KoKo's Back in Town (And She's Rarin' to Clown)
KoKo Taylor is no stranger to Louisville, having performed at the Palace, the Seville, the Thunderdome and the various Waterfront Parks over the years. Each time she comes with her band, the Blues Machine, she puts on a powerful show. We've all heard her welcome us with "Let the Good Ties Roll," proclaim "I Am A Woman" and wind-up with a "Wang Dang Doodle." But I never get tired of these Willie Dixon classics, for she does them with so much energy. Not bad for the Queen of the Blues, who will be 68 this September. On a warm July 4 evening this "Chartreuse Chanteuse" gave the standing crowd on the Great Lawn a fired-up sixty minutes of straight-ahead Chicago blues. Along with her Chess chestnuts, she "went all the way down into the basement" to do some gritty slow blues like "Ernestine" and "Bring Me Some Water." Both of these songs are on her recent Alligator CD, Royal Blue. She swaggered and strutted back and forth across the stage in her bright green pantsuit "bow wowing" doing her own distinctly personal version of "Hound Dog." Vino Louden is still her lead guitarist and but has some help from Shum Kituta, a young Japanese guitarist who has recently appeared on the Chicago scene. Stanley Bates and Youngblood kept the Machine moving on keyboards and bass. Following a brief autograph session after her show, it was back to the Windy City for a whirlwind tour of Canada set to start the next day.
Blues Cruise - Chicago Style
KoKo Taylor's Celebrity Blues Club on Wabash closed last year but in its place she has started the Celebrity Aid Foundation. Its mission is to provide social services to artists and musicians by counseling and educating them and their families on their rights in the music business, plus services in time of need and suffering. The Foundation is supported by benefits, fundraisers, donations and sponsorships. KoKo promoted a Blues Pub Crawl during two nights following the Chicago Blues Festival as a fundraiser for her foundation. I went on the second cruise, May 31, which was hosted by Taylor's daughter, Cookie. Our first stop was the Foundation's headquarters, way out on the South Side at 603 W. 111th St.
In a recently remodeled building, we were treated to a buffet dinner of excellent soul food. The entertainment was Jimmy Pryor and the Double "J" Band featuring George Gibbons on guitar. The petite, perky lady with the big voice, Delores Scott, got our small group energized, singing "I'm a Dirty Old Woman." The rotund John "Soul Man" Castro followed, bellowing out "Let the Good Times Roll." And the good times did roll to our next stop, Lee's Unleaded Blues at 7401 S. Chicago Ave.
Lee's has become the hottest spot on the South Side following the recently closure of the legendary Checkerboard Lounge. City officials cited "dangerous and hazardous conditions" last April when they shut down the last of the historic Bronzeville sites. Lee's is a social experience, where the musicians and patrons closely interact. The place was packed with a mix of out of town fans visiting during the Bluesfest and locals all having a good time. The long, serpentine bar extends from the front door, where Phil Guy was sitting, around to an area in the rear where the band played. The walls were painted black with flashing red lights everywhere. Stan, a large ex-policeman, has run Lee's for the past year.
Johnny Drummer and the Starlighters were performing when we arrived. He was out in the middle of the crowd, singing and playing his harp for the ladies. (They were stuffing dollar bills into his pockets.) Johnny sang, "I'm gonna sell my Cadillac and gonna buy myself a mule. Gonna spread out on the highway and not run out of fuel." During the break, Stan held a raffle for a 1.5 liter bottle of champagne and two long stem glasses. One of the barmaids had the winning ticket but willingly gave it up for another draw. When we boarded the school bus, guitarist Eddie Campbell was hanging out by the door.
Our final destination was a long drive across town to the North Side to Eddie Clearwater's club, Reservation Blues, at 1566 N. Milwaukee Ave. The neighborhood and interior ambience were totally different from Lee's. The streets were bustling with young people at 2 a.m. - it's a trendy area like Bardstown Road. The upscale club has exposed brick walls adorned with lots of photos of the Chief and an original art glass panel with the club's name behind the stage. Other blues notables in the crowd included Sammy Fender and his wife, Sugar Baby, Johnny Rawl's daughter, Destiny, and Ricky Allen. Fortunately, Eddie was there that night after being a guest earlier during Jimmy Johnson's show at the Bluesfest. Eddie is a statuesque showman who grimaces with every note and is always in motion. He plays his Fender reversed and left handed, capturing the intense West Side style of Chicago blues. Eddie closed his last set singing "Good times are coming, don't let those bad times get you down."
Our blues bus delivered us back to our hotel in the wee hours, where we grabbed a few hours of sleep before our Sunday wake-up call from the sacred steel sounds of the Campbell Brothers.
Ten years ago the Kentuckiana Blues Society held its first Blues Competition at the Bluebird and MR2 Blue was our first winner. Since then, the venues have shifted from the Backstage to Willie's Velvet Rose and finally to Stevie Ray's, where the event has been for the past six years. Other Louisville bands that came out on top were the Red Snapper Blues Band, Tyler Henderson Blues Band and the Walnut Street Blues Band. All the other winners were from out-of-town and a few came from out-of-state, including acts from Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina. This year, a solo, a duo and four bands have signed up for what looks to be an interesting evening on Sunday, August 17. The competition includes three new groups, EZ MONEY, Rock Garden Blues Band and The Blues Cruisers. Returning will be One Shot Johnny, One Card Shy and Michael "Blind Dog" Gatewood, who will be defending his title as last year's winner. The judges who will be making the tough decisions on talent, blues content, originality and showmanship are Dick Irby from Fox 41 News, Jeff Carpenter recording engineer extraordinaire, plus some members of the Greater Cincinnati and Indianapolis blues societies. The doors at Stevie Ray's will open at 4 p.m., with the draw for order at 4:30 and the music starting at 5 p.m. Each band will have up to 30 minutes to stretch out more this year and there will be a break for some good eats, provided by Q Master Catering in the VooDoo Gardens. The Unsigned Blues Band Competition is one of the KBS's biggest events of the year, so we need you there to support our Society and these six hard-working bands.