Kyana Blues Society Celebrates First Anniversary With Blues Bash

By Keith Clements

It was a little over a year ago that a small group of blues diehards gathered round a table at the Rudyard Kipling Restaurant to dream a little, elect some officers and start the KYANA Blues Society. Today, the organization has over 225 members and the blues events and shows this past year have exceeded everyone's expectations.

What a way to celebrate our first year -- a "Blues Extravaganza" concert in conjunction with Louisville Homefront Performances at Wyatt Hall on the Bellarmine campus, Saturday, February 10. Wyatt Hall lacks the turn of the century charm of the Stuart Robinson Auditorium, site of the regular Homefront shows, but it is far more practical for handling larger crowds and has much superior sound and lighting facilities.

The show included three bands. Local blues talent was represented by da Mudcats, regional talent by H-Bomb Ferguson and the Bluesmen, and Byther Smith and the Nightriders were the national act. All three bands have not had much recognition, but recognition they got at a sold-out concert of over 350, plus the chance to be broadcast over National Public Radio later in the year.

Mudcats guitarist Rob Pickett. Photo by Paul Moffett

The concert was structured to tape two one-hour radio programs. The first show included da Mudcats and H-Bomb Ferguson. The second show featured, again, da Mudcats and Byther Smith. The total performance made for a lot of music but the sets were short to conform to the radio format.

Da Mudcats seem to be reaching a new plateau of excellence. They formed about three years ago when harmonica player Jim Rosen left the Bluebirds to start his own band. Rosen's outstanding blues harmonica style makes him a top harp player in the region. His tonal range is as creative as that of Sugar Blue, noted Chicago harmonica player. Vocalist Susan O'Neil has the gritty confidence to charge the band with excitement while Gene Wickcliffe on drums and Larry Holt, bass, provide a rock-solid rhythm section.

Guitarist Rob Pickett took several powerful guitar solos, showing his diverse rock/blues influences. His guitar work gives the band a very contemporary blues sound, marking da Mudcats as more than just another good blues band.

O'Neil got the audience into it with her version of "Let The Good Times Roll." Look out KoKo Taylor. The band also performed "Two Man Blues," a tune that will be on the Louisville Blues Compilation Album, due out in March.

Following the too-short Mudcat set, H-Bomb Ferguson and the Bluesmen took the stage. This group has detonated several times before in Louisville, at the Cherokee Blues Club and at the 1989 Garvin Gate Blues Festival. Ferguson has been a showman for thirty-five years, making him a living legend in the tradition of the colorful performers who toured the country during the early days of rhythm and blues. He dons an outrageous wig for each set he performs, in order "to be his own person." His bizarre appearance and raucous vocals and piano stylings make him a performer more suited to the informal setting of a darkened after-hours nightclub than the concert stage.

His back-up band, the Bluesmen, include Tommy Badgett on saxophone, John Rodgers on bass and harmonica and Kevin Wilburn on drums. Harvey Freedman played some very tasteful lead guitar throughout the performance. The group has just released their first album, entitled "Bad Time Blues," which includes the instrumental "Caledonia's Back."

The audience had to wait patiently more than halfway through the show before Byther Smith and the Nightriders got on stage, but the wait was worth it. Smith's intense voice and stinging guitar cast a spell over the audience with a selection of original material that included such tunes as "I Got A Pony I Ride," "Come On to This House" and "Martha Dear."

On Byther Smith's calling card it says "Blues With A Feeling," and that aptly describes his style of emotional, contemporary blues. It is a blend of gospel soul and the West Side intensity of Otis Rush.

During the Sixties, Smith traveled with the gospel group Ohio Travelers and in the Seventies he played with Jr. Wells in the house band at Theresa's lounge. At last year's Chicago Blues Festival, he was on the Main Stage in a tribute to Theresa's. He will be performing again at the Festival this year, following an extended tour of England and Europe.

The real treat came when the taping of the radio performances was over and Smith and the band did a special thirty-five-minute set. Backing Smith's haunting style were Bruce Felgan on bass and Mike Baietto on guitar, both of whom have played with Smith throughout the Eighties. Irvin Peach handled drums and Tim McKinley played keyboards.

Smith and the Nightriders recently signed with Rounder Records and are anticipating the release of a new record, which Smith feels is much better than his latest, excellent LP "Housefire."

Finally, John Gage needs to be applauded for the fine job he does emceeing these shows. Gage's laid-back wit and folksy character weave a web of consistent quality throughout the Homefront Performances.

A blues post script -- the 1990 Chicago Blues Festival

is scheduled for the weekend of June 8, 9 and 10. Barry Dolin, who has been coordinating this festival for the Mayor's office of Special Events since the inception six years ago, said that this year the festival will feature the blues of the Piedmont Region, including John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, both of whom performed here during last year's Lonesome Pine Series. The explosive guitarist Luther Allison, currently living in France, will also make a rare appearance.

One of the festival's highlights will be a tribute to T--Bone Walker, with Duke Robillard, Lowell Fulson and Otis Rush performing on the Main Stage. It's shaping up to be another great festival.