B.B. King has been bringing his one-day blues festival to the Grand Casino for several years. He continues to have lineups that feature great music, although ranging much wider than blues. This year's line-up was the most diverse, with Jeff Beck, Galactic, and Mofro all adding to what turned out to be a great day of music brought to blues fans by the Grand Casino and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
Mofro kicked things off with a short, tight set of blues-rock by the Florida based band. Lead singer and front man J. J. Gray is a solid singer of both the blues and rock. He had a tight band behind him with strong players on guitar, sax, and harmonica. Excellent slide guitar work, good vocals, and a tight sound made for a 30 min. set that set the mood for the night. Next up was the funky, horn-driven sound of Galactic. The New Orleans based band plays R&B influenced rock that has elements of funk, blues, New Orleans jazz, and just about every other music you can hear wafting out of the clubs on Bourbon St. on a warm, humid night in the Big Easy. They delivered up some tight, jamming music that while stylistically different, reminded fans of The Radiators and The Grateful Dead. Their reggae influenced R&B number, "I've Got to Learn to Love Again" featured great repeating guitar licks and impressive baritone sax. Another number was a long jam of funky jazz with a hard edge that had an expressive, retro feel with a 1950's experimental jazz spin. The energy and enthusiasm of their playing had the crowd up and dancing.
Next up was Jeff Beck, the rock guitar master who seemed maybe the strangest choice for a blues festival. Backed by only drums and keyboards, Beck reminded everyone why fans of rock guitar consider him maybe the greatest living player, even if they maybe only have a slight idea what he is trying to do. Beck played a great deal of heavy sounding, atmospheric licks that came out deep, distorted and repeating. At times his sound seemed to be processed off stage before coming out of the sound system. Not unusual since Beck is a huge fan of technology and how it can bend and twist the sound to his liking. At other times Beck gave the crowd heavy, jangling guitar riffs still thick with distortion and reverb. With the fog machine going and the heavy, almost dirge-like playing that quickly turned to high, fast, wailing riffs you had to be listening closely to keep up with him.
At one point, possibly in deference to Mr. King, Beck played some slow, subtle, beautiful blues, pushing, plucking, and bending the strings to get everything out of his guitar as he leaned way back and played. Beck is not dance or easy listening music. A highlight of his set was his tasteful slide guitar on a piece that had an R&B influenced jazz-fusion feel. Beck's slow, wailing chords getting progressively lower, slower and subtler showed off the control he has of his instrument. Beck is a great player, and he makes his guitar talk, the question is how many people wowed by the playing understood what it was saying.
Then it was time for The King of the Blues. After two brief, instrumental warm up numbers where every one of his 9 band members had a chance to solo and be introduced, B. B. walked out carrying his black Gibson guitar Lucille and everyone stood up and clapped and cheered. B. B. nodded to the crowd and played a solid guitar intro of distinctive, echoing, piercing blues guitar riffs that are his signature sound. He kicked off his portion of this big musical party with "Let the Good Times Roll" singing in his strong, husky, raspy voice. For a man who has been performing for over 60 years and turns 78 within a month, both of which he pointed out to the crowd, he looked and sounded great. He had the crowd singing along to the refrain right away with little encouragement needed. While he played guitar only briefly, as he did on most songs all evening, he bopped in his chair, raised his fist above his head, and finished off the song with some wonderfully expressive guitar licks on Lucille.
B. B. gave the crowd a great blend of his music, like the slow, soulful, and emotional numbers like "I'll Survive" and the reflective feeling of "It's My Life" and "I Love You So." Mixed up with the upbeat, driving blues of "Caledonia" where he had to work to finally get the crowd to shout along on the refrain and the fast rolling sound of "Ain't Got Nothing But the Blues." B. B. was the master at working the crowd, playing great music and stopping at one point to do some talking about men, women and relationships as his band played slow, soft blues behind him. B. B. has great instrumentalists, featuring his four-piece horn sections, two guitar players, keyboards, bass, and drums. They provide a great big band blues sound and a solid foundation to his playing and singing. He played crowd favorites like "Key to the Highway" and his biggest hit, "Thrill Is Gone." On the latter his great, expressive guitar riffs, strong vocals, and stomping of his big foot in time to the music all made for a great musical and visual display. While he may need to sit down and play, in acceptance of age and bad knees, B. B. has lost none of the fire, enthusiasm and love for his fans and blues that makes him one of America's most recognized and beloved performers.
B. B. then brought out his "young guitar playing friend" Jeff Beck. Beck hit the stage with some great, stinging blues guitar riffs, with B. B. joining in and the two smiling and laughing as they traded riffs. B. B. clearly enjoyed playing with Beck, who seemed to feel the same. For their second number together B. B. sang, as Beck played great circular, repeating blues guitar riffs with B. B. joining in on guitar at the end. While it was a strange sight to behold, the end result was a great blues sound provided by two exceptional guitarists. As Beck exited, B. B. played one final number before thanking the crowd, picking up and kissing Lucille, and then walking off to the loud, enthusiastic crowd that roared its approval, people standing on their feet to catch one last glimpse of a true blues legend.
Once again the good people at Grand Casino treated their guests to a great show. The padded seats with backs, great sound system, good sight lines, and well-positioned refreshment stand makes for an enjoyable experience. In spite of the hot, humid weather, everyone seemed content with how things were handled. This is a great outdoor venue to enjoy the many great shows Grand Casino puts on each summer.
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