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Originally Published July 14, 2004
The 20th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival
LeClaire Park ,Davenport, Iowa
By T-Bone Erickson
A negative turned into a positive, though, as the fest organizers were able to juggle things a bit and make room for Tough Enough! in the covered tent stage later on that evening. They ended up playing for far more people than they would have at 2 p.m. with those weepy skies. The band came through with flying colors and the crowd showed their appreciation for their mix of soulful Blues. It never fails to choke me up every time Big Mike sings the Gospel-oriented “People Get Ready.” His voice is a gift from God and he makes the most of it with his stirring rendition.
But back to Friday night…first of all, I want to say right now that this is one of those events that you wish you had a clone so you could catch everything. I gave it my usual mighty try, but I simply cannot be two or three places at once.
The fest opened at 5 p.m. with Michael “Hawkeye” Herman doing his more traditional, acoustic storytelling Blues in the tent stage, while Chicago’s Johnny Drummer got things started at the bandshell with his soulful stew of more contemporary Blues. I managed to miss most of Carol Fran’s set at the tent because I just had to catch Reneé Austin and her band at the other stage. I’ve seen Reneé several times now, but her singing prowess and stage presence are hard to beat.
Each year, the MVBF features one Jazz and one Zydeco act. I managed to slip over to the tent to check out the modern Jazz of Ernest Dawkins & the New Horizons Ensemble and was hard-pressed to leave, as they were definitely one of the nice surprises for me this year. But Eric Sardinas was ripping it up at the other end of the park and his show isn’t one to miss. Besides being perhaps the most impressive slide guitar player on the planet, Eric exudes a hip and cool aura while prowling around the stage. He finished up a blistering set with a walk through the crowd, topped off with a fiery (literally) climax, as he dropped to his knees, the lighter fluid came out, and he continued to play his axe with flames swirling all around it.
I knew I had to get my required dose of Zydeco before Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers started, so I trekked back over to the tent to dance my buns off to the infectious sounds of the ever-smiling Geno Delafose and his band French Rockin’ Boogie. You just don’t care if it’s warm and sultry out, you gotta move!
Since Rod Piazza leads what I feel is one of the very top live Blues bands in the world, I finished out the first night of the fest at the bandshell. What more can I say, other than they proved it once again with another fun and spirited show.
Oh yeah, the festivities aren’t over when the bands are done at the Park, as each night (or, I should say, very early morning) an After-Fest Jam was held at The Lodge in Bettendorf, where most of the musicians were staying. Of course, that’s where we were staying as well, so it’s not too tough to stay up until the jam is over at 4 a.m. and then pad back to the coziness of the hotel room. If you’ve never stayed at The Lodge, you have to check it out. It’s a most impressive structure done in a medieval mode. Really, really cool.
Local favorites Hal Reed & the Mob, the winners of the 2004 Iowa Blues Challenge, hosted the jam each night. Sardinas was one of the first night’s participants; swapping guitar licks with “Baby Jake” Torkelson of Reneé Austin’s band. I even got a few licks in of my own before we had to wrap things up.
Highlights that I managed to hear during Saturday afternoon included the real-deal Chicago-style Blues of Big George Jackson from Minneapolis, the gritty down-home Country Blues of Guy Davis, and the aforementioned Tough Enough!.
I missed the entire set by The Persuasions because I was checking out W.C. Clark while waiting for the privilege of interviewing Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown before his headlining set at the bandshell. Gate and I had a very enjoyable chat [Look for that interview in a future BluesWax] and then he proceeded to perform what was probably the most impressive set of the entire fest. Gate’s innate sense of dynamics, his sophisticated arrangements, and varied styles of music were a joy to behold. Before his outstanding performance, Brown received the RiverRoad Lifetime Achievement Award from the MVBS. Much deserved, indeed.
Be sure to mark your calendars around the 4th of July for next year’s fest, as it is sure to be another great event, as always.This was one of those times of severe conflicts of interest, as fellow BluesWax tribe member Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin was leading another exceptional set at the tent at the same time. Thankfully, I managed to at least catch the first and last parts. I would have been greatly disappointed if I had completely missed Bob along with legends Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. If that wasn’t enough, Kenny Neal also sat in with the band near the end. Kenny, Bob, and his bass player, Mookie Brill, all made the After-Fest Jam, as well. I have to mention that Brill did his usual amazing job of singing a Bobby “Blue” Bland classic earlier at the fest. The man can definitely sing!
Then Hal Reed and the band had to be ready to open things up at the bandshell the next day at 2 p.m. You really got to give the group their props – they ended up playing six gigs in four days…real troopers and a damn fine band.
Lee Gates, a cousin of Albert Collins (and with a striking resemblance to the “Ice Man”) performed a very loose set at the bandshell while Reverend Slick Ballinger & the Soul Blues Boyz had the tent practically levitating. Slick feels the spirit within him and takes us along with him. He normally has Terry “Harmonica” Bean with him, but this time we were treated to the power of Blind Mississippi Morris‘ harp work. It might be exhausting experiencing a set by Slick, but his fervor energizes most that witness his “sermons.”
I split time between Sweet Betty’s nice set and the relaxed flavor of the wonderful Cootie Stark. After catching a good chunk of the duo of Kenny Neal & Billy Branch, I couldn’t pull myself away from the incredible performance by The Blind Boys Of Alabama. Even without one of their main vocalists (who had to be taken to the hospital earlier), this Gospel ensemble had the crowd in the palms of their collective hands. The slim Jimmy Carter took up the slack, and at one point was lifted down off the front of the stage, where he plunged straight into the thick crowd, and proceeded to rave things up for what must have been at least 20 minutes. While the band vamped strongly behind him, Carter wailed and shouted, exhorting all of us to let the spirit take us higher…and higher and higher we went. It was a remarkable and unforgettable experience.
Then another wonderful Mississippi Valley Blues Festival wound down with the warm and relaxed styles of Charlie Musselwhite at the tent and Taj Mahal & Hula Blues at the bandshell. Charlie was particularly exceptional; it’s an easy accomplishment when you’re one of the finest harp players around and you have June Core kicking it behind the drums, and this time around, Rusty Zinn on guitar. Core was especially impressive on the smooth locomotive shuffle of Little Walter’s “It Ain’t Right,” and Zinn was sharp and tasty throughout.
Taj’s Hula Blues band actually features three (count ‘em) ukelele players! Somehow it works well…different, but nice. They put an entirely fresh spin on some of Taj’s old classics like “You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond.” Their closing set was a fine and fun way to finish things off.
By T-Bone Erickson
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