The 3rd Annual Ely Blues Festival moved over to the Longbranch in nearby Winton, a beautiful, picturesque setting on the edge of the Northern Minnesota wilderness that served as a nice backdrop for some great blues music. Over the two days, six bands and one solo artist gave their spin on the blues to an enthusiastic crowd that made up for in fun and passion what they may have lacked in numbers.
Big Walter Smith and The Groove Merchants, dressed in their trademark red, white, and blue t-shirts kicked things off with a tight, horn-driven instrumental before bringing Big Walter out. Walter hit the stage with his strong, expressive, distinctive tenor voice on "This Is It." His six-piece backing band provided a tight, ensemble sound with a great horn edge. Walter is a powerful blues singer, bringing all the emotion, passion, and expression to the songs together with his band's tight instrumental sound. On the slow rolling, grinding blues of "Crazy About My Baby" his big, expressive voice was nicely complemented by his solid horn section. Walter gave the crowd a diverse set, from the powerful, emotional appeal of "Unchain My Heart" to some great grinding blues from Albert King to a Jamaican version of "Johnny Be Good." Walter's singing on "Knock on Wood" had his vocals ringing out over the crowd accompanied by rising horn riffs. Walter closed his set with "Thrill Is Gone" with a nice vocal performance backed by Scotty Graves' powerful, soulful guitar licks.
They had a special guest via recording to introduce Ronnie Baker Brooks, his daddy Lonnie Brooks. Ronnie then brought his powerful rocking blues out for a solid set that wowed the crowd. Ronnie is a rising blues start, already having headlined festivals and having made a name for himself with his solid guitar, great passionate vocals, and creative songwriting. Ronnie had his guitar delivering searing, growling, snarling riffs on the edgy blues of "Turn a Bad into a Positive." Like many of Ronnie's original songs, this one features great instrumental work, powerful, passionate vocals that ring true, and a positive message seasoned with humor. On "I Believe" Ronnie played some nice, fast, expressive guitar fills. Improvising on the lyrics, he worked his friend Jelly Bean Johnson's name into it. Stylishly dressed in his trademark gambler hat and dark clothes, he played one handed, the other hand held high over his head. Ronnie has a reverence and respect for the blues artists that came before him, including his daddy, which he shows on the emotional, powerful "Keep These Blues Alive." He plays tribute to artists like Muddy, John Lee Hooker, and Albert King. Ronnie brought Jelly Bean up for some great guitar, including their trading licks on "Superstition." Jelly Bean is a brilliant guitar player, his stinging lead on "Hit by Cupid" snarling and howling as Ronnie delivered his smooth, expressive vocals with passion.
On "Take Me Wicha'" Ronnie came down off the stage and walked and played through the crowd, stopping to shake hands and great his fans, playing guitar behind his head, with his tongue, one-handed, and finally holding his guitar above his head in triumph. After a short break, Ronnie brought Big Walter up to share vocals on a few numbers. "Rock Me Baby" had Jelly Bean and Ronnie playing toe to toe as Walter delivered smooth, soulful vocals. At one point Walter broke up Ronnie and Jelly Bean with his so innocent sounding ad lib. Ronnie and Jelly Bean then closed with a nice chunk of wild blues guitar.
Melvin Taylor then closed out the first day with his mixture of jazz, blues, and rock guitar accompanied by his vocals which are quickly and bluntly delivered. With Melvin, the guitar is the thing and he is a great player. He likes to experiment and jam as his drummer and bass player keep the loud, solid, R&B rhythm going behind him. Melvin plays a lot of quick hitting, howling, suddenly changing riffs that mostly work, and sometimes may not, but it is hard to tell even when they don't. "Sail On" was slow rolling blues with Melvin playing sweet, buzzing blues guitar like a honeybee. He does so many great little things with his hands that result in great guitar sounds. Melvin uses the jazz players quick hand slide. At one point he used the mike stand as a slide, updating the great old blues of "I'm Not Going to Get Drunk No More" with his jazzy, funky guitar licks.
Melvin has a loose, easy style on stage, with a style that often reminds you of jazz guitar great George Benson. He rubs the strings with his thumb and fingers, then his finger tips for a sweet, subtle sound. Then he hits heavy, strident chords that jar you once he has lured you into his music. Melvin delivered solid covers of "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "Let It Roll." On both he played wild, jamming guitar solos working the wah-wah pedal and taking a lot of risks in his playing. At the end of his set he brought Big Walter, Scotty Graves, and Walter's trombone player T-Bone up for a great cover of "Sweet Little Angel" before closing things out with "Sweet Home Chicago." While you may not always understand his playing, Melvin is a talented and unpredictable player who offers up some great jazzy blues guitar.
Teenage blues guitar whiz Jacob Michael kicked things off Day 2 with some hot playing on "Hideaway." The young guitar slinger, backed by solid veterans on bass and drums delivered a great deal of fluid, expressive guitar riffs. This young man has a bright future in the music business. Jacob's set of mostly covers, seasoned with a few originals, had the crowd moving and dancing, impressed with his great guitar tone and strong vocals. Jacob showed some nice, buzzing, snarling riffs on "Only a Fool Would Set You Free." His fluid playing, great held notes, and pleasing tone made for some great blues guitar. Jacob has a great deal of respect and reverence for the blues, which he showed on his solid covers of "That's Alright" and "I'm Ready." On the latter he does not try to copy Muddy, but plays his guitar with great fast fills and sings with powerful emotion so that he captures the spirit of the song. His original, "Your Love Is Like a Fire" features solid, fast guitar riffs that are low and growling, seldom screaming or howling. His clear, expressive vocals featured smoothly drawn out lyrics. Jacob treated the crowd to a short, brilliant, flamenco style guitar solo before closing his solid set.
Georgie Bonds hales from Philadelphia and has a big, rich voice, solid guitar playing, and a hip, urban blues sound that keeps the music and crowd moving. Georgie showed off his big, expressive, soulful voice on "Hole in the Wall." His tight, veteran five-piece band providing solid instrumental work behind him. Georgie's blues has a funky, driving edge with a healthy sense of humor and acceptance of life. "Stuck in Traffic" has a universal appeal and understanding, with Georgie leading on guitar and vocals and his band providing some great vocal harmonies. The fast rolling, catchy blues beat draws you right in. A lot of Georgie's life seems reflected in his music. "I Paid My Dues" is one of his originals with an authentic, real life feel to it. He played some nice penetrating, ringing guitar riffs on this mid-tempo, hooking blues, his voice growling with emotion. Georgie served up a great cover of "Tied to the Whipping Post," playing jangling, open, upbeat blues guitar accompanied by strong, passionate vocals. Georgie introduced his original, "Don't Ask Me for No Money" as being about and ex-, ex-, ex-girlfriend. His voice rasped with emotion as he sang. Georgie closed out his set with a funky version of "I Shot the Sheriff."
Melvin Taylor played another soled set. While he switched things up a bit, it was very similar to the previous day, although some of his jamming guitar solos were different. Between sets on the main stage, Jim Miller played solo acoustic guitar and sang right next to the VIP tent. While he was a solid player and singer, it was hard to hear him if you moved more than 30-40 feet away.
Bernard Allison closed things out with his snarling, growling blues guitar that he could bring down for some sweet, soulful playing or take up for some rocking, hard-edged blues. His band featured loud pounding drums, throbbing bass, and hard grinding B-3. "Can't Get You Out of My Mind" was funky, hooking blues with Bernard playing clear, piercing, expressive licks and singing with deep, rasping passion. Bernard likes driving blues guitar, where he can rock it out, fast and hard. That's what he did on "Just Came Back to Say Goodbye." Yet he is a talented blues guitarist and singer, as he showed in covering his daddy Luther's song, "Bad Love." Bernard delivered a powerful, passionate performance, singing and playing with strong, soulful feeling on this slow rolling blues number. He played powerful, growling guitar riffs, followed by slow, fluid picking, letting the notes echo out. Bernard brought it down for some very soft, light picking, his band playing very softly, as he barely touched the strings with his pick. He drew the crowd in closely at this point, getting people to sing along on the refrain.
Bernard really seemed to be enjoying himself, headlining a festival in his home state in beautiful surroundings. Stylishly dressed in a black sequined shirt, black dress pants, and his Western style hat with two rattlesnake heads, he seemed comfortable and happy playing on stage. He followed the funky, driving blues of "Life in the Big Town" with a solid, funky cover of "Midnight Creeper." His soulful, R&B influenced playing here featured infectious, repeating riffs and passionate vocals that just kept getting stronger. Bernard played some beautiful, slow blues on the love song he wrote for his wife, "Love Is Meant to Be." His smooth, passionate vocals, fast, expressive guitar fills, and snarling, howling guitar finish made for a great song. Bernard served up some tasteful, expressive slide guitar giving the crowd a taste of Bo Diddley, getting down and walking through the crowd. He brought his guitar up in tempo and volume, and then took it back down again several times as he walked through the crowd playing his wicked slide. After several more great covers, that were wide-ranging, Bernard closed things out with a wild, rousing cover of "Hideaway," which was always one of Luther's favorites. It was a fitting end to a great weekend of blues.
The Ely blues festival was arranged and promoted by the capable, friendly staff at WELY radio. Both fans and staff were friendly, cheerful, and helpful. This was an interesting festival since they booked fewer bands, and gave each band around two hours to play. Many fans liked the format, since you got to hear a lot more of each band. The beautiful scenery, great music, and positive vibe make the long drive from the Twin Cities definitely worthwhile. There are ample hotel and camping locations nearby. Definitely consider the Ely Blues Festival for a weekend trip next September. You won't be disappointed.
Your purchase through this Amazon.com link helps to support this website.
Simply click on the cover to order these CDs NOW!
Your purchase through the Amazon.com links at the end of each review, or by simply clicking on this banner to order your products, helps to support this website as well as the featured blues artist.
"This review is copyright © 2003 by Rich Benson, and Blues On Stage at: www.mnblues.com, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without permission."
Copyright reuse notice: If you would like to reprint or use this review please include the above copyright notice, contained within the quotation marks, PLUS this statement: "Used with permission." Then send an email to Ray at: firstname.lastname@example.org indicating how you are using the review or the website page address it will be appearing on. Thanks!
You can help support this blues website by making a contribution (click on the banner below for details).
Or mail a donation to: Ray Stiles % Blues On Stage, PO Box 582983, Mpls, MN 55458. Thanks!
Web Design SPECIAL, get your own website for just $50.
Web Hosting & Design:
Web Hosting & Design.
Most affordable web hosting and design services available.
Find out how you can host your current site at Blues On Stage, or how I can help you design your own website!
If you would like your CD reviewed, please send TWO (2) copies, along with promotional material to:
Blues On Stage
PO Box 582983
Minneapolis, MN 55458-2983
E-mail Ray Stiles @ email@example.com with any questions.