Blues Night, September 27th
Big Daddy Cade and the Blues Masters, Westside Andy and Mel Ford Band, James Solberg Band, Carey Bell
When the weather starts to turn cool, it's time to take a scenic drive down along the Mississippi to La Crosse, WI, for some great blues and good beer at the Oktoberfest at the festival grounds along the river. Once again La Crosse put together an excellent group of blues bands, starting with local players Big Daddy Cade and the Blues Masters. Big Daddy is an excellent guitarist and strong singer whose physical presence, mannerisms, and styles remind you of a young B.B. King. Big Daddy and his band worked their way through a number of blues covers, giving everyone a taste of Robert Johnson, "Sweet Home Chicago," Jimi Hendrix, "Red House," and B.B. on "Thrill Is Gone." When he picks up his black, Lucille looking Gibson and leans back to play with passion, Big Daddy definitely sounds and looks like the King of the Blues. In fact, Big Daddy frequently travels to Las Vegas to play with a large band as they do their recreation of B.B. King.
Billy "Big Daddy" Cade also exudes the charm and interaction with the crowd and passion for the music like B.B himself. At one point he was playing guitar in the crowd with a cordless pickup, dancing with fans, strolling around playing, and climbing up on the landscaping to do a passionate, inspired guitar solo underneath a tree on this beautiful September afternoon. In addition to blues, Big Daddy and his band feature soul and R&B in their energetic club shows, with some nice vocal harmonies provided by solid bass player Israel Massenburg. The band is rounded out by the keyboard excellence of "Jukebox" Eddie Vaspa on keyboards and B-3 and the steady rhythm of Steve "Harley" Ray on drums. Big Daddy and his band are currently working on songs for a follow-up CD to their 1998 release, When Love Comes Knock'n.
Next up on the main stage were the multi-talented blues of the Westside Andy and Mel Ford Band. These guys have plenty of vocal and instrumental talent packed into an energetic blues bar and party band that never disappoints their fans. Touring behind their latest release, Handyman, the band features the fluid, expressive harmonica of West Side Andy and the powerful, penetrating guitar licks of Mel Ford, along with both of their vocal talents. Starting out with a brief instrumental where Andy, Mel, and talented keyboard player Jimmy Vogeli all soloed, they then launched into "Waiting for You," a song written and sung by Jimmy for the new CD. This slow rolling, catchy song featured Jimmy playing enthusiastically on keyboards with his passionate vocals about relationships and getting loaded. The band did a good job changing tempos from the slow blues grinding of "I Tried So Hard" featuring some slow, subtle playing on guitar and strong, low passionate vocals by Mel along with excellent keyboard work by Jimmy and some great harp riffs by Andy to round things out. On "You Were Wrong" Mel again provided superb guitar licks and strong, husky vocals on this infectious, hooking beat song. Westside Andy provided exceptional harp work with rich, soaring chords and super trills.
These guys had the crowd up and dancing enthusiastically from the start and kept more and more dancers coming in to dance throughout their show. They are about showmanship along with excellent musicianship. Mel played his Gibson behind his head, walking through the crowd and stopping in a group of people to play the strings with his tongue. Andy blew slow, soulful harp as he strolled through the crowd and stopped to sit and play on one of the beer serving counters. Jimmy playing fast with a brilliant smile as his hands flashed across his keyboard. Drummer Steve Dougherty contributed vocals on the double shuffle of "Mess Around" as Andy provided beautiful, rising chords with an expression that evoked the Allman Brothers at their happiest. The band added a little rocking blues in their third set, keeping the dancers dancing fast. While he is the only band member who doesn't sing, bass player Tony Menzer provided a steady rhythm and smiling presence as he jammed on stage with Mel and Andy.
This Madison based band is one blues band you don't want to miss the next time they're in the area.
After a short break, The James Solberg Band took the stage for 2 hours and 40 minutes of rocking, ringing, growling blues that was also at times soft, subtle and beautiful. Told of his set times, James asked if they could play right on through, which is what they did. Solberg wowed the younger members of the crowd who have probably never heard a top blues guitar player at the peak of his powers and passion. He pushed and pulled the strings on his Gibson to the limit, getting more sound out of a single guitar than seems possible. At the same time he jumped and moved on stage, feeling the passion of his playing. He had his Gibson growling and ringing on the instrumental opening, and then snarling and growling to the slow grinding blues on "Nobody Wants to Die." Handling all of the vocals in his mostly talking, raspy style, Solberg can also bring his vocals up to a passionate wail that matches the expressiveness of his guitar licks.
The title song from his last CD, "The Hand You're Dealt," does a good job summing up the music of James Solberg. This slow, powerful, soulful blues grinder featured Solberg's super, soaring, growling guitar licks and strong, expressive vocals with a bit of grit. Solberg has achieved a strongly deserved reputation as a great blues songwriter, as this song demonstrates. He puts a great deal of himself into both his songwriting and performances. Solberg's songs often have a narrative, ballad quality that touch on the human condition with an impact that hits you right in the body. Solberg has many effective guitar playing techniques, but the one with the most emotional appeal is where he plays haunting, repeating chords which seem to be edged with melancholy.
A song that always seems to touch the crowd is "LA Blues," the title track to a previous CD that is also Solberg's tribute to his long-time band mate, Luther Allison. The passion, power and skill with which Solberg plays and sings here always seem to move the crowd. In these days when pop headliners give you an hour and a quarter of music and think you should feel honored just to be graced by their over-paid presence, it's great to have a blues master like James Solberg to keep driving the blues with passion, style, and talent. James' current band features Larry Byrne doing a super job on B-3, Michael "Taco" Velasquez providing a great deal of energy along with rhythm on drums, and veteran Mark Lillis on bass. This is a solid band that always gives the crowd their money's worth.
Headlining on this fantastic night of blues was blues harmonica legend, Carey Bell. Bringing his traditional West Side Chicago blues up to La Crosse Carey quickly demonstrated in his first song, "Won't Be Back No More," why his harp playing is legendary. Playing both sitting and standing, Carey demonstrated a beautiful, fluid tone with great held and bent notes. Looking sharp in a purple suit, Carey sang in a low, strong, expressive voice. On the rolling blues of "What Can a Poor Boy Do?" he blew strong, fluid harp. On the country-tinged blues of "My Love Strikes Like Lightening" Carey's vocals and harp had the sharp, abrupt edge of lightening cracking in the sky.
Carey had a nice mixture of blues grinders like "When I Get Drunk" to the fast rolling dance beat of "You Made Me Love You." All the while Carey demonstrated a harp sound that could be low, dirty and gritty and rising to super, high, held notes. Carey's strong, clear vocals were delivered in a style that matched the songs he was performing, ranging from slow and soulful to fast and blunt. Carey's songs mostly concerned love and women, some good, many bad, to the final song of "Dealing With the Devil," a song about a particularly nasty woman. Carey really seemed to play off the crowd's energy in his first set, doing a lot more standing up to play harp and sing despite his age and leg troubles. At one point he did a little dancing as his band played behind him. He was backed by three solid players on guitar, bass, and drums who followed his leads seamlessly.
Carey may not be as energetic and flashy as some of the younger blues harp players on the scene today. Yet he gives you an appreciation for the solid, traditional Chicago blues sound popularized by Muddy Waters, with who Carey spent many years playing. Carey always puts on a good show and seems to enjoy interacting with his fans and fellow musicians. So if you want to hear the real Chicago sound from someone who has been playing it great for years, be sure to catch Carey Bell the next time he is in town. Carey also appeared September 28th at Famous Dave's in Minneapolis.
Headliners Night, October 4th, 2002
Dave Rogers Band, Blue Oyster Cult, Ronnie Baker Brooks
While the weather was colder, the music was just as hot down at Oktoberfest. The Dave Rogers Band started out the evening music on the small, outdoor stage which despite the size featured great sound. Dave is an exceptional guitar player fronting a band that features blues rock. Starting with "Superstition," Dave demonstrated his superior guitar playing skills. Dave demonstrated that his low, strong voice fits the blues on "Hootchie Cootchie Man." One of the surprises about Dave is that he is such a fluid, talented guitar player who covers many legends with few special effects. He gave the crowd tastes of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and J.J. Cale. Yet when he covers a song, Dave manages to put his own wrinkles and flourishes on it while staying true to the original power and feeling of the song. Dave and his band all hale from the La Crosse area. While Dave is a superior guitar player, his real job is as proprietor of one of the leading guitar stores in Western Wisconsin. Dave Roger's guitars has a selection ranging from inexpensive up to very expensive. And if you want one demonstrated, Dave's the man to do it.
Blue Oyster Cult then took the stage for some head-banging rock and roll. While they were the headliners, they chose to play earlier and let Ronnie Baker Brooks take the late night slot. The band started out with a three guitar attack backed by bass, drums, and keyboards on "Dance on Stilts" from their last CD. This is heavy, drum and bass driven power rock with solid, heavy repeating chords. Their solid vocals were often over shadowed by the loudness of their instruments, but their enthusiastic fans did not seem to care as they danced and gyrated to the heavy beats. This newer song had the feel and tone of the music from their peak in the late 70's and early 80's with a sometimes darker, heavier edge. The band features three original members: Eric Bloom on guitar, vocals, and keyboards, Donald "Buck Dharma" on guitar and vocals, and Allen Lanier on guitar and vocals.
Right away BOC had the crowd singing along to their refrains as they did on "Rock and Roll." When they launched into the heavy, atmospheric "The Golden Age of Leather," you could almost smell the burning exhaust of Harleys and sweaty leathers. This salute to beer, motorcycles, and women seemed an appropriate song for Oktoberfest where plenty of bikers were in attendance and the beer was drunk with gusto. The band had some great vocal harmonies on this fast driving rock song. Through the rest of their show the band worked their way through heavy rocking songs like "Joan Crawford is Risen," "King of Monsters," and "Godzilla." All the while they kept up the heavy drum and bass beat underneath the screaming rock guitars. Finally they worked up to their largest hit, "Don't Fear the Reaper." It's worth noting that this was a much softer, guitar driven song where the bass and drums where toned down so that the band's solid, vocal harmonies could be enjoyed. The band closed with the fast rocking encore, "Submission." I have to confess I felt a certain nostalgia for my head-banging days back in the 70's as the last echoes of Blue Oyster Cult faded away.
Ronnie Baker Brooks closed out Headliner Night with his funky beat, rocking blues. Ronnie started things out with a double shuffle instrumental, showing off his howling, soaring guitar licks on his yellow fender as he smiled at the crowd. He then launched into one of his originals, "Turn a Bad Into a Positive," a mid-tempo, funky beat blues original with an upbeat message Ronnie said he was passing on from his momma. Ronnie's guitar rang with solid, expressive guitar licks as he sang in his rich, passionate voice. Ronnie then gave the crowd a little taste of Stevie Ray Vaughan, giving the crowd great, fast, howling guitar licks mixed with slower, piercing held notes. Ronnie and his band had the crowd hopping and dancing with the same energy and enthusiasm that he was projecting from the stage. Ronnie then did another original, "911," singing with clear, strong vocals playing off his howling guitar licks on this up-tempo song.
Throughout his show Ronnie did a good job interspersing blues grinders and double shuffles, with mid-tempo, funky blues. On the blues grinder "Time Is On My Side" Ronnie did some nice soft, nuanced picking as he brought the tempo and volume of the band down. This slow, subtle playing was as enthusiastically received by the crowd as Ronnie's fast and furious playing. Then Jelly Bean Johnson joined Ronnie for the deep, down soulful blues grinding on "Takes a Smart Man to Play Dumb." Jelly Bean wowed the crowd with his superb howling, fast picking guitar fills punctuated with piercing, held notes. Then Ronnie and Jelly Bean stood and played nose to nose, good naturedly trying to out play each other. While Ronnie is a solid guitar player, Jelly Bean is truly exceptional.
Ronnie walked through the crowd playing on the funky, campy original blues of "Take Me Wit'cha." The hooking beat, Ronnie's solid guitar, and his humorous vocals had the crowd's attention. He stopped to play in a crowd as the young ladies crowded in close. He topped things off by playing the strings with his tongue and singing into his guitar pick-up. Ronnie has strong respect for the players that came before him, taking some time each show to honor blues legends like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and his daddy, Lonnie Brooks. This is brief, yet it adds to the class Ronnie exudes. While he continues to play regular club gigs in the Twin Cities and elsewhere across the country, Ronnie is a future blues superstar who seems to have all the pieces: solid guitar playing, strong vocals, excellent songwriting, and charismatic stage presence. Hearing and seeing Ronnie assures blues fans that the future of the blues is bright.
La Crosse is a little less than three hours drive. The town features numerous live music venues, although only Nighthawks and Doc Powell's regularly feature blues. Oktoberfest is a great time to visit this friendly city along the Mississippi. There are riverboat tours, fall color, great locally brewed beers, a good selection of moderately priced food, and great musical acts performed on a stage with excellent lighting and sound. And for just a $4 Oktoberfest button you can see as much of the music and other events as you want, including rock, country, polka, and of course, blues. So next year plan to travel on down, but be sure to bring comfortable shoes, warm clothes, and make your hotel reservations early!
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This review is copyright © 2002 by Rich Benson, and Blues On Stage at: www.mnblues.com, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.
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