Bordered by the Mississippi River on one side and the historic blues thoroughfare, Highway 61, on the other, the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival is one of the oldest continuous running blues festivals in the United States. 2002 marked the fourth year in a row that I have attended this great blues festival and as in years past, I came and left the Quad Cities after experiencing another great musical event featuring some of the finest musical artists in the world.
This year marked a number of changes in the event from years past. First, the festival was held on July 4-6, this year a Thursday through Saturday. Second, the event was smaller than in years past, running from 12:30 - 10:30 p.m. on July 4 and with the exception of a couple of early workshops, from 3:00 p.m. to Midnight on Friday and Saturday. Despite the smaller size, the quality of the performers and performances was as strong as ever, including a range of musical styles and performers. This year's lineup included, among others, Lonnie Brooks (electric Chicago blues); George Higgs, Alvin "Little Pink" Anderson and Cora Mae Bryant (Music Makers); Terrance Simien (zydeco); Little Milton (soul/blues); Walter Trout (blues/rock); Tab Benoit (Louisiana swamp blues); and the final act of the event, Texas blues icons, The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Making the event experience even more special were a series of jam sessions held at the Davenport Holiday Inn, the "home" for the festival performers and many fans in attendance. Offering the hope of numerous "guest": appearances at the after festival event, late night revelers were not disappointed as many festival performers, including Tab Benoit, Harry Hypolite and members of the Mighty Sam McClain Band showed up to play a few numbers.
The festival opened on a hot, steamy July 4th day with lots of sunshine and almost oppressive heat. Several of the performers on Friday were bothered by the heat, even those from the generally hot, humid south. Luckily, the heat did not seem to effect the quality of the performances, almost seeming to cause the performers to rise above the heat to help everyone forget about the hot day. The workshops included some very interesting and entertaining presentation/performances by Alvin "Little Pink" Anderson (son of Carolina blues icon Pink Anderson) and Iowa slide bluesman Catfish Keith. The BlueSkool was the usual hit for kids and parents with free harmonica lessons by David Bernston along with later performances by "Magic" Mike Cramer and Corporate Rock.
The July 4th performances were led off at the Bandshell by Quad Cities soul combo Elixir, led by vocalist Claudie Smith and Cora Mae Bryant, accompanied by guitarist Josh Jacobson on the Tent Stage. Cora Mae's performance was particular interesting including a combination of blues and gospel style music with Bryant singing and playing maracas in her pink flowered dress and pink hat. Jacobson was sharp on guitar as the two performed songs from Cora Mae's MusicMaker CD, Born With The Blues and other Carolina blues favorites.
Following Elixir at the Bandshell was San Francisco blues singer and pianist Bianca Thornton (a.k.a., Lady Bianca). This was first time seeing Lady Bianca perform and I was not disappointed. Her piano playing was exceptional her powerful vocals drove the band through a set of blues, soul and r+b tunes. At the same time another Carolina blues performer and MusicMaker artist, George Higgs worked the audience at the tent stage with his distinctive vocals, guitar and harmonica. Higgs' style was varied and included Piedmont style blues along with a number of Jimmy Reed style shuffles. It was easy to see that Higgs had fun performing for the audience and he probably would have played all afternoon if they let him go on. It was clear that Higgs was having an excellent time, as evidenced by the fact that he stuck around the festival nearly the entire day, taking in the sites and sounds of the festival.
As the heat of the day burned on, the music stayed hot as well. The Bandshell fare moved from the soul of California to the blues of Texas as guitarist Long John Hunter took the stage. Hunter's visit with the fans at the festival was highlighted by his trip down the stage steps and into the audience to play his guitar "personally" for excited blues fans. At the Tent Stage, Alvin "Little Pink" Anderson followed up his workshop appearance with a nice set that included an exceptional version of "St. James' Infirmary." In his remarks before starting the song, Anderson offered a testimonial to the song from Bobby "Blue" Bland who claimed that Anderson's version of the song was even better than his original.
One of the greatest highlights of the first day occurred during the Bandshell performance by Lonnie Brooks. Along with Brooks excellent set of Texas/Chicago/Louisiana blues guitar, ABC television displayed Brooks hard driving blues on their nationally televised Fourth of July TV special, showing everyone who tuned in just how great the blues is and giving the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival and the City of Davenport some excellent exposure. While Lonnie Brooks was showing off his skills to blues fans across the country, Alvin Youngblood Hart was performing his eclectic blues for a more intimate, but equally appreciative audience on the Tent Stage. Shifting between four different guitars, Hart burned through an excellent set of blues, mixing up his styles between Mississippi Hill County blues, blues rock and even a taste of country-western tinged blues sounds, ending his set with a nice version of "Stone Free" by the late Jimi Hendrix.
Day One of the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival ended with two different kinds of "Fireworks" at the Bandshell and on the Tent Stage. Starting first was zydeco master Terrance Simien and the Mallett Playboys, driving the large Tent Stage crown wild with his driving zydeco sounds. In the spirit of the July 4th holiday, Simien accompanied by many members of the audience (myself included), sang the "Star Spangled Banner," hailing the virtues of the USA and the patriotism of Americans. The musical fireworks continued at the Bandshell when Walter Trout and The Radicals took the stage and charged the crowd with their high powered blues rock. Trout's tribute to America occurred with his instrumental version of the "Star Spangled Banner" in a style that could only be compared to Jimi Hendrix incendiary version of the National Anthem at Woodstock.
As I left for the evening, hoping Friday would compare with the performances I had just witnessed, a fireworks display commenced at the baseball stadium next to the festival grounds; an omen of the things to come during the rest of the festival.
Friday performances opened at 3:00 p.m. at the Bandshell with local Iowa Blues Challenge winners, The Whatever Blues Band, featuring the powerful vocals of singer Rachael Knight and a tight and enthusiastic backing ensemble. On the Tent Stage another local trio was performing as well, a reunion of an acoustic trio known as Two Point Five featuring Brooklyn Ed Longnecker (guitar), Magic Mike Cramer (guitar and vocals) and Spider Bill Schaumburg (harp and hollers). The local flavor was noted and much recognized by the locals in the audience.
The Iowa influence continued on the Tent Stage when Iowa City's own Catfish Keith followed Two Point Five. The dapper-dressed Keith is a wizard on Dobro and finger style guitar, demonstrating his prowess in the humid afternoon heat. To make his work even more entertaining, Keith is a great interpreter of the country blues songs of the early years, performing songs by Bo Carter, Barbeque Bob and Blind Lemon Jefferson, among others. His interpretation of the Blind Lemon classic, "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," was one of the many highlights of his performance. At the Bandshell, the day took on more of an international blues flavor with a performance by Toronto blues lady, Rita Chiarelli. Chiarelli dazzled the audience with her combined electric and acoustic guitar work , original material and great interpretations of some classic blues tunes. Her version of Bob Dylan's classic, "Highway 61 Revisited," was a highlight of her performance. The audience clearly loved her performance, as evidenced by the long line of fans at the autograph tent following her performance.
Following Catfish Keith at the Tent Stage was the one jazz act at this year's festival, Chicago jazz pianist Willie Pickens. Pickens turned out to be a real crowd pleaser opening with a tribute to the recently passed bassist Ray Brown and songs from John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and others. At the Bandshell, Mississippi's own Eddie Cotton, a 30-year old blues guitarist, surprised the crowd with his sophisticated interpretation of the blues with a combination of choice original material like "Why Must I Cry" and well done covers including the classic "Born Under A Bad Sign."
As the sun slowly started to set on Friday evening, the music cranked up notch with great sets by Harry "Big Daddy" Hypolite (Tent) and Mighty Sam McClain (Bandshell). Hypolite played a number of songs from his APO recording, Louisiana Country Boy, decked out in a sharp yellow suit with a tight backup band that performed later at the After festival jam session. Mighty Sam McClain was exceptional as well with his well honed blues and soul sound. Sam was resplendently dressed in all white, contrasted by his band member who were all clad in black. Mighty Sam's band showed up later at the hotel as well to perform at the jam session to the delight of the late goers.
Ending Day Two were two more exceptional performances, led off by Louisiana guitarist Tab Benoit. Benoit's recent CD, Wetlands, is one of his best to date, but many will agree that there is nothing better than his live performances. Along with fellow Louisianan Harry Hypolite, Tab continued his magic at the jam later in the evening performing several songs and keeping the nite owls up and on their feet at 2:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. Starting later at the Bandshell was this year's only Mississippi Valley Blues Society River Road Lifetime Achievement Award winners, Little Milton Campbell. Following a heartfelt award presentation that included receipt of the Key to the City of Davenport by the Mayor, Charles W. Brooke. Following the ceremony Little Milton and his band thrilled the fans with a great show that included many of Little Milton's classic hits including "The Blues Is Alright."
Saturday closed with renewed promise for Saturday, the final day of the festival. Two days down and one more great day to go.
Saturday began rather frighteningly with pouring rain all morning. Images of last year's event where Sunday performances were delayed for several hours, forcing the cancellation of a couple of local performers again danced in my head. Fortunately, by 3:00 p.m. the weather was improving, suggesting that the event would go on as scheduled.
While harpman Steve Guyger was putting out a great workshop on harp styles and techniques, two diverse activities were taking place at the Bandshell and on the Tent Stage. At the Bandshell, regional guitar-hero Gary "Bubba" Gibson was conducting the "official" festival grounds-based jam session, featuring a number of local and regional players. To some extent it was a daytime version of the great jam sessions held each night after the festival at the Davenport Holiday Inn. At the very same time on the Tent Stage, Mississippi-born/Chicago-bred musician, story teller and blues historian Fruteland Jackson put on his usual entertaining performance. Not only does Jackson possess excellent musical skills to maintain the listeners attention, he knows and tell some great blues stories from his own experience, as well as some of the great performers in blues history.
The following acts on Saturday afternoon were split between a local blues performance and a national solo act. John Resch and Detroit Blues are not from Detroit, but in fact are based out of the Quad Cities area. Resch and Company put on a fine show featuring a combination of well done blues covers and original material, performing at the Bandshell. Starting just 30 minutes prior to Resch, was 12-string guitar and harmonica virtuoso, Paul Geremia. With 10 records and two Handy nominations to his credit, Geremia is an accomplished and acknowledged country blues musician, a fact that he demonstrated with his Saturday afternoon performance. I have always been amazed by Geremia's exceptional ability to make a 12-string guitar sing, filling the air with strong emotional vibes and some truly excellent music. Geremia's Saturday show reinforced my positive feelings about his excellent performance skills.
As the final day of the Festival wore on, the music just kept getting better and better. In the 6:30 and 7:00 p.m. slots were the extraordinary duo of Paul Oscher and Steve Guyger. Paul Oscher was as fascinating as ever, being one of the most versatile musicians that I have ver heard, performing guitar, piano and harmonica with equal skill. Given that he learned his skills from some of the greatest bluesmen to ever grace the stage, Muddy Waters (guitar) and Otis Spann (piano), coupled with the fact that he was the first Anglo to ever play with Waters (or any Chicago blues band for that matter), is a testament to his powerful skills. He and Guyger worked well together, performing a strong set of Chicago style blues. A little later at the Bandshell, California guitarist/singer James Armstrong simply dazzled the growing Bandshell audience with his strong repertoire of original material and his ability to engage the crowd from the moment he walked on stage. Several people commented afterwards that Armstrong's performance was one of the best of the entire festival. Given the overall quality of the lineup, that was a strong endorsement of Armstrong's performance.
One of the big highlights of Saturday was the performance by George "Wild Child" Butler on the Tent Stage as darkness began to fall on the festival for the last time. Harpman, singer, songwriter Butler, was born in Alabama and eventually settled in Ontario, Canada after extensively touring the South, Southwest and Midwest of many blues greats. Decked out in a striking royal blue suit with his harp holster draped across his shoulder, Butler and his strong band of Canadian musicians wowed the growing crowd under the tent with his winning smile and his fantastic performance. At the other end of the festival grounds, Little Charlie and the Nightcats were dazzling the crowd with their own display of blues acrobatics. Guitarist Little Charlie Baty and harpman/singer Rick Estrin represent one of the greatest one-two punches in the blues. The duo has been performing together for 27 years and the quality of the music has remained as tight and exciting as ever. The band cruised through its set of Chicago style, California jump, swing and roadhouse blues in a seemingly effortless fashion.
The final acts of the 18th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival were as good as any two closing acts I have ever experienced at the festival. Beginning on the Tent Stage was the Chicago blues combo of Magic Slim and the Teardrops, featuring the guitar and vocals of bluesman Morris Holt (a.k.a., Magic Slim). Slim was pushing his new and not yet released CD on Blind Pig Records, Blue Magic, performing several songs from the new recording that is produced by New York bluesman, Poppa Chubby. Magic Slim's Chicago and Jimmy Reed style blues pounded the audience into a frenzy as Slim went from song to song with equal enthusiasm. My only surprise of Slim's set was the absence of his tried and true Fender Jazzmaster guitar, as he performed on a new G&L ASAT Classic. The change in equipment did nothing to diminish the quality of his performance.
Wrapping up the festival was Texas blues giants, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, featuring founding member and band leader, Kim Wilson. The Fab Thunderbirds have always been able to draw a combination of blues and rock audiences with a tasty concoction of tunes designed to thrill fans from both genres. Although Wilson's guitarist for the past several years, Kid Ramos, was not on hand, the band still put on a heart stopping show, with Wilson laying everything out for the crowd as I have seen him do at every other show where I have seen him perform. The band was as tight as ever, playing many of their classic hits like "She's Tuff" and "Tuff Enuff," a song written by one of last year's performers, Jerry "Boogie" McCain. At the conclusion of the band's performance, it was clear that people were reluctant to let the festival end, clamoring for more until it was clear that the 2002 edition of this fine Midwestern blues festival had come to an end.
In retrospect, the 2002 Mississippi Valley Blues Festival was as good as it has been in year's past. Even though I heard comments by festival organizers that the budget for this year's festival was more restricted than in year's past, the quality of the acts and availability of resources was exceptional. In fact, based on my usual excellent experience at the festival and at the after festival jam sessions, I can hardly wait for next year's event. The proximity of the Quad Cities to several major cities, makes this a great festival not only for Iowa blues fans, but fans from Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, the Twin Cities, Omaha and other nearby metro areas. I strongly suggest that blues fans mark out July 4th weekend 2003 for a road trip to the 19th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. Thanks to the Mississippi Valley Blues Society and all of the sponsors for putting on a great event. To get more information on this year's festival next year's event, check out the Mississippi Valley Blues Society website at www.mvs.org.
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