Booking the Blues
I have found the that best sources for digging into the background of the blues are magazines like Living Blues, Blues Review, Blues Access and Big City Blues; the liner notes on recordings (if they are well-produced) and books. The University Press of Mississippi has recently published three books that should be included in your library. Earl Hooker Blues Master is a treasury of candid information about what it was like traveling the chitlin' circuit throughout the South and Midwest plus life in Chicago's blues scene during the 1950s through the '70s.
Earl Zebeder Hooker came out of the cultural milieu of Chicago's South Side and was considered by many musicians of his time, including B. B. King, to be the best blues guitarist around. He mastered the slide and the wah-wah pedal, using a wide variety of guitars, including two double neck varieties (Danelectro bass/six string and Gibson "Double Twelve" 12-string/6 string). He experimented with different speakers, amps, mikes and recording equipment, creating delayed playback and double tracking techniques when playing his instrumentals, His real talent lay in his fast fingers and a flat pick. He was a master of all guitar styles, usually letting others, including Andrew Odom, Bib Moose Walker and Rickey Allen do the singing.
Most of Hooker's recordings were issued near the end of his life. He died in 1970, after a lifelong struggle with tuberculosis. Sebastian Danchin has done a masterful job with this biography, interviewing over seventy people who gave personal insights into Hook's life.
Blues Mandolin Man - The Life and Times of Yank Rachell by Richard Congress is based on several taped interviews Congress recorded with Rachell just before the bluesman died in 1997. Rachell should be familiar to many readers, as he lived most of his life in Indianapolis and was the headliner at the 1992 Garvin Gate Blues Festival, plus he made several appearances at the Cherokee Blues club. His driving, yet delicate mandolin style of country blues combined with jug band music goes back to 1929, when he first recorded with Sleepy John Estes in Memphis. Chapter 3 gives a word-by-word narrative of how, as a young boy, Rachell traded his pet pig for his first mandolin. When his mother found out, she said "I'm not gonna whup you, boy. But this fall, when we butcher meat and eat it, you can eat that thing, 'cause you ain't gonna get no meat."
The second half of the book includes interview with Henry Townsend, Honey Boy Edwards, Charlie Musselwhite and Ry Cooder, plus a discography and song lyrics. Rachel was considered the Godfather of the Indianapolis blues scene. A Memorial Acoustic Blues Festival will be held to honor this gentle blues man on Sunday, August 12, 1 to 6 p.m. at the Historical Society Theater, 450 W. Ohio St., Indianapolis. The lineup will include six groups, including Gordon Bonham. Each year on his birthday, there have been "Tribute Jams," which included his granddaughter Sheena, who used to perform with him.
The third book will probably be found in the Travel section of the bookstore, as it's title Blues Traveling - The Holy Sites of Delta Blues by Steve Cheseborough. If you have any plans to attend a blues festival in Mississippi - the Sunflower, Bryant's Farm, Delta Blues Heritage or the King Biscuit - then this book is an essential guide, filled with maps and photos of sites, arranged in geographical order, starting in Memphis and heading down Highway 61. From Clarksdale, the mid-Delta, Greenwood and Greenville over to Vicksburg, Jackson, east Mississippi and finally to the north Mississippi Hill country, all are covered, with detailed descriptions of juke joints, historical sites and grave sites. Robert Johnson's three alleged burial sites are identified in Greenwood and Quito, Mississippi. When I go to the King Biscuit Blues Festival in October (from the 4th to the 6th), this handy guide is going with me.
Down By the Riverside
The original Waterside Blues Festival at the Water Tower has been watered down to the Blues 'N' Jazz Festival. The craft booths are gone; now it's strictly music. Saturday, July 7 featured da Mudcats and Big Al and the Heavyweights. I ran into some friends who had docked their boat below the festival site. Aboard, I listened to da Mudcats' great sound broadcast over the Ohio. Later, I talked to lead guitarist Rob Pickett about their dream gig at the Monterey Blues Festival in June. Pickett said "the mission of the band is to deliver music with impact and play to a variety of tastes." With that in mind, they sent off their press kit to Monterey and, lo and behold, they were selected on their merits. It was a coincidence that da Mudcats and the Monterey Blues Festival are both celebrating their 16th anniversary.
The three-day festival ran from June 22 to June 24, with da Mudcats performing on Saturday. The festival site was at the Monterey Bay Fairgrounds, which was more like a park near downtown. The music was presented on several stages, but they got to perform in the amphitheater. "We were made to feel comfortable and the crowd didn't have to be won over," Picket said. "With such good feedback, we were inspired to step it up a notch. That one hour went by so quickly." After their set, many folks from the Midwest who were there came up to say hello. The greatest compliment was that they were asked to come back next year. The band, which also includes drummer Gene Wickliffe and bassist Mike Lynch, hung around Sunday to hear Sonny Rhodes, Shemekia Copeland and Miss Peaches herself, Etta James. Rob put it very nicely when he said "We took a little love from Louisville out there."
I was back on dry land for Big Al and the Heavyweights. The first thing I noticed was Roguie Ray was back with the band, replacing Harmonica Red. Roguie started out playing harp with the band on their first two CDs, then he remarried and went up east to New Hampshire. Now he's back and as good as ever, especially on the slow blues like "Sad, Sad Day" and "Murdered by Love." Al Lauro and Tim Wagoner are the constants with the band on drums and guitar. Tim seems to enjoy doing the party songs like "I Feel So Bad, I Must of Had a Real Good Time" and "Eat More Crawfish." When they play Louisville, the band always does "Shirley Mae," singing the praises of her soul food at Hampton and Clay Streets. With "Bon Temps Role,: the band did roll off the stage and out into the audience. Even the bassman, Dave Burns, walked his bass on "Baby You Just Go To Walk On." Their solid set came to an end with an encore of "House Party." Big Al and Heavyweights always stir up an exciting mix of Louisiana Mardi Gras by throwing out beaded necklaces and hot licks to the crowd.