The second annual Thunder Bay Blues Fest kicked off on July 4, Friday with the
Reverb Rockers, the Core Band from Thunder Bay, Johnnie Johnson, Downchild
Blues Band and Buckwheat Zydeco. Pianist Johnnie Johnson was the heavy
hitter on Friday, not only because he first hired Chuck Berry, and who IS Johnny
Be Good. He’s received some of his due since being acknowledged by Keith
Richards’ discovery of his work - go to www.johnnie.com - and his performance
was a highlight.
Saturday lineup was Paul James, Slap Johnson and the Trowelers, Tracy
K, David Gogo, Detroit blues legends, Rita Chiarelli, Omar and the Howlers, and
Dickey Betts and Great Southern, who created alot of backstage anxiety by
spending most of the day trying to get across the border. Almost all of the
musicians I spoke with expressed difficulties in getting gigs in the States, due to
difficulties in obtaining work visas and border crossings, which they attribute to
an unfriendly political climate with the U.S. since the Iraqi war. This is a sad
consequence, unperceived by Americans and much to our loss, with loss of
deserved fame and fortune to Canadian musicians who deserve a wider American
audience. My focus here, therefore, will be to urge you to buy their music and
check out their websites. Canadian blues musicians deserve alot of attention.
(Links not mentioned here can be found on www.tbayblues.ca.)
Saturday held the best music for me, with my favorites from last year
returning. Slap Johnson the Trowelers, Tracy K and Rita Chiarelli were joined by
my new favorite, David Gogo, who with his east coast band were very generous
with their time and thoughts. Slap Johnson and the Trowelers are my personal
favorite local Thunder Bay band, whose members have played with Muddy
Waters and Bo Diddley, Denny Doherty, Gene Pitney, KoKo Taylor and the late
John Phillips, Colin James, Paul James, Mamas and Papas, Paul Schaffer. There’s
a reason this band has played with the greats - check them out.
Tracy K first got my attention last year with her Janis Joplin voice. This
year I was so proud of how much she’s grown in power as a performing artist.
The voice, the harp, the guitar, the writing - this girl is in her prime. She and
Thunder Bay have adopted each other and she was glowing! She reports that
her writing is going strong, with new songs in the works...Check out her stuff at
Tracy K has still to reach the power of Rita Chiarelli, who I cannot say
enough about. Her songwriting tears your heart out, like she was inside of your
darkest nights. Her astounding 3-octave range isn’t just wide - its beauty knocks
you down. This woman’s powerful voice is fueled by a powerful soul and a
complete openness as a human being, with an enormous desire to give all she’s
got to her audience - though she was envious of Dickie Betts’ tourbus.......... All
of her CDs are excellent, and you can’t go wrong buying any of them - her most
recent, Breakfast at Midnight is her independent production, available through
Northern Blues. She’s currently working on a CD of longlost blues standards,
which she hopes will deepen our knowledge of the roots of blues, to be followed
by an album of new writing in the spring. For more on Rita, look up
My favorite discovery of the weekend was David Gogo, an astounding
musician who first not only met his idol, Stevie Ray Vaughn but played with him
at the age of 16 ! There are alot of guys who can sound like Stevie Ray, and it
would be unfair to David Gogo to limit his artistry in that way. Having toured
with Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins and the Fabulous Thunderbirds,
this year he took home honours for Musician of the Year at the West Coast Music
Awards and Guitarist of the Year at the Toronto Blues Society’s Maple Blues
Awards. His independent approach to the business end of being a musician is to
release a CD of live performances exclusively through the internet - with great
success, and to have west coast and east coast bands to accommodate the
gigantic distance of Canada. David Gogo and his east coast band completely
impressed not only this writer, but her daughters. From keyboards to bass to
drums to David himself, we could listen to this band all day............ABSOLUTELY
check them out at www.davidgogo.org. His recent CDs are Halfway to Memphis
and Skeleton Key - buy them sight unseen !
Of course, the highlight of Saturday for many was Dickie Betts and Great
Southern - close your eyes and hear the Allman Brothers is all I can say. Great
guitars and 3 drummers - powerful, wonderful, moving.
Sunday’s offering started with a guitar workshop at the community
auditorium, hosted by Ken Hamm, Paul James and Ari Lahdekorpi, who
promoted this workshop as “travel up the Mississippi Delta with the blues.” He
described Ken Hamm as “a historian of blues guitar,” with Paul James as “blues
music moves up the Mississippi Delta and into urban centres. He’s great at
doing the Chuck Berry, really rock-on party kind of thing,’’ leaving himself as
representing “the next movement, moving more into how blues has appealed to
the modern era. I play alot of different styles, jazz for instance, but my main
style is more of the contemporary blues.” The goal of the workship was to
appeal to younger musicians, helping to root them in blues and the blues itself in
public consciousness - “like putting together a good hockey team.”
The Sunday lineup moved from Paul James, Thunder Bay Blues
Experience, Ken Hamm, Glamour puss, Scott Holt, to Big Walter Smith and the
Groove Merchants and Koko Taylor and her Blues Machine. Scott Holt was
anticipated as the big excitement by the Thunder Bay music community, with
good cause after a 10 year stint with Buddy Guy’s band that started at the age
of 23! Building on work with heroes Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, and John
Mayall, as well as Stevie Ray Vaughn’s and Jimi Hendrix’s band members, Scott’s
work ethic is: “Every time I pick up the guitar, I play like my life’s depending on
it...” (www.scottholt.com.) Twin Cities’ favorite Big Walter revealed in a brief chat
that the Groove Merchants have a running booking at TBay Bluesfest, so count
on them as part of this growing tradition. I was disappointed that Mick Sterling
couldn’t make it, having been booked as part of the original lineup, but Big
Walter represented the Twin Cities well, as he always does.
The physical setup of this year’s fest was much more enclosed than last
year, thus obliterating its greatest asset. It wasn’t even noticeable that the park
is literally on the shore of Lake Superior, with the fabulous Sleeping Giant across
the Bay. The beauty of this site was thus completely lost - that openness to the
lake enhanced last year’s performances for me. For the past year, my Dallas
friend and I who attended last year, have used HOITO as a salutation, like Aloha.
We transported greater quantities of the Hoito’s heavely rice pudding across the
border, along with the recipe, and spent alot more money and time in the area
surrounding Thunder Bay itself. The Thunder Bay Blues Fest is not the the only
reason to attend, but my best memories are of truly memorable performances.
Until next year, HOITO !
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