This past Father’s Day, I hit the road to go party with one of Minnesota’s sugar daddies of the blues, Big Walter Smith and his Groove Merchants. At the request of Shirley Smith, Groove Merchant manager and Walter’s wife, I hopped in the Honda and headed north to Askov, Minnesota for the 1st Annual Lena’s Summer Solstice Music Fest. The ride was beautiful, cruising up Hwy. 35, past Hinckley to County 23, where a lettered arch welcomed me to town. My first stop there was at Lena’s, a shop full of international gifts. The owner Linda Schaumburg, wasn’t there I was told, because she was busy at the Community Center where the Solstice Fest was under way. The nice young lady also said that if I hurried, I could still catch the "Dogs" on stage, and did I know that this was the first time in 8 years they had ever played together? I thanked her for the information and headed off down the street, looking for the show. I had time before Walter and Shirley got to town and I wanted to see if these Dogs could still bark.
Right off, it took my eyes a minute to adjust from bright sunlight to a darkened room. I suppose keeping my shades on didn’t help the situation but I kept them on anyway. It didn’t take my ears long though to adjust to the sound of Mike Shannon’s voice along with Bill Taylor on saxophone. A loud Whap! on the snare drum caught my attention and sure enough, there was Mark Thompson on drums. On my right was Dave Wilen, and on the left side of the stage, Randy Anderson, both on guitar. Bass player Howie Wilkes, stage right, at the front. A mixture of two north woods bands, Milkbone and the Blue Healers, the Dogs Playing Cards could still shuffle pretty good, even after an 8 year hiatus. Together, they projected the kind of comfy sound that happens when the musicians are of equal caliber. The music was tight, interesting and satisfying.
An unexpected treat was Eddie Jeff Cahill as Master of Ceremonies. Using a mixture of humor and dexterous semi-acoustic guitar, Cahill filled the time between sets, fielded questions from the crowd and generally kept the show moving along.
But the night belonged to Big Walter Smith and his Groove Merchants, who by the way, seemed to have changed into the Funk Merchants. This evolution of the band is probably the tightest set of musicians Walter has had in a while. No disrespect intended to previous Groovers, but Walter now has the cohesive unit behind him that he’s been needing. It’s been a long time since he could just sing without worrying if the "new guy" remembers what to do.
Highlighting the newly revved up Groove-sters, is their Hi-Steppin’ Horn Section, which plays the response to Walter’s call, much like back-up singers. Or maybe I should say more Gladys Knight’s Pips, cause these brassy guys dance, twirl and bop all the time they’re playing. The three piece horn section features Jim Kogl on tenor saxophone, Tom Tange on trumpet and Ted "T-Bone" Thomas, who’s an obvious crowd pleaser with plenty of solos and 1940’s style trombone tricks. During the set, it’s T-Bone who jumps off the stage, jazzing the fans. When he and lead guitar Scott Graves trade licks on stage, it gets immediate applause. Another thing of note: keyboardist Paul Wigen, whose singing took me by surprise. His baritone is a nice contrast to Walter’s clear tenor and Paul’s song choices match his delivery. Wigen’s playing used to get buried in a Groove Merchant crunch but he’s either fought effectively for enough space or his stage mates have given him some room, cause finally I can hear him over the rhythm section.
A lot of credit for their strong, consistent sound goes to that assertive rhythm section: Joe Sherohman on bass and Steve Elliot, who’s been sitting in on drums while regular drummer Tom McShane heals from carpal tunnel surgery. In Walter’s search that night for tunes to make the audience dance, he hit upon James Brown’s I Feel Good, which did what it was supposed to do. From the first note, those northern Minnesotans jumped on the dance floor, wiggling and gyrating under the control of the drums and bass. When Sherohman started smiling, I knew he was fully aware of what his bass guitar was doing to the people.
Much of the alchemy that has kept this band going through the years and through personnel changes, has been the stability of Groove Director Scott Graves. Originally a keyboardist for the band, Scott took over the guitar duties about 5 years ago when Deevo McCray left. Scott’s desire to master this instrument was matched by his persistence and it paid off. Instead of taking the easy way out and becoming a Deevo-clone, Graves struggled to develop his own guitar identity, blending the Stax Records’ feel of Matt "Guitar" Murphy with the straight-blues heroes favored by the homegrown guitar contingent. Scottie’s style continues to solidify and the sound of the Groove
Merchants appears to be evolving with it. It’s clear Walter feels validated by the result. The band is where he wants them to be and Mr. Smith is sitting on top of the world.
Like a sultan, Walter Smith has spent 47 years at the front of the stage, watching musicians around him come and go. Some of the dominant names in Minnesota music, such as Jimi Smith, Joel Johnson, Curt Obeda and Vic Volare, cut their wisdom teeth playing in Walter’s various bands. Mr. Smith’s point of view is "I train ‘em the right way. Then send ‘em out to do their own thing....hopefully with a little bit of soul added." Walter knows how to nurture the best out of his musicians. He does the same for the multicultural "family" that follows him ...and Shirley, everywhere they go. Like Terri, the bartender from Mr. Dee’s in Duluth. She drove down to Askov that Sunday just for Lena’s Summer Solstice Music Fest. She and I had been trading comments about the music most of the night. When the show was over, she leaned over to me and
said "We’re a secret society up here, you know? Us with the blues and all. We just don’t have it like down in the cities, so up here, we take it any way we can get it." Enough said!
Jacquie is the Host of Rollin’ & Tumblin’ on KFAI Radio Tuesdays 4-6:30pm at 90.3FM & 106.7FM.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Jacquie Maddix Johnson, 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.