(Click on the thumnails to view larger picture.)
The Second Annual Apple River Blues Festival held at River's Edge just outside of Somerset, Wisconsin was one enjoyable and fairly relaxing weekend of music. Held near the picturesque banks of the Apple River (which must be the inner tubing capital of the world), River's Edge offered an excellent location for this blues festival. The setup is similar to the other Bayfront festivals - two stages on opposite ends of a grass covered field with alternating sets so you never had to miss any music. The weather also was outstanding. A short burst of rain on Friday between sets and a little longer rain during Eddie C. Campbell's set on Sunday bookended a beautiful, sunshine Saturday. And during the night on Friday we caught some great shots of the big dipper right over the main stage.
Two instruments seemed to predominate the weekend, the slide guitar and the harmonica. Friday's highlights included Big George Jackson and later Billy Branch each blowing some down-in-the-alley Chicago blues. Saturday we saw Burns with the Joel Johnson band and Sugar Blue zipped through the upper register of the harp like a high speed locomotive. And on Sunday we were mesmerized by the harp stylings of West Side Andy, R.J. Mischo and Kim Wilson. This weekend was actually a harp lovers dream. Almost, but not quite as prevalent, the slide guitar playing was equally impressive. There were some mighty fine licks from Jay Stulo, Lee Tedrow (of the Joel Johnson band), Bill Wharton, John Mooney, and Howard Luedke. It wasn't the 4th of July yet but these last two slide masters really set off some fireworks.
Ross William Perry (by Karl Bremer)
The 2nd Annual Apple River Blues Fest scored with another more-than-respectable line-up this year and outfoxed the rain for most of the weekend. The dire weather forecasts prior to the fest probably didn't help with attendance, which appeared to be just slightly up from last year. Except for a couple of intermittent showers on Friday and Sunday, blues fans enjoyed a splendid climatological experience that matched the music.
In the lead-off spot was local guitar whiz kid Ross William Perry. The 20-year-old from Minneapolis has a good stage presence fronting a power blues trio. His vocals, like most young players, haven't quite picked up the strength acquired only by punching the clock onstage, but he and his band pack a nice wallop nonetheless. A good chunk of Perry's set came in the form of an extended "Superstitious" funk jam that exhibited some tasty wah-wah. Nothing wrong with that. Keep an eye on this guy.
Big George Jackson (by Karl Bremer)
The "Big" not only refers to Jackson's size but his voice as well. With a lean and mean rhythm machine behind him, Jackson's rich, deep voice recalls Bnois King with snatches of Howlin' Wolf. When he puts the weight of his voice behind his harp, Jackson can make it moan and wail. He led the crack five-piece band through "Eyesight to the Blind" and followed up with some straight-up, no chaser blues. And boogie. Jackson was burning up the harp when something burned up the power supply and the sound went dead. When it kicked back in, the band did too, never missing a beat. Of particular note was a new John Lee Hooker-style cooker called "Dirty Hanks" from Jackson's new CD (to be released later this year, 2000). They stormed to a close with "Rock Me Baby" and a brief rain capped the set off.
Ronnie Baker Brooks (by Ray Stiles)
After a brief rain shower followed by a colorful rainbow and some beautiful cloud formations Ronnie followed with some lightning strikes on his guitar. Always a crowd pleaser, Ronnie likes to play up to the audience. He also likes to move around during his shows and even gets out into the crowd (following in the footsteps, literally, of his father, Lonnie, who also likes to do his walk-abouts). Joining him were Vic Jackson on bass, Daryl Coutts on Keys (who added a nice new touch to the band's sound), and Frank "Old School" Seabrooks on drums. This was one of the best sets I have seen Ronnie perform over the past few years and says a lot about his maturing into one of today's better young blues players.
Billy Branch (by Ray Stiles)
This was one of the highlights of the weekend simply because we don't get to see Billy Branch play in Minnesota that often so it was a treat to see this down-in-the-alley Chicago blues played by a veteran 4-piece combo that featured some great dynamics between the players. They all took turns on vocals and each stepped forward during the set for a solo where they could stretch out and show what they were made of. Mose Rutes on drums had some nice cymbal action going along with his steady shuffle and Billy had some nice harp workouts on some of his original numbers. Joining them on bass was Nick Charles and on guitar, Carlos Johnson. Carlos is an old time player who only uses his thumb, no pick, and was really a special treat to watch. He has played with Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, Son Seals and a whole list of other Chicago blues greats.
Eric Burdon and the New Animals (by Ray Stiles)
With a distinct sound built around a heavy blues foundation and Burdon's scorching vocals, the Animals recorded some of the most memorable rock anthems of the 1960's. Songs such as, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place," "House of the Rising Sun," and "It's My Life," to name just a few. These songs have left an indelible imprint on the consciousness of a whole generation of rock 'n' roll listeners. This show was a nostalgic return to that era and made you realize just how many great hits this band had. This was the '60s revisited and all that was missing was the tie dyed T-shirts, kaleidoscope color displays and pot smoke blowing through the air. They even had the obligatory drum solo, which was typical of most 60s rock shows, but this one was actually pretty good. Even though Burdon's voice showed the signs of abuse over the years the crowd still had a great time joining in on the chorus of most of these memorable songs. We finally got to the blues, kind of, with the encore of "House of the Rising Sun." Not a great set but still fun and definitely one to see if you haven't already.
Joel Johnson Band (by Ray Stiles)
As leader of the Joel Johnson Band, Joel provides the smoky vocals and smooth rhythm guitar in front of a group of seasoned blues veterans that include Tom Burns on harmonica, Jon Norstad on drums, and former Fabulous Minnesota Barking Ducks stalwarts, Lee Tedrow on lead and slide guitar and Carl Smelker on bass. The band's style is firmly rooted in classic Chicago blues with overtones of Texas country blues. The harp playing of Burns is right out of the South Side of Chicago and Lee's outstanding slide guitar playing set the stage for one of the unique features of the festivals-lots of great slide guitar playing!
The Jay Stulo Band (by Ray Stiles)
One of Wisconsin's hottest blues guitarists, Jay Stulo, who spent time on the road with Luther Allison, continued with more superb slide guitar. After leaving Luther in 1995 Jay formed the Mighty Aces and quickly built a strong following on the Wisconsin blues circuit. After taking some time off to tour with The James Solberg Band, Jay has put together a new group with Jimmy Crimmins on guitar, Tim Peeters on bass, and Craig Panosh on drums. These are road vets playing with Jay as they have been hitting the road hard in support of their latest studio release "Damn Good Reason To Play the Blues." Jay is an amazing guitar player who has a tone reminiscent of the 1950's Chicago blues guitar players--a very nice sound.
John Mooney (by Karl Bremer)
My personal "Pick o' the Fest," the Moon Man seldom fails to deliver the goods. Today was no exception as he poured 110% into a blistering exhibition of slinky slide and bottleneck blues, funk and mambo. Mooney's ferocious playing is fueled by a dead-on, in-the-pocket rhythm section made up of longtime 'Fess alumnus Charles "Uganda" Roberts on congas, Kerry Brown on drums and bassist Jeff Sarli. They opened with the rollicking Snooks Eaglin classic "Country Boy" and then jumped ahead to concentrate on material from Mooney's new CD "Gone to Hell." (which this band plays on) for much of the set: "Made Up My Mind," a slithery, slide-drenched number, the hauntingly swampy "Funky Arkansas," "Cypress Grove," and Mooney's yowling version of Leroy Carr's "How Long Blues." He picked "In the Night" from the Professor Longhair songbook and slid through the Big Joe Williams chestnut "Baby Please Don't Go." They finished the set with "Sacred Ground," which I believe is anywhere John Mooney is playing. This should have been the headliner.
Alberta Adams (by Karl Bremer)
"I'm a dirty old lady," cackled Detroit blues matron Alberta Adams. "I've been dirty all my life. That's why I'm catchin' hell now!" This was one fun set with a boisterous and bawdy 70-something blues belter. Adams has an impressive resume and it shows. Fronting a four-piece band that included her manager on drums, she was having a ball as she paced the set from a slow-burning blues through the swinging, self-penned "Born with the Blues" from her first Cannonball CD. Adams may qualify as a blues shouter in the tradition of Big Joe Turner but she has a versatility that extends to jazz. And even if her age has slowed her down on stage, Adams' career appears to be going full steam ahead with a new release this year.
Sugar Blue (by Karl Bremer)
Sugar Blue was a last minute stand-in for R.L. Burnside, who canceled due to serious illness. And while that may have left us one set short of blues from the Delta, it more than made up for it with some hard-blowin' Chi-town blues from the "Hendrix of Harp." Sugar (born James Whiting) had ample backing for the gig with Howard Luedtke on guitar. But as usual, the lead instrument on this stage is the harp, and Sugar played like he had a red-hot poker between his lips. Without the harp in front of him, he's got a powerful, sweet voice that's mellowed with age. Both got a workout on some terrific blues standards. "Hoochie Coochie Man" featured some stand-out slide from Luedtke. Sugar attacked the high register with a vengeance on Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me Baby." And a roaring cover of "Messin With the Kid" kept fanning the flames. You can be sure when Sugar Blue hits the stage that the leather bandoleer of harps slung over his shoulder ain't just for looks.
Howard "Guitar" Luedtke (by Karl Bremer)
Hailing from Augusta, Wisconsin, Howard Luedtke leads this Eau Claire-based power blues trio with a searing slide. Already warmed up from his set with Sugar Blue, Howard had plenty left in him when he fired up his own set, backed by the hard-charging rhythm section of New Ulmer Deb Klossner and Oregonian Tom Hagedorn on drums.
Luedtke's slide shredded the strings of his hollow-body Gibson on a raging take of Leadbelly's "Black Betty." Ditto on the Willie Dixon chestnut, "Little Red Rooster." And Sugar Blue dropped over to blow for a tasty number as well. A set of this stuff is welcome at any blues fest.
Buckwheat Zydeco (by Karl Bremer)
Buckwheat usually can be counted on to get a dance floor hopping or a field as the case may be. He didn't fail tonight, even if it was the kind of hybrid zydeco that's longer on jamming than it is on authenticity, as his sets often tend to run. Buckwheat (born Stanley Dural Jr.) cuts a commanding swath across the stage with his huge white Hohner piano accordion heaving and James Brown-like do. His five-piece band kept the pace as he tore through Clifton Chenier's jumping "Hot Tamale Baby." The band wound it out…maybe a little too long…on Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin" for the closer, and wrapped up the set with a Cajunized "Hey Joe." We see Buckwheat around these parts often enough. The headliner spot might have been better served by someone less predictable or mainstream, but the crowd had no problems with the band's well-played set, so who's to complain?
Jack Knife and the Sharps (by Al Rohweder)
Local Rockabilly legends Jack Knife and the Sharps opened with the Link Wray classic Instrumental RUMBLE. What a way to 'kick' off an on-time start (Sunday1:00 PM) of the 2nd Annual Apple River Blues Festival. Although the crowd started out a bit on the light side , it did not effect in the least the drive of this power trio led by guitarist Rick Hollister, upright bassist Scotty Christianson and drummer Jeff Bjork. One nice thing that struck me was the length of their songs - 45 RPM in length (under 4 min). I found this to be a nice change. I heard a lot of different tunes and didn't grow weary of any of them. This was the first time I had a chance to see this band. It left me with the impression that Jack Knife and the Sharps are a tough sounding trio that get you moving the minute they start. They totally seemed to be enjoying themselves. I WILL check them out again and again and ......!
West Side Andy & The Mel Ford Band (by Karl Bremer)
These two guys tore it up in their energetic mid-afternoon set of jazzy Chicago jump blues. Harp player Andy Linderman and guitarist Mel Ford fattened up their sound with a punchy rhythm section and Jimmy Voegeli on keyboards. They opened with an extraordinary extended jam on the old Crusaders instrumental "Put It Where You Want It," leaving no doubt what kind of mood they were in. Andy turned in a powerful performance on harp, dropping them on the floor between breaths to change keys. That was when he wasn't maniacally blowing his way through the crowd while Ford anchored it up on stage with his tasty, inventive guitar work.
Eddie C. Campbell (by Karl Bremer)
Eddie Campbell's resume reads like a Who's Who of Chicago blues and his vocal and guitar chops showed it. His stinging, reverb-laden guitar really cooks once he settles into the groove, and his years backing great singers like Tyrone Davis, Percy Mayfield and Little Johnny Taylor had a clear influence on Campbell's intense, expressive vocals.
The sound mix was keyboard-heavy early on but Campbell was able to overcome that and showcase his full range of talent throughout most of the set, venturing into funk, rock and roll and, of course, some rich blues. Opening with "Spent All My Money." (?) he followed with a well-paced selection that ranged from "Love Me With Feelin'" to a rockin' "Little Queenie/Nadine" medley to a terrific take on "Cheaper to Keep Her." Thankfully, there was ample opportunity to showcase Campbell's singing, because he wasted about 10 minutes on stupid guitar tricks involving the stage, his boot and his rear end. As if that weren't enough, he then proceeded to drag some wannabe guitar player out of the crowd to give them his 15 seconds of fame (at our expense).
Despite all that, Campbell's set was a pleasant surprise for newcomers to his sound. And if it gets me out to hear him again, that's the whole point of a festival isn't it?
R.J. Mischo (by Al Rohweder)
Its a fact, R.J. Mischo and company play the blues! He steps up to the mike and starts off with Jimmy Rogers 'You're the one' and set the tone for the rest of the set. Its cool to hear the real deal and that's what we got from R.J Mischo on harp and vocals, Paul Fasulo on drums, Mark Carino on bass, Kirk Eli Fletcher and Jeremy Johnson trading guitar licks. I haven't heard R.J. since he relocated to the bay area and its a treat to hear Jeremy and R.J. play together again. R.J. and his bassman played a duet with a walkin' bass line that had me mesmerized. I can't say enough for this guy and how he stays true to his love for the blues. He's a nice guy and is always ready to stop for a 'hello, how are ya'. This is a class act, dressed up and looking good - check out R.J. Mischo!!
Bill "The Sauce Boss" Wharton (by Al Rohweder)
Bill "The Sauce Boss" Wharton hit the stage, Chefs hat in place, about 5:45. Halfway through the first song ,the appropriate 'Let The Big Dog Eat' the Boss almost took a spill backwards, thankfully he recovered with no harm done! The Sauce Boss displayed some quite awesome slide guitar work in the midst of his funky party music. Next the bassman sports a Chefs hat and... GUMBO is the word! I'm getting hungry now. I've heard about this gumbo and I'm ready to check it out! The Boss brings much of his ingredients on stage in 5gal. buckets, ready to feed the crowd. The magic hot sauce Liquid Summer is the next touch ... the crowd chants Liquid Summer and wants more, but the Boss knows what's best! Bongo Dick stirs the gumbo while bill plays the washboard! What a character this Funkmaster, slide guitar bluesman and Master Gumbo Chef is. But make no mistake, both are serious business underneath the showmanship. Bill hung around after his show to sigh his recipe and sell some Liquid Summer .Thanks Boss and as you stated, "It Aint Nothing But A Party Ya'll" Oh, about the gumbo -- it ran out...next time!
Sam Cockrell & The Groove (by Ray Stiles)
The Gumbo line caused a short delay in the start of this set, but that didn't affect their performance any. Bass player and band leader, Sam Cockrell has been playing music for most of his life and his love for the music shows in his live shows. Sam is a very engaging performer who loves to get out in the crowd (which he did) and play right to the people. Sam, a gifted singer and accomplished songwriter released his first solo CD, I'm In The Business last year that featured guests spots by some of Chicago's best blues players. The Groove, features the solid drum backbeat of Rob Davis and the scorching lead guitar of Chris Forte, plus newest member Rick Perkins on keys. In addition to Sam's funky basslines, his soulful soprano vocals, often compared to Robert Cray, have been known to steal the show. Sam and the Groove were a recent runner up at the 16th Annual Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge held this past January in Memphis where Chris Forte also won the coveted Albert King Award for best Blues Guitarist. The band added some diversity to their blues by combining R&B, funk and soul and was a definite crowd pleaser.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds (by Al Rohweder)
The clock struck 8:45 and it was show time for The Fabulous Thunderbirds. With the night setting in, Kim Wilson on harp and vocals, Kid Ramos on lead guitar, Willie Campbell on bass, Gene Taylor on keyboards, it made for a great finale at the 2nd Annual Apple Rive Blues Festival. The crowd was ready and waiting for their rockin' roadhouse blues and R&B. that kept them boogying to the last. The Kid is awesome to behold on guitar and Kim Wilson's out front vocals and harp work ...well, nothing need be said. Along with boogie keyboards and hard driving bass and drum work it's hard to stay seated in the lawn chair. I met the Thunderbirds back stage and all five were friendly and receptive to autographs and pictures, that's a nice touch when your "Tuff Enough" to be as together as this band is.
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