Taste of Minnesota may have moved across the river to picturesque Harriet Island, but the promoters of the annual Fourth of July celebration continue to book great musical acts, as this tremendous double bill indicates. John Mayall kicked things off, with an introduction by George Thorogood himself. After two warm-up songs by solid guitar player Buddy Widdington and the rest of the band, Mayall bounced out onto the stage with his usual energy and enthusiasm for the blues. Smoothly switching from his solid, expressive harp played through a vocal mike, vocals, and solid keyboard playing he rocked the crowd with his playing and singing. Mayall performed many songs from his new CD, Telling Stories, including "Ain't It a Kick." Buddy's searing lead and Mayall's clear, strong tenor drove this song with energy and style. Mayall played guitar on a few songs on a small, pocket style guitar that had a sharp, harp like sound. "Caught in the Witching Hour" had a funky, rumba beat in a song about voo doo that seemed right out of Dr John's catalog. The constantly hooking beat, Buddy's howling lead guitar, and Mayall's funky keyboard playing made for a powerful, atmospheric song.
Mayall and Buddy paid tribute to the late, great Freddy King with a powerful, grinding blues instrumental. Buddy nailed the guitar while John played a mean, dirty tone harp and powerful piano. At the end of the song the Brits threw in a brief Rule Britannia, just the right sense of humor and cheekiness for a musical performance celebrating America's birth. Mayall wowed the crowd with his slow, soulful playing on the thoughtful, passionate "Mists of Time." Buddy's beautiful guitar licks, rich, full, and slightly distorted were slow, soulful, and filled with passion, offset with fast, expressive fills. John's strong, haunting vocals were accompanied by his slow, passionate, and beautiful piano playing. The message here was all about life's journey, and how even if he could, he would not change a thing. The huge crowd, numbering in the tens of thousands, roared their approval. He may be seventy years old, but Mayall still delivers great music with passion, style, and love for his fans.
After a brief intermission to change over, more people pouring onto Harriet Island all the time, it was headliner time. To the strains of "Standing on the Verge of Destruction" the Destroyers took the stage, George raising both arms above his head in a victory salute before he picked up his guitar. With Thorogood you get some rocking blues, a lot of rock, and pure, raw energy. George hit the crowd head on, loud and strong, with "Rock and Roll Queen." This was heavy, distorted, buzzing rock and roll at its best. The crowd bopped with energy and enthusiasm as George stood and played right at the front of the stage, mugging for the crowd, playing behind his head, and shouting out the vocals with youthful energy and power. At one point he stepped back and made a point of strutting in tandem up to the front of the stage with great blues sax player Eddie Shaw, who George featured throughout the show. Stopping briefly to welcome and acknowledge the crowd, George shouted "And away we go!" and launched into a powerful, driving version of "Who Do You Love." A great showman, George worked a mention of Minnesota into the song, causing the crowd to roar with approval. The large crowd stood up cheering, bopping, waving, and clapping all night long. In addition to powerful music, George likes to put on a visual spectacle. On "The Night Time Is the Right Time," George got the band together at the back of the stage and they strutted up to the front in unison, playing hard all the way. Sax player Shaw had many solos, encouraged by George to take the spotlight at the front of the stage and play some great, dirty tone blues sax. Shaw seemed to feed off the bands energy and the roaring of the crowd, playing harder and harder as the show continued.
George has a lot of respect for the artists that came before him. He paid tribute to John Lee Hooker in a dozen ways large and small, from mentioning his name, playing his signature boogie guitar riff throughout the night, and serving up rousing versions of "House Rent Blues" and "One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer." On the latter he referenced the recent change to 2:00 AM bar closing and flicked his tongue out at the crowd as he played. He got the crowd to sing along on the refrain. Tens of thousands of people singing along makes quite a roar and George relished every moment of it. At times George reminds you of Mick Jagger as he struts up and down the stage singing and exhorting the crowd to an even great level of energy. On the catchy, driving, anthem of youth "Get a Haircut and Get a Real Job" George shouted out at the crowd, "How does it feel to be 17 again?" George came back to John Lee Hooker one more time with "Howlin' for My Darlin'" featuring Shaw's powerful sax playing and strong, husky vocals. George played wild slide guitar as he let Shaw have the spotlight.
This really is a solid band, with George providing the over the top energy, shouting vocals, and masterful control of the crowd. George and the Destroyers delivered powerful performances of "Bad to the Bone" with George's great, stuttering vocals on the refrain and the infectious, catchy "Move It on Over." Ever the master showman, George and the band closed with a long, jamming version of "American Made." George celebrated America with an energy and style that few other artists would be able to match. This wild, rousing patriotic finish had the crowd roaring louder than ever. In the end, the crowd seemed to be as drained and satisfied as the band as the band came out for one final curtain call, bowing to the crowd in unison as the star spangled banner played over the loudspeakers.
The new location on Harriet Island as well as an addition stage at the South end of the Wabasha Bridge made for a great new venue for this Minnesota tradition. There is ample room for the many vendors, huge crowds, as well as enough separation so one musical performance does not leak over and overpower another as occasionally happened at the Capital. Ron Maddox and his crew did a great job with what the City of St. Paul had provided them by redeveloping Harriet Island after the 2001 flood. There were few problems despite having a crowd that must have been over 40,000. Some people grumbled about parking, but there were ample lots on both sides of the river and free trolleys for those parking farther away. Having a major musical event like this right on the river seems to connect the city back to its roots, as well as provide a scenic backdrop for some great music. Next year be sure to check out some of the great music that Taste of Minnesota serves up for free. After all, you can't beat the price.
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