April was a red-letter month for Big Walter Smith, who celebrated his 30 years in the Minnesota music business with an all-star reunion of Big Walter’s alumni at Brewbaker’s April 2. Its been a long time since that many Twin Cities blues musicians, both past and present, have gathered under one roof . A fair number of the 100-plus players who have shared the stage with Big Walter over the years turned out to show their respect for the Chairman of the Board of Minnesota’s blues community.
Big Walter was looking sharp in a crisp black suit accented by fire-engine red hat, shirt and patent leather shoes. His wife, Shirley, was elegantly dressed in a long turquoise dress and beaded necklace. The crowd covered several generations of Big Walter Smith fans, friends and family, and the place stayed full and jumping from mid-afternoon until well into the evening.
Big Walter’s bands have served as a launching pad for some of the Twin Cities finest musicians, and a proving ground for many more. The list of players who have passed through his bands reads like a Who’s Who of Twin Cities Blues Musicians. That serves as ample testimony to his ability as a bandleader.
The entertainment throughout the day and night covered the full spectrum of the blues, from fully electrified to down home acoustic. They ranged from musicians from Walter’s very first Twin Cities band, Antares, to members of several incarnations of his Groove Merchants.
Curt Obeda and most of the Butanes turned in a rip-roaring set. Current Groove Merchant guitarist Scotty Graves provided one of the surprise mini-sets of the day with a couple of delicious numbers on his National steel. Jimi Smith, who sat in Graves Groove Merchants chair once upon a time, brought his Prime Time Players in for the occasion. He tore it up big time as he blazed a trail through the crowd with his sizzling axe. Former Groove Merchant trumpet player Jomo Tar V led his combo through a couple of numbers, including Walter’s "Brother to the Blues." Former Groove Merchant organist Bruce "The Groove King" Koenig came all the way from Door County to radiate the 88s. Throughout it all soundman Greg Harder kept things under control at the mixing board, with an able assist from former Groove Merchant bassist Chris Niesen, who doubled as MC and even got in a stint on bass.
The standing-room-only crowd was stoked by the time the Groove Merchants finally hit the stage. They blew things wide open and then sprung a big surprise on the Big Man of the Blues. The band presented Walter with a brand new Fender Stratocaster guitar, an instrument he’s wanted to take up for some time. He was beaming ear to ear at the sight of it.
By this time the show was running later than expected so the jam that followed featuring former Groove Merchants only lasted for another hour.
Minnesota House of Representatives Presentation
Big Walter received even further recognition to his contributions to the Minnesota music community April 18 when the Minnesota House of Representatives presented him with a special certificate of recognition. "He's probably more well-known throughout the state of Minnesota than any of us here in this chamber,'' said Rep. Greg Gray, DFL-Minneapolis, in introducing Walter. The House gave Big Walter two rousing standing ovations and many members came down to personally greet him and Shirley, who were guests on the House floor. On this day, Big Walter Smith truly was "in the House."
This review is copyright © 2000 by Karl Bremer, 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.