's dynamic guitar experts. Jeff 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. Jim 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. On this evening, Grand/McCarty were backed by members of their own respective bands: Rick Stel (keys) and Chris Rumel (bass). They began bellowing with a slow, burning blues instrumental. After a screeching version of Muddy Water's most famous slide guitar lick, (you know the one), Grand provided sufficient evidence that he can passionately sing the blues. Later, McCarty had the opportunity to stretch his bursting pipes and his blasting strings on "Help Me".
Blue Suit bandleader Doug Deming (guitar and vocals) is the sole surviving member of his ten year old group. They are best known for being the preferred back up band for Alberta Adams, Louisiana Red, Yard Dog Jones, and Lazy Lester. In addition to regular members Will Leonard (drums) and Tim Marks (bass), special guests included Dave Morris (harp) and Ben Wilson (keys). The latter two musicians rose to fame in the now defunct Big Dave & The Ultrasonics. Currently, Wilson is a member of Blues Traveller. Throughout a scintillating set, Deming and company proved they are Motown's kings of West Coast swing. The highlight of their bouncing performance was watching and hearing Dave and Doug fire a staggering amount of notes off each other.
In a career that spans 7 decades, 81 year old Alberta Adams has performed and toured with everybody who is anybody including: T-Bone Walker; Louis Jordan; and Duke Ellington. She performed nonstop in the '40s and '50s. Her flexible and soulful landmark voice has kept this great lady in the blues and jazz spotlight.
By the time Detroit's Queen of the Blues took the stage the crowd was packed in like sardines. Their affection for their blues empress was obvious by the loud reaction she received in between each song. In her striking red frock, Miss Alberta Adams was definitely the best dressed artist of the evening. Despite being on the mend from a sprained ankle and requiring to sit through her set, Miss Adams still gave a raucous performance. Vibrant support was provided by R.J. Spangler's Rhythm Rockers including Rick Stel (piano), Joe Piccolo and Rick Smith (sax), Tim Marks (bass), Paul Carey (guitar) and the pulse of the Detroit blues heartbeat on drums (R.J.). "He May Be Your Man" and "Goin' Home Tomorrow" were vivacious and fun and full of her signature dog howls. The grand lady of the blues didn't allow being seated in a chair stop her from being rambunctious.
Born just outside Memphis, Cora Walton was influenced by the blues music she heard playing on the radio. Her love of chocolate earned her the nickname Koko. At the age of 18, she moved to Chicago with nothing but thirty-five cents and a box of Ritz crackers. There, while singing in a club she was discovered by Willie Dixon. He instantly signed her to Chess Records and the rest is history. Taylor has gone on to win a Grammy and numerous WC Handy Awards for excellence in the Blues. Her life is an amazing tale of talent, hard work, perseverance and dedication. Each of those elements comes across strong on all of her songs.
As Koko Taylor's Blues Machine roared onto the stage in high gear, a wall of sound rich in time-tested, electric, contemporary Chicago blues poured off it. They prepared the audience for the arrival of royalty by performing a couple of adrenaline-laced warm-up tunes. Lead guitarist Vino Louden sang "Just Wanna Make Love" where he played guitar with his tongue. Louden is the heartbeat of the band. He is a charismatic performer who was born to be on a stage. His stellar musicianship enticed the group to achieve his high standards. Together, they were strong and tight and rocked like a storm tossed ship. We had seen the Queen's crown jewels now it was time for the monarch to appear. With the familiar bars of "Something Strange Is Going On" pulsating from the stage, the undisputed Queen of the blues arrived with commanding sass and unquestionable authority. The band immediately segued into "Let The Good Times Roll". Then Koko paused to give recognition to Alberta and dedicated "Ernestine" to her. The Machine kept rolling like a tank through newer songs from Royal Blue such as "Blues Hotel" and "Bring Me Some Water".
They went down all the way to the basement to pick out some hits from the past. On "I'm A Woman", "Jump For Joy" and the vocally challenging "I'd Rather Go Blind", Koko growled. On the latter, Taylor desperately struggled to hit the notes but could not. It didn't appear to discourage her but at the song's completion you could tell that she was disappointed. In a loving and emotional act of adulation, the audience gave her a roaring blast of applause that lasted for many minutes. The spellbound Queen apologized for not being able to sing her best due to a cold and that it made her feel good to hear such applause. A boisterous "Have My Husband" followed where Koko gave evidence that her voice is a force of nature. A gritty version of "Hound Dog" was dedicated to her two biggest influences (Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley) before she concluded with "Wang Dang Doodle" where she was joined onstage with B.B. Queen. Knowing it would be a long time before blues royalty returned to Motown, the crowd encouraged Koko to return for an encore. After singing just a couple verses of "Sweet Home Chicago", Taylor bid farewell to an evening of red-hot, sweaty blues. Her Blues Machine kept thundering on with local diva, Thornetta Davis, completing the lyrics while standing in the audience.
Last minute artist changes challenged the organizers throughout the weekend. Nonetheless they were able to run a tight ship with the majority of acts starting and ending on time. Once again, R.J. Spangler, Willy Wilson and Jeremy Haberman are to be commended for a job well done. Other artists that appeared at the 3 day festival included Robert Noll, Mark Pasman, Bobby East, Uncle Jessie White, Thornetta Davis, Robert Lockwood Jr and Larry McCray.
For further information about the Antifreeze Blues Festival, contact the Magic Bag Theater www.themagicbag.com or the Detroit Blues Society www.flash.net/~dbsblues
This review is copyright © 2002 by Tim Holek, and Blues On Stage at: www.mnblues.com, 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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