We pulled into Monroe under a brisk and clear sky, primed for a hot day of blues at the 10th annual Berghoff and Blues. Over the years this event, sponsored by the Monroe Lions at the Green County Fairgrounds, has grown into a Late Summer highlight for blues fans across the Midwest. Local favorites Jennifer Depreez and The Crashers warmed their early bird fans with their energetic and enthusiastic rocking blues. Next up on the back stage long-time Madison resident Robert J. kept the blues energy flowing with a nice acoustic set, accompanying himself on guitar and harp on a neck brace. Robert won the solo artist award in the Broadjam / Berghoff & Blues World Wide Talent Search.
The West Side Andy/Mel Ford Band kicked the energy up several notches with their multi-talented blues attack, getting the crowd up and dancing by their second number. This five-piece Midwest blues favorite makes it “blues time” wherever they land. Featuring songs from their upcoming release, Alley Cat, they delivered lyrics worth a close listen. The title cut here includes the line “I’m washing dishes and baby clothes, while she’s putting all the money up her nose.” Keeping the blues rolling, Texas style, The Poppa Toppas, served up muscular, rocking blues with a little Spanish guitar flavor on the back stage. The winners of the band portion of the Talent Search came all the way from El Paso just to share their unique sound and join the blues party in Monroe.
On the main stage The Delmark Allstars, featuring young guitar slinger Dave Specter on guitar, veteran Ken Saydak on piano and B-3, Craig Panosh on drums, and Sharon Lewis on lead vocals served up a great mix of powerful, high-energy Chicago blues. A Texas native who has lived in Chicago since 1975, Sharon is a big gal with a big voice who got the crowd moving with her singing and dancing. She gave the crowd a treat with her soulful, moving blues original, “I Got an Angel Watching Over Me.” Performing the first time with the Allstars, the combination of Sharon’s strong vocals backed by Dave’s fiery guitar riffs and Ken’s grinding B-3 made this a highlight. Ken also has a side project, playing with Tony Menzer, bass man for West Side Andy / Mel Ford and the Reverend Raven in the Valveetatones. The eclectic and talented Pat MacDonald followed on the back stage with his solo blues show featuring his 3-string diddley bow (cigar box guitar) and playing harp on a rack. His short but enthusiastic set was a rare treat.
Back on the main stage Slide Time arrived with Lafayette, La guitar wizard Sonny Landreth and his unique picking and sliding style. Blues fans pushed up against the stage to see him work his guitar magic. He featured songs from classic CD’s like South of I-10 and a preview from his upcoming CD with an early 2008 release date. Part blues, part zydeco, with a healthy dose of swamp rock, Sonny makes an intense musical statement. Just off headlining Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Fest in Chicago, Sonny introduced one number by commenting Clapton had gotten up to jam with him on that one. On the back stage Ken Saydek and Jimmy Voegeli of Westside Andy / Mel Ford had a blast with the dueling pianos of Pianopalooza. Ken’s deep, powerful vocals made a nice complement to Jimmy’s expressive tenor.
Then it was reunion time, Chicago blues style, with The New Legends of Blues Allstars. Whenever they get together the blues and the stories both start flowing. The multi-talented kingpins included Aaron Moore on keys, James Wheeler on guitar, Steve Guyger on harp, Billy Flynn on guitar and lap steel, Bob Stroger on bass, and Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith on drums. Truly a world-class line-up, as Stroger commented he and Kenny had just returned from Paris 3 days earlier and he had been to Europe 7 times this year. All members of the band were featured on their instruments and vocals. A couple of many highlights were “Must Have Been the Devil” with Guyger on vocals and playing a gritty, powerful harp and “The Man Down There” smoothly delivered by bass man Stroger. Carried away by the music and the moment, Billy Flynn gave the crowd a thrill by getting down on his knees at the front of the stage with his lap steel. Ken Saydak then hit the back stage, his 3rd appearance of the day, with a well received solo set of solid piano and heart-felt vocals.
As dusk settled over the main stage, it was Star Time with Blues Hall of Famer, 5 time W. C. Handy Award Winner, Grammy Winning, and 12 year harmonica player for Muddy Waters: James “Super Harp” Cotton. His tight, talented backing band tore through a half hour of smoking, dynamite blues, Cotton nodding approvingly from his seat at the back of the stage. His band featured two members of the Neal family from Louisiana: Kenny Jr. on drums and Noel on bass. Despite 63 years on the blues highway, health issues, and everything else he has experienced, Cotton still blows a powerfully mean harp with in-your-face attitude. Chopping, bending, swooping, soaring notes flew off his harp. He remains one of the all-time harp legends. Covers of “That’s All Right,” “Rocket 88” and Cotton’s own unforgettable arrangement of “Got My Mojo Working” highlighted the set. After ripping through a powerful encore, Cotton showed he remains a survivor and living legend of the blues. One of his fellow harp players once said “Cotton has the constitution of two oxen.” His recent tour schedule of Chicago, Des Moines, Minneapolis, and Monroe from his home base in Austin, TX shows that’s still true. Cotton promoted and sold a recently released CD from the memorable collaboration he did with Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter.
Several blues societies were represented at the festival, most notably Tom Radai with the Wisc Blues Soc. He held court, sold CD’s and memberships, and swapped stories. Tom has done more to support the blues in Wisc and elsewhere than just about anyone on the blues scene today. He’s the driving force behind keeping The New Legends and artists like Phillip Walker on the road. Berghoff and Blues Fest is a fundraiser for the many local charities the Lions support. Tony Menzer of Blue Suede Shows and Jesse Armstrong organize and run the show for the Lions. For great blues, good food, cold beer, and the opportunity to dance with the friendly folks of Monroe, be sure to put the middle Sat in Sept on your 2008 blues calendar!
Upcoming Blues Update: On Thursday, Nov 1st in Decorah, IA at Luther College an all star blues caravan rolls in to play: Joe Crown, The North Mississippi Allstars, Charlie Musselwhite, and the incomparable Mavis Staples. 4 acts for the price of 1! For more info or tickets call or email Shameless at (563) 382-2256, email@example.com.