The 6th annual Anti-Freeze Blues Festival took place January 7/8 2000 at the Magic Bag in Ferndale, Michigan. This event was a benefit for the Detroit Blues Society. This year the lineup for the opening night included: Nikki James and the Flame Throwers, Al Hill and the Love Butlers, Johnnie Bassett and the Blues Insurgents featuring Alberta Adams and Joe Weaver and headliner Roomful of Blues.
I attended the festival on the second evening. Local favorite Robert Noll kicked off the night with a scorcher appropriately called Freezer Burn. Noll is a veteran of Albert Collin’s Icebreakers and a former mainstay with Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows. His rock and blues set featured tunes from his Blues Factory Records days and a blistering bass solo from Johnny B Gayden. Yes I am referring to ‘the’ Johnny B Gayden who has been regularly gigging with Noll since moving to Detroit a few years ago.
Next up was the popular acoustic harp and guitar duo from Ann Arbor called Madcat and Kane. Their set among others included Key to the Highway, Statesboro Blues and an original called Used to Call Me Mama. Kane even produced a steel guitar and played slide as a tribute to Kokomo Arnold with Milk Cow Blues.
One of the many jewels of Detroit Blues, Harmonica Shah took the stage next. The former cab driver lacked the confidence to play the blues until The Butler Twins, Uncle Jessie White and Johnny ‘Yard Dog’ Jones provided the encouragement. Shah soulfully sang Woman Scratch My Back, Early in the Morning, Slippin In, I’m Ready plus many originals. He was backed by Harold Glaser on guitar, Gary Rasmussen on bass and Mat Staehl on drums. Although his band looked straight out of the movie Spinal Tap, Shah kept them focused on the blues even though you could tell they really wanted to rock out.
Headliner Pinetop Perkins was welcomed by a much deserved standing ovation. He was backed by a band featuring a who’s who in Detroit Blues. Guitarist Jeff Grand is a regular with rockers The Howlin Diablos. However Grand is first and foremost a blues player who is a major force in the local blues scene. The other musicians were RJ Spangler on drums from Johnnie Bassett’s Blues Insurgents, Chris Rumble on bass from the Butler Twins Blues Band and Gary Meisner on guitar who spent a year with Albert King.
It was obvious that the band had not played with Pinetop before since all their eyes where glued to Pinetop’s every move. Despite this challenge, the band performed exceptionally strong. Perkins didn’t dazzle with speed or frills, he just laid down some traditional blues with eloquence. Favorites like: Down in Mississippi, Baby How Long, High Heel Sneakers, Going Down Slow, Got My Mojo Workin and Big Fat Woman were all apart of his set.
Best known for his days spent with Muddy Waters, the acclaimed pianist never became a major star. He has always been more comfortable backing up someone else and playing with friends. However, when it comes to blues piano, the frail 86 year old Perkins may easily be the heavyweight champ after nearly a 70 year career. Ironically, Pinetop’s first instrument of choice was the guitar. After an arm injury he switched to the piano and the rest as they say was history for the native of Belzoni, Mississippi.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Tim Holek, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.