Over the twenty years that Le Claire Park has hosted the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, the event has featured a veritable "Who's Who" of blues stars including Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Earl King, Dr. John, Henry Townsend, Homesick James, Sunnyland Slim, John Brim, Johnny Shines, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Copeland, Jimmy Rogers and William Clarke are but a few of the more than 400 performers who have graced the stages at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. With a larger budget for 2004 and a milestone anniversary, the 20th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival promised to be one of the premier events of the summer blues festival season.
The Mississippi Valley Blues Festival has become an annual event for me since my first festival experience in 1999. Traditionally, my big concern has been the heat and humidity. Summer in Eastern Iowa can be hot and sticky, taking its toll on fans and performers alike. For 2004, it turned out that the big concern was not heat or humidity (it’s been a cool summer all over the Midwest), but rain, rain and rain. It was rain on Friday that was mostly a nuisance, rain on Saturday that disrupted the schedule of events for the day and a brief, drenching shower that extended the Sunday night performance by Taj Mahal to well past midnight.
As has become a hallmark of this festival, the range of musical styles and performers represented a broad spectrum of blues and blues related music. With a lineup that included such notables as Eric Sardinas (blues/rock), Geno Delafose (Zydeco), W.C. Clark (Texas blues), Clarence AGatemouth@ Brown (American music), Bob Margolin=s All Star Blues Jam (Chicago blues), Blind Boys of Alabama (gospel) and The Persuasions (a capella); the 20th annual festival offered something for just about anyone who enjoys music. What follows is a recap of three days of great blues at the 20th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival.
The festival opened on an afternoon that did not come close to rivaling some of the opening days of the festival for heat and humidity. What was most apparent as the gates opened was the threat of rain. From the time that Chicago soul/blues singer Johnny Drummer opened he festival at the Bandshell; with local favorite Michael AHawkeye@ Herman in the Tent, the rain came and went, never so bad to stop anything, but serving as a nuisance for attendees of the first day of the festival.
The Festival's short day (the festival opened at 5:00 p.m.), featured a great line up of acts at the Bandshell and an interesting mix of equally entertaining acts in the Tent. Johnny Drummer, a Chicago South Side blues veteran, started the festival off in style with his fine blend soul/blues. Drummer is a great singer, a fine musician and an excellent songwriter and band leader. At the "ther end of the park, local blues hero, Michael "Hawkeye" Herman opened the tent stage with his great interpretations of classic acoustic blues and his own fine compositions.
After the opening acts had concluded on the two stages, the music became more staggered as blues, soul/blues and R&B veteran Carol Fran made her appearance on the Tent Stage. Fran had not appeared at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival since 1995 when she performed with her partner, Clarence Holliman. Having not seen Carol Fran perform live since before the passing of Holliman, I was interested to see her perform without her late partner. The soul sensation might have lost a bit with age, but it did not dampen her enthusiasm and love for performance.
Before Renee Austin took her place on the Bandshell stage, the first of the two River Road Lifetime Achievement Awards was presented to Bob Koester, a blues legend of a Adifferent color.@ Koester has made his mark in the blues, not a as performer, but as an entrepreneur. As the proprietor of the renowned Jazz Record Mart in Chicago (the place to buy blues and jazz recordings); the founder/owner of Delmark Records, one of the premier record labels for blues and jazz artists throughout the world; and a lifelong advocate for this music; Koester represented one of the most deserving recipients of this award that I could imagine.
After the presentation to Bob Koester concluded, Renee Austin, an up and coming national act (and certainly a regional sensation), took her turn on stage, ready to put on one of her high energy performances. The red-headed blues diva has a great stage presence and can definitely bring any crowd to life with her hard-hitting and sexy presentation of blues, mixed with the flavor of soul, rock and even a taste of country in her sound. A talented singer, songwriter and musician, Austin was able to successfully bring the audience along with her as she worked to get the party cranked up on Friday evening.
As Renee Austin sang her way into the hearts and minds of the Bandshell crowd, the musical gears were shifting at the tent, from the soulful voice of Carol Fran to the instrumental jazz sounds of Ernest Khabeer and the New Horizons Ensemble. Khabeer is a Chicago saxophonist who has quite a music pedigree with formal training at the Vandercook College of Music, degrees in music education from Governor=s State University and continued study with the likes of Chico Freeman and others at the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Khabeer has several recordings, his two most recent for Delmark Records. The music performed by the Ensemble was exceptional and a fine twist for musical devotees with a cool combination of original material, as well as songs by some of the great jazz performers of our time like John Coltrane and Rashaan Roland Kirk. As a more casual fan of jazz, I was still moved by the performance and left with a renewed interest for the music.
As Khabeer wove his jazz sounds through the tent, the Bandshell audience was taken by the powerful sounds of guitarist Eric Sardinas. Tattooed and dressed in his traditional black attire, Sardinas performed his usual power packed show featuring his burning slide guitar on his electrified resonator guitar. Sardinas was his usual fiery self on Friday night performing material from all of his recordings. Along with his unusual choice of instruments, Sardinas may be most notable because of the fact that he sounds A LOT like the immortal Johnny Winter from his heyday.
The final two performers of the evening represented Agiants@ in their respective musical genres, two fairly different musical forms, California jump blues and traditional zydeco. Certainly the end-to-end combo of Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers at the Bandshell and Geno Delafose and French Rockin= Boogie in the tent, finished off Friday evening with a flourish and lots of variety.
Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers put on their usual energetic show, driven by the showmanship of Rod Piazza and the talented keyboard work of Miss Honey. The closing set at the Bandshell included a number fo songs from the bands latest recording, Keepin= It Real, along with a representative sample of the songs that the band has recorded since its formation back in 1980. I have always been impressed with the way Rod can get the crowd charged up as the stalks the stage and in the crowd blowing his harp. Combined with the piano acrobatics of Miss Honey and the steady rhythm provided by longtime bassist Bill Stuve, the band met the expectations of the appreciative audience.
Finishing off Friday evening at the Tent, Geno Delafose and French Rockin= Boogie performed some of the best traditional zydeco that I have ever been privileged to hear. It had been a while since I last saw this talented Louisiana musician and I was not at all disappointed. Shifting between his various instruments, Delafose once again proved that it is nearly impossible to just sit and listen to this music. The sound put out by the band basically defied the audience to just sit there and listen; and sitting was not what most people listening to Geno and company did on Friday evening. Needless to say, Geno Delafose and French Rockin= Boogie did everything they could to make sure that no one left the festival grounds disappointed at the end of the opening day.
Despite the enormous talent assembled for Saturday at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, nothing could stop the negative impact of the rain the plagued the event for most of the daylight hours. Although I did not see (nor did any of my friends) guitarist Spencer Bohren perform, it appears that everyone scheduled for Saturday got the opportunity to perform, though not necessarily at the time scheduled or on the stage designated for the performance. The end result was that artists and times were changed early in the schedule, a situation that eventually was corrected as the event moved into the evening hours. Some of the more confusing changes included moving Iowa Blues Challenge Runners up, Tough Enough!, to the tent for an 8:00 p.m. (Instead of 2:00 p.m. at the Bandshell) performance; reversing the performances by Guy Davis and Ann Rabson on the Tent Stage; and the unavoidable delay of the final performance of the evening by Clarence AGatemouth@ Brown at the Bandshell for the scheduled Festival fireworks show.
The variety on both stages that comprised the Saturday lineup, made it a very entertaining day, despite the annoyance of the rain. The Bandshell featured the traditional urban harp blues sounds of Minnesota=s Big George Jackson; Chicago blues piano by Kenny ABlues Boss@ Wayne; soulful and jazzy Texas guitar by W. C. Clark and the self-described AAmerican Music@ performed by Gatemouth Brown. At the other end of the park, fans were treated to local favorite Tough Enough!; acoustic bluesman Guy Davis; the piano work and tongue-in-cheek lyrics of Ann Rabson; the inspirational a capella sounds of The Persuasions; and a night that ended with Bob Margolin=s All Star Blues Jam, featuring giants of the blues Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins and Willie ABig Eyes@ Smith.
One of the nicest aspects of Saturday was that as the afternoon downshifted into the early evening, the weather decided to back down. Except for the fact that the eair was heavy with humidity from the day of rain, things got better weather-wise as the night wore on. In fact, by the time W.C. Clark had gotten into his set at 8:00 p.m. the rain was pretty much over for the evening. Other highlights of the evening included by first exposure to the live performances by Kenny ABlues Boss@ Wayne who pounded out some great tunes on his piano and the a capella stirrings of The Persuasions, who, believe it or not, were a Frank Zappa discovery back in the late 1960's. The Persuasions were particularly captivating because their set mixed elements of gospel and secular music into a very nice blend of sounds, not to mention how impressive it is to hear a group make all of their music vocally with no instrumental accompaniment at all.
Late in the evening, prior to the Festival=s inaugural fireworks display and the headline performance by Gatemouth Brown, time was taken to present the second River Road Lifetime Achievement Award to the inimitable 80 year old performer. Gatemouth was quite gracious in accepting the award from the Mississippi Valley Blues Society and the key to the city from Davenport Mayor Charles Brooke. After the award ceremony ended Brown had to wait a bit longer than expected to perform what he fondly refers to as AAmerican music,@ while the Festival held its first ever 4th of July fireworks display.
As the weather cooled down late in the evening, Gatemouth heated things up at the Bandshell with a great set blending blues, jazz, country into his unique musical stew. The set included original material like AGuitar In My Hand,@ soulful classics like his version of AUnchained Melody@ and his adaptation of the big band sounds of Duke Ellington's AI'm Beginning To See The Light.@
At the other end of the festival grounds, the hall of fame line up of Bob Margolin's All Star Blues Jam. With Hubert Sumlin on guitar, Pinetop Perkins on piano, Willie ABig Eyes@ Smith on Drums and Mookie Brill on bass, along with Bob Margolin on guitar, the All Stars put on a great show of hard core Chicago blues. Featuring several songs from their 2003 recording including AGoin= Down Slow,@ ASweet Black Angel,@ along with classics like ALittle Red Rooster,@ the band did a great job of closing out the evening at the Tent. The only disappointment regarding the All Stars was the noted absence of Carey Bell=s harmonica. As one of the All Stars featured on the CD, I had seen the All Stars at full strength late in 2003 at the Ft. Lauderdale Blues Festival. However, the disappointment was more than off set when another “all star,” Kenny Neal, joined the band on stage. Neal was scheduled to perform with Billy Branch on Sunday, but it seems that he can never get enough stage time, as he seems to be jamming with someone at every festival where I have seen him perform. With the noted absence and the welcome guest appearance, the band put on a great show; leaving a great deal of anticipation for the final day of the Festival.
Sunday turned out to be the best day of the Festival as far as the weather. With the exception of one brief shower just prior to the performance by the Blind Boys of Alabama, the day was beautiful and the music was excellent, starting with Iowa Blues Challenge winners Hal Reed & The Mob and ending with a late performance by Taj Mahal and Hula Blues.
Iowa Blues Challenge winners Hal Reed and the Mob opened the day at the Bandshell with a fun, energetic set of classic blues covers. Performing songs like AKilling Floor.@ ACaledonia@ and AI Got My Mojo Workin=@, the band was surprisingly strong and very entertaining, getting the day off to a great start.
Starting simultaneously at the Bandshell and Tent stages at 4:00 p.m. was the interesting combo of Music Makers performer Lee Gates and acoustic blues man, 19 year old Rev. Slick Ballinger. Both performers were very entertaining for different reasons. Guitarist Lee Gates, decked out in his resplendent royal blue suit with a wild head of hair, put on a great show, grabbing the attention of the audience with his stage presence and some excellent music including songs like AStormy Monday@ and the tongue-in-cheek, AI=m Gonna Throw a Brick at You@. On the other end of the Festival grounds, Rev. Slick Ballinger was equally entertaining, enlisting the help of harp player Blind Mississippi Morris to take his show to a higher level. Slick raised his performance to a sort of revival meeting, shouting and singing, Morris blowing some tight harp behind him. Another performer that I had seen last year in Ft. Lauderdale, Ballinger was even better in Iowa.
Not wanting to miss anything, I took some time during the afternoon to wander over to the free workshops to pick up on a presentation by Kenny Neal. The cool thing about this stage is that along with some entertaining renditions of music, you get to hear lots of interesting stories. Neal talked a lot about his family, his life and even his time on Broadway as a member of the cast of Mulebone. The session was supposed to include Neal=s musical partner at the Festival, Billy Branch. However, Branch arrived right at the end of the session, just in time for some friendly conversation and autograph signing. Following this presentation, I decided to stick around for a presentation on harmonica by Charlie Musselwhite, which although lighter on conversation, had a lot more music in a more laid back setting.
Heading back to the music, I picked up on an excellent show by blind Piedmont guitarist and Music Maker artist, Cootie Stark. Cootie told lots of great stories about his life in South Carolina, along with his music. Stark indicated that he had learned to play the guitar on Sunday, insisting that Ayou can learn just about anything on Sunday,@ given the assistance of God, no doubt.
Following Stark=s performance, I stuck around at the Tent to hear the first part of the set by Billy Branch and Kenny Neal. Always entertaining, the duo performed a set similar to the one I witnessed at the Chicago Blues Festival last June. An interesting mix of Chicago meets Louisiana, the set was as good at it was in June, if not better thanks to the more intimate setting.
While Branch and Neal wowed people at the Tent, the Blind Boys of Alabama began their set late due to a brief, but drenching rainstorm. However, when they finally got started, they turned the Bandshell into a gospel revival meeting, getting literally everyone on their feet, testifying with the music. Opening the set with a request to pray for their bass player who had suffered a stroke earlier in the day, the Blind Boys quickly turned the atmosphere to a more spiritual plane. Opening with ADown By The Riverside,@ the Blind Boys cranked it up with song after song in rapid fire succession. Near the end of the set, the group surprised everyone when two of the singers Ajumped@ off the stage (they were actually lifted up and set down) and started walking through the crowd, singing and testifying as they worked, totally revving up the crowd as the band brought it home.
The final acts of the Festival were two major stars of the blues. Starting first at the Tent was the amazing Charlie Musselwhite. Backed by a great band, featuring California guitarist Rusty Zinn, Musslewhite put on another fantastic show, wowing everyone with his presence and simply amazing harmonica. The songs ranged from some of his earliest work up through songs from his latest eclectic release, Sanctuary, everyone a Musselwhite gem. Charlie is one of my all time favorite blues performers, a gracious and talented gentleman, with a laid back southern personality. Luckily, with the rain delays at the Bandshell, I was able to enjoy Charlie=s entire set before finishing my Sunday evening (actually into Monday morning), with Taj Mahal.
After a lengthy delay at the Bandshell, Taj Mahal and Hula blues began their long awaited, final set of the Festival. After releasing his first recording in 1968, Taj has had a long and successful career that has seen his music take on many different styles and feelings. A staunch supporter of American roots music, this was Taj=s first visit to the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival since 1999. Performing his unique Ahula blues@ style, the band mixed elements of blues, calypso, African and Hawaiian sound into some new songs and some classics like ACorinna@ and AShe Caught The Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride@. Spending most of the set sitting by and looking out over the Mississippi River, Taj Mahal=s performance put a big exclamation point on the 20th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival.
While other festivals around the country have downsized or disappeared, the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival has managed to maintain the quality and quantity of performers at the event and has actually continued to add new features, such as this year=s fireworks display. Despite any problems or inconveniences that might exist with this or any event that relies so heavily on volunteers and the courtesy of those in attendance, the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival remains one of the finest blues events in the Midwest and the nation, certainly one that I will look forward to attending in years to come. For more information about the Mississippi Valley Blues Society and future Mississippi Valley Blues Festivals, visit the MVBS website at www.mvbs.org.
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