Although billed as a blues festival, this was really the annual B.B. King blues touring show. Every year he tours with different blues artists throughout the U.S. and overseas showcasing rising talent and seasoned veterans. I had reservations about this show simply because I figured it would be hard to get exceptional performances out of 4 "headline" acts crammed into a 4 and a half hour time slot. Well, I was wrong. It turned out to be one of the better blues shows this year, with outstanding performances from all four - and one of the best in recent memory from Buddy Guy. This date was also significant as being the 10th anniversary (to the day) of the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan in a helicopter crash at Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. Buddy Guy had performed in the encore that day 10 years ago with Stevie, Eric Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan and Robert Cray. This might have had something to do with Buddy's smoking performance.
Tommy Castro (by Ray Stiles)
Held in the spacious outdoor amphitheater at the Grand Casino in Hinckley, Minnesota, with bench seating (cushions provided but uncomfortable backrests), the setting sun spotlighted the stage and provided an ideal setting for this blues show.
Dressed all in black, with his slicked back hair and quick smile, Tommy Castro started his set a few minutes before 4 P.M. and proceeded to burn up the stage for the next 35 minutes with his crisp guitar playing, soulful vocals and tight band. Playing non-stop without any break between songs except for an occasional comment, Castro demonstrated why he is considered one of the top festival/club draws touring the blues circuit today.
Joined on stage by Randy McDonald (bass and road manager), Shad Harris (I think on drums or it might have been Billy Lee Lewis), and Keith Crossan (tenor sax), Castro, with his relaxed, next door neighbor personality, is always enjoyable to watch. With an all too short set made up of a little bit rock and roll, a little bit soul, and a little more blues, Castro was still able to light a fire under the seats of the growing late afternoon crowd, especially when he had them all singing along on the song, "Chairman of the Board."
Castro makes it to Minnesota 2 to 3 times a year (he played a remarkable show at the Medina in April), and has developed quite a loyal following here. He likes to say that there is "nothing serious going on here" at his shows. "We're just having a good time." In addition to having a good time, another thing you can count on is a different set list at each of his shows. Castro and band like to keep things fresh both for their audience and themselves. This leads to a spontaneous show with occasional highlights that sometimes are quite memorable. Crossan's saxophone playing, reminiscent of that great 50's R&B sound, was honking, squeaking, and blasting its way through the numbers and reminded me of some of the great early rock and roll songs that always featured the sax. And it's always a special treat to watch Castro and Crossan trade guitar and sax licks note for note.
Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine (by Dave "Doc" Piltz)
Following Tommy Castro's high energy set was Chicago's "Queen of the Blues," Miss Koko Taylor. The addition of Koko Taylor to the bill for the B. B. King Blues Festival 2000 was a rare treat for a couple of reasons. First, Koko is only appearing intermittently during the tour as an occasional replacement for Susan Tedeschi. Second, despite have met Koko briefly at the 1999 Chicago Blues Festival, this was my first opportunity to see her perform live. My only disappointment was that she couldn't perform any longer than her allotted time.
Backed by her Blues Machine, including "Mr. Dynomite," Vito Love (guitar); Luke Stone (guitar); "Youngblood," Melvin Stephan (bass); and Rick King (drums), Taylor's powerful voice showed everyone in attendance how she got to be "Queen of the Blues" and why she isn't planning on giving up her throne any time soon. Several of the songs in her set were from her latest CD, "Royal Blue." "Ernestine," "Blue Hotel" and "Somebody Bring Me Some Water" were all featured on "Royal Blue." Koko also reached back into her past to perform her hit, "Wang Dang Doodle," to the delight of the audience.
It was a short, but wonderful performance offering great promise of the great things yet to come as the festival continued.
Buddy Guy (by Dave "Doc" Piltz)
When Buddy Guy came on just before 6:00 p.m., I never imagined what I was going to hear from the Chicago guitarist, club owner and blues legend. As it turned out, the co-founder of the West Side sound, along with Otis Rush and the late Magic Sam, was on fire for the entire show. Opening with "I Got My Mojo Working," Buddy ripped off guitar riff after guitar riff, always with a huge smile on his face. I honestly have never heard him play so well, or put on as fine a performance as he did at the festival. By the second song, "Five Long Years," Guy was into the crowd, playing and singing as his adoring fans followed him around the amphitheater. He is surely a man who knows how to attract a crowd!
Ever the showman and crowd pleaser, Buddy Guy turned "Sweet Home Chicago" into a gigantic sing-a-long, urging every one to sing louder with each chorus. Not wanting to disappoint those who could not see because of the large number of people standing up close to the stage, Buddy urged everyone to sit down (and they complied), promising that he would be back in the audience later in the show.
Unlike past shows, Guy actually played most of the songs in his set, limiting his education on blues styles to a few well-placed examples. One of the many highlights of his 60+ minute set was the guest appearance of Koko Taylor during Guy's rendition of John Hiatt's classic hit, "Feels Like Rain." Buddy finished the set with "Damn Right I Got The Blues." As the band finished the song, Guy left the stage, handing out guitar picks and signing autographs for some of the luckier fans standing closest to the stage. For me, Buddy Guy put on the best show of the day and showed off Buddy Guy at his baddest!
B.B. King (by Ray Stiles)
After B.B.'s scaled down big band opened with 2 songs the "king" himself strolled onto the stage from our right, pointing to his horn section in recognition of their last number and waving to the near capacity crowd. Taking a seat, the 74 year old blues legend commented that as his age he has earned the right to sit down if he wants to. He then launched into one of his trademark numbers, "Let The Good Times Roll." With the sun slowing setting in a crimson haze B.B. spent the next 70 minutes talking to us as if we were old friends, playing his guitar, making faces, encouraging the audience to show their appreciation to the band, and delivering one of his consistently stellar performances. I have seen B.B. play with a larger band (even two drummers) and even give better performances, but I have never seen him NOT give 100%. He consistently delivers solid shows and his voice and guitar playing were in TOP form, sounding very good on this summer evening. With an emphasis heavy on the jazzy and jump blues side early on, he played many of his standards including "The Thrill Is Gone," as well as songs from his new CD with Eric Clapton (Riding With The King). But it was on his slower blues songs that B.B. really shined, with his guitar, Lucille, speaking as if it were another voice on stage with him. B.B. King is one of those rare performers who is immediately identified after playing just a single note on his guitar. A feat attempted by many but achieved by few.
This blues caravan, as it has been called in the past, was one of the better I have seen with top drawer performances by all four stars. And having a living legend like B.B. King cap off the evening was a very special treat. The "good times" definitely did roll and I am sure that most in attendance will be back for more next year.
This review and pictures are copyright © 2000 by Dave "Doc" Piltz and Ray Stiles, 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.