The Year 2000 marked my second visit to Davenport, Iowa for the Mississippi
Valley Blues Festival. In 1999, I was only able to visit the festival for one day on my
way to a family reunion, but I was impressed enough to know that a return trip was
warranted for 2000.
Held in Le Claire Park on the edge of downtown Davenport and along the banks
of the Mississippi River, the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival s one of the longest
running festivals in the country and the only one that is organized and operated by an
all volunteer nonprofit organization, the Mississippi Valley Blues Society. Adding to the mystique of the event was the fact that the festival location is situated in close proximity to three common geographic references in bluesology, the Mississippi River, the Rock Island Line (railroad) and THE legendary Highway 61. Combine all of this with a tremendous line up of local, regional and national blues acts year in and year out, and you have one of the most highly regarded blues festivals in the world.
The 16th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival offered something for
everyone regardless of age, gender or musical preference. For the second year in a
row, the festival operated its Blueskool; a place where kids could gather for a variety of activities and to learn about the blues directly from a number of blues musicians. This year's event also focused on the women of the blues, emphasizing the feminine
contributions to the blues and featuring several female blues artists including Beverly
Watkins, E. C. Scott, Deborah Coleman, Deanna Bogart, Kim Nalley (w/The Johnny
Nocturne Band), Annie Rishell and the women of The Westbrook Singers. Finally, no
matter what anyone's musical preferences were, there was someone appearing at the
festival to suit their tastes: including all varieties of blues, blues-rock, jazz, country,
soul, jugband music, gospel, cajun and zydeco music. Performers from Chicago, the
East Coast, West Coast, Texas and the deep South appeared during the three day
event with fantastic results. For those blues lovers who couldn't get enough at the
festival, jam sessions were held each evening at a local hotel, featuring performers
from the festival who played and mingled with blues fans.
The biggest problem with an event of this magnitude is that is that it is virtually
impossible to see every performer or listen to entire sets. I found myself running
between the Bandshell, Tent Stage and the Workshop Tent each day just to catch
snippets of everyone that I could. For several performers, I hung around longer
because of my particular fan interest, or because I had never seen them perform live.
In the paragraphs that follow, I hope to give a general impression of each day of the
The festival began on Friday at 5:30 p.m. with what I felt to be one of the best
shows of the entire event; the Music Maker Relief Foundation performers. Along with
the primary performers, Carl Rutherford, Cootie Stark and Beverly Watkins, the four
hour show also included two additional Music Makers, piano player Eddie Tiger and
guitarist John Ferguson. The show represented an amalgam of country, piedmont
blues, classic rock, jazz and electric blues as each performer made his/her way to the stage. Carl Rutherford was an excellent guitarist and very country. Cootie Stark was a powerful and charismatic performer who was able to "see" and work the crowd despite his blindness. John Ferguson's excellent guitar and Tigner' piano and vocals were a surprising bonus to the show and Beverly Watkins was simply unbelievable! Her activity on stage (she never stopped moving) and personality captivated the entire
audience. I spent much of the performance sitting with singer E. C. Scott who could
only say that "That woman is great!" The performance ended with all of the Music
Makers on stage for the finale and no one wanting them to leave the stage.
My dilemma on Day One of the festival was complicated by the fact that at the
Bandshell the evening lineup opened with the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings,
bolstered by the appearances of long time band member Gene "Daddy G" Barge on
saxophone and Memphis blues-soulman, Cash McCall, on guitar and vocals for a
portion of the set. The result was a fantastic set and a "slice of heaven" at both ends of the park. The sound of the Rhythm and Blues Kings took on a harder edge with McCall and a jazzier feel with Barge, but it was a high-powered performance from start to finish. The Rhythm and Blues Kings were followed by powerful sets from Deborah Coleman, who focused on songs from her latest release, "Soft Place To Fall," followed by the legendary sounds of East Coast blues/ swing/ jazz combo, Roomful Of Blues, featuring vocalist Mac Odom.
On the tent stage, following the captivating Melody Makers Revue, was the
seminal harpist, Snooky Pryor, direct form Chicago, Illinois. To top off the performance of the man credited with being the first to use an amplified harp in a recording, was the fact that his backup band included his son, Steve Pryor, on bass and Chicago stalwart James Wheeler on guitar. Performing songs like, "Pitch A Boogie Woogie" and "Shake My Hand," Pryor worked the audience into a fever pitch that culminated with guest appearance by Deborah Coleman. When it was over, I left the park wondering how anyone could ever top the first day of the festival.
Saturday found both stages opening with local Iowa performers; Johnny and the
Bad News, local winners of the Iowa Blues Challenge, at the Bandshell and
guitarist/singer, Dave Moore on the Tent Stage. Both of the performers put on fine
shows and helped festival goers to get back into the mood after Friday's great shows.
The second act appearing at the Bandshell were the winners of the Blues Foundation's, "Best Unsigned Blues Band Contest, The Dave Keyes Band from Sloatsburg, New York. Their high energy performance really got the crowd going with several members of the audience commenting that The Dave Keyes Band was one of the best appearing at the festival over the weekend.
Following Dave Moore on the Tent Stage, was the duo of Steve Arvey and Craig
Kenning. The Chicago-based pair played some fine acoustic blues. The set opened
with slide guitarist Craig Kenning playing solo or the first three songs of the set. One of the more entertaining portions of the set occurred when Craig Kenning decided to
mimic a train on the guitar that was passing extremely close to the stage rather than
stop playing until it passed. When Arvey joined Kenning on stage, they proceeded to
cover vast amounts of musical territory, including multiple forms of acoustic blues, both instrumental and vocal. The pair perform very well together, demonstrating a keen sense of each others peculiarities. I was flattered later in the set when Arvey used my name in as a character in the song "St. James Infirmary." Afterwards, he said that he hoped that I wasn't angry (I wasn't) that he had used my name. He then told me a story about using a gentleman's name at a pub in England who did get angry because he had the attention of the audience drawn toward him and he really was drunk!
In a day that was filled with interesting events, one of the most interesting was
my meeting and ongoing conversation with Deanna Bogart, an incredible piano player
from the Baltimore-D.C. area. I met Deanna just prior to her appearance at one of the
several workshops held on Saturday and Sunday. I was impressed by her friendly
demeanor and her ability to communicate with everyone on a personal level. We
carried on a conversation during the day that revealed common musical favorites (Jay
McShann); places we used to live (Phoenix and Washington, D.C.); and even religious backgrounds. This conversation continued off and on right up until the end of the Saturday performances. She also put on one of the best shows of the day on the Tent Stage, rocking the house with her vocals, boogie-woogie piano, saxophone and high energy.
The exceptionally large late afternoon crowd at the Bandshell was treated to the
blues guitar stylings of Roy Gaines. Known early in his musical career by his
nickname, "T-Bone Junior," Roy remains one of the most accomplished heirs of the
jazz-blues style made famous by the late T-Bone Walker. His set included some nice originals from his CD, "Bluesman For Life," his forthcoming CD "New Frontier Lover" and fabulous covers of several T-Bone Walker tunes, all including Gaines' powerful guitar work.
Gaines fine set was followed by an equally strong set by E. C. Scott, the
"Empress of Soul" and her fine back up band, Smoke. The San Francisco-based Scott was an excellent replacement for Ruth Brown, who was forced to cancel her
appearance at the festival due to health problems from a stroke suffered last spring. E. C. was decked out in a beautiful orange and yellow outfit, belting out tunes and teasing the crowd with her suggestively entertaining set. Smoke is a very tight band and provided great support for Scott's powerful vocals.
The last two acts on Saturday evening posed my greatest dilemma for the day.
At 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. respectively, I had to decide how much time to devote between John Sebastian and his all-star J-Band, versus another all-star band fronted by Matt "Guitar" Murphy, the man best-known by many for his appearances as Aretha Franklin's guitar-playing husband in "The Blues Brothers" and "Blues Brothers 2000." Spending equal time between the two, I was able to enjoy the electric Chicago blues of Matt "Guitar" Murphy with a backing band that included guitarist James Wheeler, Abb Locke on tenor sax, guest vocalist Casey Jones and a special appearance by Snooky Pryor.
Back on the Tent Stage, I got to see and hear the unique jugband sounds
generated by John Sebastian and the J-Band and his all-star cast including Paul
Rishell on guitar, Annie Raines on harp (Raines and Rishell would appear together as
a duo on Sunday, Conan O'Brien guitarist Jimmy Vivino, pianist David Maxwell and
Fritz Richmond on washtub bass. The band put on a very up tempo, entertaining show that, if for no other reason, was enjoyable for its sheer uniqueness.
Saturday was the most crowded day of the festival weekend and made running
back and forth between stages that much more difficult. Although I couldn't spend near as much time seeing all of the acts on Saturday, fine performances were also put in by unsigned blues guitarist/singer King Lloyd; jazz saxophone legend, Lou Donaldson and Louisiana party band, Big Al and the Heavyweights.
When I got up on Sunday morning, I was a bit concerned because it was pouring
rain! Luckily, by the time the festival gates opened at 11:30 a.m., the sun was shining and blues fans were flocking in for the final day of the festival.
Sunday began with an opening set by Iowa Blues Challenge winners, Fat
Tuesday and the Greasefire Horns, featuring 84-year old bluesman, Jimmy "Midnight
Cowboy" Pryor. Besides singing, Pryor stunned me when he began playing a rather
large kazoo in place of the standard blues harp! Following Fat Tuesday was blues and soul man, Johnny Rawls. Rawls gave the early afternoon crowd a memorable
performance featuring his smooth vocal delivery and fine guitar, heating up the crowd
on an already hot, humid day. His set included everything from original ballads ("My
Lover, My Woman, My Wife) to funk ("Sex Machine") to blues rock ("Pride and Joy").
At the other end of the park, Paul Rishell and Annie Raines picked up where
they had left off the night before when they performed with John Sebastian. Rishell
and Raines are a great blues duo, easily comparable to Cephas & Wiggins or Sonny
Terry and Brownie McGhee. Rishell proved himself to be adept at a variety of blues
styles on guitar, whether it was on covers like Charlie Patton's "Goin' My Way" or
original material such as "I Can Fly." Combined with Raines gifted harp and vocals, the pair put on a wonderful performance.
Two very different shows began at 4:00 p.m. on each festival stage. At the
Bandshell, blues/funk/rocker Tommy Castro began his high energy performance with
his original, "Right As Rain." At the same time, The Westbrook Singers began shaking the tent and the souls of their audience with their inspired brand of gospel music. Made up by members of the Westbrook family, the group definitely embraced the best features of gospel music, turning the tent into something that felt more like a revival meeting.
The feel of the day shifted dramatically when California swing masters, The
Johnny Nocturne Band, featuring saxophonist John Firmin and diva singer Kim Nally,
took over the Bandshell; while Louisiana piano man, Henry Gray, began to boogie at
the tent. Gray played everything from Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" to Muddy Water's "Five Long Years." One of the highlights of Gray's show was a harp duel between Gray's regular harp player and his bass player. The two men really tore up the stage and had the audience screaming for more!
The 16th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival ended as it started with very
strong performances by soul singer Bobby "Blue" Bland at the Bandshell and classic
cajun-zydeco in the tent coming from none other than Boozoo Chavis. Along with Gene "Daddy G" Barge and Henry Gray earlier, Bland and Chavis were presented with Riverroad Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Mississippi Valley Blues Society.
Following the award ceremonies, Bland and Chavis demonstrated why they earned
their awards. In fact, as Boozoo received his award, he promised to bring the tent
down with his show. Even the weather cooperated with the awardees, waiting until the very end before the skies opened with a pouring rain. Festival goers and performers couldn't have been much luckier.
It should go without saying that the 16th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival
was a fantastic three days of food, music, sun and fun. The quality of the performers
and the well-organized festival both present strong arguments for a return visit in 2001. I heartily recommend that anyone who loves the blues consider making the trip to Davenport for next year's event.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, 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.