Freedom Hill was the ideal setting for this year's 'Blues On The Hill 2' festival held in August in Sterling Heights, Michigan. It was a fantastic wrap-up to the summer festival season in the metro Detroit area.
Headliner Ronnie Baker Brooks is part of the new bluesbloods generation determined by carry the blues to greater heights. He is the son of blues star Lonnie Brooks. Ronnie (one of seven children) was born and raised with the blues all around him. By 1986, Ronnie had joined Lonnie's band full-time and has grown as an accomplished guitarist, singer, and songwriter. Being in his dad's band allowed him to learn the blues first hand from his father as well as some of the blues greats such as: Albert Collins, Buddy Guy and
Anyone who has seen Lonnie Brooks over the past 13 years has witnessed Ronnie warm up the crowd by performing a few songs before his dad took to the stage. I had the pleasure to witness this several times in the 90s. Somehow you just knew after attending a Lonnie gig that someday his kid was going to be a major headliner too!
Ronnie desires his music bring people together. "Crossing cultural barriers is one of the most important lessons I've learned from my Dad and from my entire family," says Ronnie. "I still love playing with my Dad, but I realized I had to step out on my own. I am determined to keep the family legacy, to keep the blues alive." At the beginning of 1999, Ronnie decided to pursue a solo career. Having recently released the debut CD Golddigger in 1998, it was time to get out and promote his own product.
I shared a few minutes with Ronnie backstage before the show. For some reason, its tough doing blues on the east side of Detroit and the small crowd proved that to be correct. Ronnie wasn't alarmed by the small crowd, "I'll play for the grass" he joked
Tim: The Golddigger CD has a rock and blues feel to it. How did you come about to write and record the material for the CD?
Ronnie: I am a self-taught guitarist and writing was a progression from playing. I believe you need to deliver your own, to be unique. I play electric blues which is what I feel in my heart and soul. We recorded the CD in Memphis with the same band that did the 'Roadhouse Rules' CD for my father. The song Golddigger is one that men and women can both relate to so we choose it for the title. My music has a touch of rock in it because that's the generation that I'm from. Unlike the mindset of the purists, I feel the blues has got to change or it is never going to grow.
Tim: Many of the CD reviews are comparing your playing with that of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix, how do you feel about that?
Ronnie: I am honoured to be compared with 2 of my influences. I had the pleasure of jamming with Stevie in Kansas City at the Grand Emporium in 1988.
Tim: What has it been like to experience the constant pressure of being Lonnie Brook's son?
Ronnie: I consider it a blessing to be his son. I toured with him for 13 years and had the opportunity to learn from him not only about being on-stage but off stage too. I hope some of that has rubbed off. Through my Dad I have had the chance to meet and jam with many of the greats. My Dad is my best friend and I owe a lot to him.
Ronnie first stepped on stage when he was eight years old, playing with Lonnie at Pepper's Lounge. Ronnie recalls, "Dad told me if I learned to play 'Messin' With the Kid' and 'Reconsider Baby' he would allow me to perform with him on stage to celebrate my birthday." Well, Ronnie did learn the songs, performed with his dad, captured the audience and was bitten by the blues bug. "That's one birthday I'll never forget!" says Ronnie. From that day forth he began to pursue a career in music. "Being with Dad, traveling around the world, and making people happy has been a fulfillment of my childhood dream."
Tim: Earlier this year, you were presented with the Best New Blues Artist, Best Chicago Debut Blues CD and Best New Chicago Blues Artist awards from this magazine. What do you wish to tell the readers of RB?
Ronnie: I want to thank the readers and staff of RB for looking into what the younger generation of the blues is doing and supporting it.
Tim: What goals have you set for yourself?
Ronnie: I have 2 goals to achieve: 1) to continue my Dad's legacy 2) to take the blues to the next level where it is as accepted and as popular as rhythm and blues and pop.
Tim: How do you feel about the blues being more popular in Europe than here in America.
Ronnie: A lot of people don't realize what is right in their own backyards until its gone. In Europe, the blues isn't as easily as accessible as it is here. There aren't as many clubs, festivals, record labels, magazines, etc so there is still a real novelty to the blues over there.
Tim: Its a shame Luther Allison had to leave his homeland to make it big in Europe. Then just when he was being acknowledged in this country for the blues talent that he was, his time ran out. Ronnie begins but is obviously shaken by the memories of Allison.
Ronnie: Thats tough. Thats really tough, you know he left me a guitar in his will! I had the extreme honour of jammin with Luther onstage near the end. We would face each other and trade licks and I could feel the emotion pouring out of his heart, through his eyes, into mine and out through my hands onto my guitar. It got to the point where I didn't know what song we where playing, what key we were playing in. After shows like that Luther would tell me to stop putting him on a pedestal because he was learning just as much about playing from me while we was jammin onstage. It was like he was really trying to help the next generation of blues players.
Tim: What is the toughest thing about being on the road?
Ronnie: Making sure everything is in place and keeping focused. It's also a challenge to be creative and not get stuck in a rut. But anything you love is hard and takes a lot of work just like having a relationship with a woman. I try to stay upbeat while on the road by surrounding myself with a lot of positive people like the guys in the band.
Ronnie took the stage and ripped into the heavy groove of Make These Blues Survive followed by the hard rockin sounds of Turn A Bad Into A Positive. Then it was time to play tribute to a couple influences. First to Stevie Ray with Pride and Joy and then to Albert King with I Believe. On the former, keyboardist Daryl Coutts soloed for the first of many times during the evening. Returning to the debut CD for the graceful Where Do I Stand In Line which noticeably lacked the backing singers from the CD. On this tune,
Ronnie jammed an incredible solo which started long and slow and built into a crescendo of blistering notes. Baker Brooks showed his diverse experience as a guitar player on this song.
Baby Please again featured Coutts giving the tune a different twist from the studio version. Next an Albert Collins influenced version of Honey Hush which featured solos from bassist Vic Jackson and drummer Jerry Porter. A couple more covers namely Superstitious and Rock Me Baby brought the evening to a climax. It would be easy and tempting for Ronnie to simply clone one of his father's shows. However tonight, it was all Ronnie. Noticeably absent from the set list where the songs he co-wrote and recorded while in his dad's band. Ronnie has made a wise decision to be totally committed to his solo career. Baker Brooks is one of a few new artists who have charisma. It simply pours out of him whether he is on or off the stage. Come back soon Ronnie the crowds will get larger each time!
Also included on the bill were a couple of outstanding local Detroit acts. Mudpuppy is one of the hardest working bands in the Motor City and their tight sound proves it. They played their usual funk and bayou blues which is starting to gain them national attention. Their set included tunes from all 3 of their CDs but the highlight was definitely Goin Down to New Orleans. This song featured Mark Thibodeau on the keys and Mark Pasman on the strings laying down a fine blues boogie woogie stew. The band also features the smooth, silky voice of Paul Randolph who has got to have the finest voice in contemporary blues today.
Lady Sunshine kept the funky sounds flowing with her brass laden X Band. Her lively set consisted of blues standards and tracks from their debut CD. On Love and Happiness, Lady Sunshine belted out the words so that we all realized why she has such an acclaimed voice.
The festival, in its second year, was again organized by GD Mason. A self proclaimed 'blues nut', Mason is also the guy behind Blues Beer. He is currently in the midst of re-releasing his favourite brew complete with a new recipe and distributor. GD's alliance with the blues began while attending the University of Michigan.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Tim Holek, 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.