The 7th Annual Blues on the Range got underway after showers and cold temperatures made blues fans wonder about how long they would need their raincoats and umbrellas. Yet the rain stopped enough for the entire first day's schedule at the scenic surroundings at Iron World in Chisholm.
Local favorites Azure Du Jour performed a tight, solid set that mixed originals and covers. One original that stood out was the funky, steady beat blues of "I Just Want to Testify." This band is a talented group of veteran musicians that combine solid vocals with strong instrumental playing, and they have fun as they perform.
Sue Foley then took over at the main stage, giving a sultry, sensual performance as she sang in her down home voice and provided some great, ringing guitar licks on her pink fender. Sue had her own band backing her, which seemed to add to her performance. Sue is touring in support of her just released CD, Where the Action Is. One new song, "Vertical Blues," is a slow rolling blues number where Sue's slow strumming on guitar was punctuated with rhythmic, strident chords. Sue is an experienced blues player with a textured, girl next door voice that she can make low and sultry or get high and emotional with. She is also an excellent guitar player who plays well off the trio on bass, keyboards, and drums backing her. Her music made the people get up and dance to blues that often had a country feel to it.
Twin Cities local Big Bob Scoggin brought his one-man band to the Pavilion stage for three songs before being joined by a drummer and bass player. Playing guitar and singing in his rich, deep voice, Bob also beat a drum with one foot and played a cymbal with a tambourine with the other foot. Bob played several numbers from his latest CD, King Size Daddy. The title cut had him playing harmonica on a neck brace, playing on his hollow body guitar, and singing in a deep, rich voice. Bob is an experienced player whose music runs to more traditional blues, as his covers of "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Born in Chicago" show.
Chris Duarte back at the main stage was a sharp contrast with everything that came before on the first day. While billed as a fiery blues player, Chris is much more than that. His hard-edged playing and singing has elements of hard rock, punk, and more of the musical spectrum. Yet Chris' powerful, heavy guitar licks and very heavy, loud bass beat on his songs had many dancers up and moving right away in front of the stage. His version of "Big Legged Woman" was like none I had ever heard before: fast picking, jangling licks, funky, heavy bass, and sharp, bitten-off vocals. Chris and his power-blues trio played several cuts off his latest CD, Love Is Greater Than Me. All of these songs featured Chris' fast, powerful guitar riffs and his soulful singing. Unfortunately, much of the time his vocals where drowned out by his drums and bass, which were turned up so loud that they literally shook the stage. Yet with Chris Duarte, the guitar is the thing and the crowd seemed receptive to everything he did. Chris' version of Hendrix's "Hey Angel" was another display of his great, passionate guitar playing. Chris closed his set with a guitar instrumental featuring a long solo where he played soft, soulful, and nuanced, then suddenly switched to fast, quick picking. Chris left the crowd cheering in appreciation of his phenomenal guitar skills.
As cold and overcast as Friday and Sunday were in Chisholm, Saturday turned out to be a perfect day with sunny skies and temps in the mid to upper 70's.
Twin Cities' blues veteran Percy Strother kicked things off with a solo performance on electric guitar and vocals. Dressed in a sharp black suit and hat, Percy looked and sounded the part of the experienced blues man he is. Percy has a rich, strong voice and knows exactly perform the traditional blues songs he covered the way their writers had intended. His strong, husky voice and solid guitar playing blended well on the Delta Blues of "Your Fool Has Woke Up" and the R&B influenced "I Made a Good Woman Go Bad." Percy got the crowd into it on "Got My Mojo Working," singing along to the refrain. While normally he plays with a backing band, Percy's impressive solo performance may encourage him to do more of this in his gigs around the Twin Cities.
Fifteen year old Jacob Michaels, a resident from Northern Minnesota's Cook County, was this festival's youngest performer. On the main stage he gave a solid performance on guitar and vocals, backed by a more experienced rhythm section that formed a tight, entertaining band. Jacob is a solid guitar player who played a number of originals of slow to mid tempo that gave him a chance to show off his solid guitar playing and excellent vocals. On the slow, blues grinder, "Your Love Is Like a Fire" Jacob wowed the crowd with his great, held notes, solid fills, stage presence, and slow, soulful vocals. His fast, repeating guitar fills just flowed off of his guitar. For someone who just finished the 10th grade, this was quite a performance.
Back at the Pavilion long time partners and friends Paul Metsa and Bob Wilson gave a solid, enthusiastic performance. Bob's strong, smooth vocals and fluid, expressive harp blended well with Paul's enthusiastic guitar playing and weathered vocals. Their two highlights were Paul's affectionate tribute to fellow Iron Ranger Bob Dylan on "She's Got Everything She Needs" with Bob providing a nice imitation of Dylan's simple, West Bank harp sound, followed by Bob's solid harp and strong, emotional vocals on "White Boy Lost in The Blues." You can catch this duo most weekends at Famous Dave's in Calhoun Square performing from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM before the main acts.
Debbie Davies then brought her considerable guitar, vocal, and songwriting talents to the main stage. Touring behind her latest CD, Love the Game, Debbie lives the motto she gave the crowd, "We're just trying to love the Blues and keep the Blues alive." And she does her part and then some. On the slow blues grind of "You Told Me that You Loved Me," Debbie sang passionately while picking and hand sliding on her guitar to great effect. Debbie did a nice job of changing paces, showcasing her new music, and interacting with the crowd in a smiling, fun-filled manner. Debbie is a solid, clear vocalist in addition to being an incredible guitarist on her powder blue Fender. The slow rolling blues of "Love the Game" featured her snarling guitar licks and expressive vocals. Having seen Debbie a number of times, this was the happiest, most inspired performance I have seen. The enthusiasm from the crowd seemed to energize and push her to greater heights. The crowd reaction was one of the biggest of the entire weekend.
Twin Citians Rockin' Daddy and the Rough Cuts then rocked the Pavilion. This group of veteran blues men is a tight band featuring the great guitar playing of Dan Schwalbe and the smooth harmonica and expressive vocals of Steve Grosshaus. They played a mix of solid covers along with some inspired originals. One original that stood out was the blues grinder "Tell Me Why Do I Stay" written by Steve. This featured some great, stinging guitar licks by Schwalbe that was greeted enthusiastically by the crowd. Steve provided some smooth, expressive vocals. This band has fun, as they demonstrated on their solid, tongue-in-cheek cover of "No More Alcohol." Be sure to catch this solid local band around town when you have a chance.
Paul Reddick and the Sidemen is another Canadian blues band with four solid players and a powerful blues sound. They lit up the main stage with Paul's muscular, expressive harp, soulful, understated vocals, and the guitar pyrotechnics and visual histrionics of their lead guitarist. Touring in support of their last CD, Rattlebag, they gave a solid performance highlighted by Paul's repeating, held, and soaring notes on harp. "Trouble Again" is a song from their new CD that has an infectious, happy beat with a bluegrass feel to it. This is a very visual band that you have to see in person to fully appreciate.
Back in the Pavilion, local favorites The Black Eyed Snakes, gave the crowd their raw, fast tempo, steady beat blues. This group has drawn quite a following among younger fans and has succeeded in exposing more young folks to the blues. Their mostly fast, steady beat songs, heavy on percussion, and distorted vocals delivered through a harp microphone are not for everyone, yet this is a young band with some talent that may have a good future as they refine their talents and perfect their own sound. Playing mostly covers, such as "Hey Bo Diddley," they also demonstrated a social conscience with a song about domestic violence. It will be interesting to watch this group mature and polish their music.
The second day headliners, as in years past, was a Zydeco band, Lil' Brian and the Zydeco Travelers. This group of talented, energetic, and young performers has broad musical tastes, from Zydeco, to rock, to funk, to blues. The best way to describe them is Parliament meets Buckwheat Zydeco in a jam session. Brian plays accordion and sings lead vocals, all the while performing with a bright, friendly grin. This is high energy dance music and the crowd was up immediately, crowding the dance floor and moving enthusiastically to the funky Zydeco, as Brian describes their music. Their lead guitarist seems at home playing any style, as does the rest of the band. Their infectious good time music, like "Party Time" and "Funky Zydeco,' feature strong vocal harmonies, R&B guitar licks, heavy bass, and Brian's smooth, clear baritone on lead vocals. Yet they show a respect for more traditional Zydeco, as on "Atchafalaya Baby," with down home Louisiana sound in a fast paced song that gets faster and faster until the reaching a rousing finish. Considering their age and musical talents, this band looks to be a big part of the future of Zydeco.
In Minnesota you know that if you have one glorious day like Saturday Mother Nature will most likely make you pay. Sunday was colder, damp, and overcast and yet while the weather may have held down the crowd numbers, it did not dampen their enthusiasm.
Mel Sando got things off to strong start with a solo performance on his beautiful National guitar and strong, rich vocals. Mel gave the sparse, early crowd some solid covers along with a strong, soulful original in "Travelling Mood." Mel's early morning humorous comments to the crowd helped to wake people up, and sharing of some of his personal struggles, along with his music, reminded fans that blues is about life. Mel gave the crowd a great instrumental version of "Amazing Grace," featuring some beautiful picking and wonderful slide.
Philip Sayce on the main stage then blew the crowd away with his powerful, energetic performance on guitar and vocals. His band is a power blues trio with a tight, strong sound. Phillip is a Hendrix inspired, powerful guitar player who doubtless learned a great deal about music in his years with Jeff Healey. Originals like "Dream Away" and "Powerful Thing" demonstrated Phillip's incredible guitar talents as well as his considerable vocal talents. He is a strong, clear vocalist who can soar high with a rich, emotional sound. But probably the highlight of the show was where he sat on the edge of the stage and played softly and slowly, up close and personal, to the crowd that included a number of kids. Phillip is another very visual artist who jumps, runs, and gestures on stage with enthusiasm and energy. Local favorites, The Busters, then brought their country/ blues/ rock to the Pavilion. This is another band with broad musical influences and a tight sound. They gave the crowd solid covers of "Hope in a Hopeless World," Dylan's "Everything is Broken," and "You Better Change Your Tune."
Roomful of Blues then hit the main stage with their horn-driven, jump blues. Their smooth, tight horn section drives the band, but lead guitarist Chris Vachon and new band leader, Mark Dufresne on harp and vocals, are also big contributors. Mark has an incredible range, able to hit high, sustained notes and delivering lyrics with a cool, hip inflection. Mark's vocals and strong harp seem to be a solid fit with this veteran band. Roomful effectively blended their set of mostly originals with some well-chosen covers. Their own songs is where they really shined, like on "Turn It Up" and "I'm Trying So Hard." Everyone, even the youthful keyboard player, got a chance to solo and shine during their set. They closed things off with a rousing boogie woogie number that had the crowd dancing fast across the dance floor.
The Soulmates then brought their soulful blues to the Pavilion. Wilbur Cole on vocals and keyboard provides the smooth soul of the band while Johnny O. on guitar and vocals provides power and energy. They blended their sound well on "Don't Cry" where Wilbur passionately sang and played keyboard while Johnny O. played a nice soulful guitar that he made howl and cry.
I confess I was not sure what to expect when Ronnie Baker Brooks was scheduled to close out the festival. While he is a dynamic young performer, many fans may have wondered if he was ready for the major step of headlining at a blues festival. Ronnie put all those doubts to rest by giving the best performance he has ever given. His set of mostly originals was filled with his great guitar playing, strong, soulful vocals, and smiling, effective stage presence. Wearing his trademark Western hat, Ronnie played a howling, ringing guitar and sang clear and strong on his original, "911." He also reverently gave a nod to the blues players that influenced him, as he always does, on "We Gonna Make These Blues Survive." Here he was jumping up and down as he paid tribute to blues players of the past and present, including his daddy, Lonnie Brooks. For a young man with great talent, it's nice to see his appreciation for the players that went before him. Ronnie's music has an optimistic quality, as he showed on "Turn a Bad Into a Positive." Ronnie showed his ample vocal abilities here, singing strong, smooth and soulful with good range.
Ronnie's new songs, like "Hurt No More" and "Love Rebound" are catchy, danceable and yet thoughtful blues. In the three short years he has been on his own, he has become an accomplished songwriter in addition to a talented performer. Ronnie brought out his good friend and Twin Citian Jelly Bean Johnson to help him on "Hit By Cupid" and the rest of the set. Ronnie and Jelly Bean enjoy playing with each other and had obvious fun trading licks face to face until Ronnie broke a string. Ronnie shows good humor in his music, as he did on the campy "Take Me Wit'cha." He had the crowd repeating the refrain as he started to walk and play his way through the crowd. He went all the way to the top of the amphitheater, stopping to play, shake hands, say hi, and bring the blues right to the crowd. Returning to the stage, he played an improvised number based on John Lee Hooker riffs and made-up lyrics about life, love and the blues, inviting women to get up and dance on stage as he played. Ronnie closed things out with a long, enthusiastic version of "I Just Want to Make Love to You" while the audience shouted the refrain and danced. Ronnie seems on the cusp of becoming a major blues star who will carry the torch in the years ahead like Buddy Guy, BB King, and Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks and others are now. You can't help but feel the future of the blues is safe in the talented hands of Ronnie Baker Brooks.
Blues fans who have not yet been to Blues on The Range don't know what they are missing. This is a very family friendly, personal scale event with breathtaking scenery, ample, covered seating, and very friendly people everywhere helping to make the event a success. There are play areas and interesting things for kids to do while their parents groove to the blues. There is on site camping, accessible by an historic electric trolley. While the campground is primitive, it is cheap ($25 for 1 - 3 days), has great scenery, fire pits, and secluded campsites where you can pitch a tent or pull in your RV. Shower services are available for $3 next door at the JKO campground, also accessible by the trolley. Once you camp, you never have to move your vehicle until you leave for home. Free shuttle buses run until 2:00 AM from the campgrounds to the clubs in Chisholm that becomes a "Blues Town" for the weekend. So next year think about visiting The Range for a unique Blues experience.
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