When I did an interview with Steve Ferguson for last December's article in Louisville Music News, we worked hard to get the facts right. We wanted to get his story in print while he was able. There was still some unfinished business with the limited time he had left. Steve was interested in Sacred Harp gospel singing and wanted to bring a group to Louisville to sing and teach others. A few months later we saw a film about contemporary Sacred Harp called "Awake, My Soul" presented by its producers, Matt and Erica Hinton, which was a moving experience for both of us. Steve was passionate about the roots of Judeo-Christian religion and was working on a book of prayers. Due to the weakening strength in his fingers, Steve had started playing the dulcimer and hoped to record that music.
Steve succumbed to cancer on October 7, which was not unexpected. Unfortunately, he was the third local guitarist to leave us this year, with Ricky Mason's death on January 1 and the recent passing of Tim Krekel on June 24. They all died much too young. Steve's funeral arrangements were very simple, with his body cremated and a memorial visitation at Highlands Funeral Home on October 9. A large montage of photographs was prepared, along with a PowerPoint presentation showing Steve with friends, family and musicians during his life. On a table was his trademark black stove pipe hat, his book of prayers and his Ibanez guitar on a stand. Steve's wife Sheri was surrounded by people who paid their condolences to the Louisville Legend. The following day, there was a private burial at Cave Hill Cemetery where his receptacle, which also contained the ashes of his devoted Scottish terrier Bishop, who died a few months earlier, was laid to rest next to Steve's mother.
My most recent memory of Steve was the Fergie and Friends Benefit at Stevie Ray's on Sunday, August 23. Pat Lentz, Steve's guitarist for thirty years, and friend Larry Harris organized the event on short notice and the musicians responded. Pat and Reid Yahn acted as MCs and organized the bands. Ebenezer Primitive opened, taking us back to the roots with string band, ragtime and Delta blues. Steve held court out back in the Voodoo Gardens. When it was time for some of the members of the Humanitarians and the Midwest Creole Ensemble to play, Steve rose to the challenge to perform with his bandmates. Bob ‘Monk" Mackey, Gary Underwood, Rod Wurtele and Pat struck up what would be Steve's last performance before his fans. We crowded around the stage, savoring every note and word. It was a bittersweet moment as he sang "Hi Di Ho" and "Flat Foot Flewzy." For a moment, Steve took us back to all those gigs at Air Devil's Inn, Uncle Pleasant's, Butchertown Pub, Cherokee Blues Club, The Blue Bird and Bluesday Tuesdays at the Rudyard Kipling. At the end of the set, there was a standing ovation with lumps in our throats. Later Steve said, "That was the first time I sang since I've been ill."
The rest of the evening was a celebration of musicians paying and playing tribute. The list goes on and on with Ray Redman, Aviv Naamani, Brendan Lewis, Walter Lay, Dana Roy, Mark Hoekstra, Tim Dennison, Sue O'Neil, Craig Sigman, Keith Hubbard, John Gage, Max Maxwell, Denny Thornberry, Jack Norris, Bridget Kaelin, B. G. Johnson, Rob Pickett, Lamont Nelson, Cyndye and Kevin Rees, Bob Ramsey, Screamin' John Hawkins, Mike Brown, Joel Pinkerton, Mike Algiers and Jimmy Gardner. [If I missed you or misspelled your name, I apologize.]
After the Stray Cats finished their show at Willow Park, Jimmy Brown and Greg Martin joined the party. The night came to a fitting climax with a guitar jam between Greg and Shannon Lawson, plus a little help from Paul McGuire. They collaborated together on "Let's Get It On," "I Don't Know" and "Rainy Night in Georgia." Thanks Pat and Larry for making this event such a memorable moment. Steve did make one last appearance, playing briefly at the Zeppelin Café just a week before he died.
During all years of the Garvin Gate Blues Festival, there has been clear and crisp fall weather, with the exception of the first festival in 1988, when it rained. This year on Friday, October 9, the conditions were overcast and cool, which became a drizzle and finally a steady light rain. That did not prevent several hundred die-hard blues fans from attending the first day of the 2009 festival. Sue O'Neil & Blue Seville presented a tribute to KoKo Taylor, who went to blues heaven last June. Sue's songbook has always included several of KoKo's songs, including "Voodoo Woman," "Hound Dog," "Love Game" and "Stop Watching Your Enemies (Keep Your Eyes On Your So-Called Friends)." Sue went down into the basement like KoKo usually did singing "I Don't Want No Leftovers (I Don't Need No Hand-Me-Downs)." Her homage to KoKo would not have been complete without "Wang Dang Doodle" and an encore of "Let The Good Times Roll." The musicians who rode along in her Seville included her husband Rick on bass, Dr. Bill Dean making good chemistry on the keyboards, a propelled beat from Larry McCubbins and hot guitar licks from Frank Ferguson. The band worked hard to set a high standard for the opening act.
Stacy Mitchhart brought his Blues U Can Use Band from Nashville to beat back the rain. Mitchhart knows the tricks of entertaining the crowd, with his flashy black attire, catchy lyrics, flamboyant guitar work and energetic band complete with horns and keyboards. He opened with "Angel of Mercy" and followed with the title track from his latest CD, Grown Ass Man. The party had started. Paul Brown's long blond hair was swirling around his head as he attacked his keyboards. Cory Distefano and Jules Caldarera alternated their tight horn solos on trumpet and sax. Before Mitchhart did "Walking The Back Streets Crying," he said, "This was the song I used to play at Shirley Mae's for food and one hundred dollars." Mitchhart is not just a blues man, but a musician that is blues-based. He skillfully captures the Southern, soulful Malaco sounds.
Mississippi Bluesman Lil' Dave Thompson finished the night to a small but devoted group in front of the stage. There was a lot of Albert King tone mixed with Robert Cray sophistication as he reinterpreted the Delta sounds. His songs and tempo seemed to lack diversity as his set closed out early due to the diminishing crowd and steady rain.
Saturday was a new day with bright sun and the anticipation of plenty of exciting harmonica blues. Dick and The Roadmasters from Covington, Kentucky, were the winners of this year's KBS band contest. Lead by Dick Buchhotz on vocals and guitar, they played mostly original songs like "A Heart So True" and "I Got Bad Blood In My Veins." Larry Bloomfield added some mellow harp on "Comin' Home To The Blues." This band will represent the KBS very well in the International Blues Competition next January.
The Jim Masterson Blues Band is currently the house band at the weekly Wednesday jams at The Lounge. When I interviewed Jim for the April issue of Louisville Music News, I came to appreciate the influence he has had mentoring other local musicians. Not only does Jim play a variety of instruments, but he is an accomplished graphic artist who has painted a series of portraits of blues legends. KBS president Gary Sampson made his world debut in front of a festival audience, singing "If I Ain't Got You" with the band. At the end of his set, Jim received the Sylvester Weaver Award from the KBS with Gary, Lamont Gillispie and me present. Jim was the twenty-first recipient of an award first awarded in 1989, when it was given to Henry Woodruff at Garvin Gate.
During that evening and into the night, Hellfish, Stella Vees and Lamont & 100 Proof performed, showcasing their harp men Joel Pinkerton, Mark Hoekstra and Lamont. Each band played at their top form, sensing the excitement and anticipation of the day. Then it was time for a three-harp jam backed by the 100 Proof band. This brief set was one of the most inspiring musical moments in the Gate's history as Joel, Mark and Lamont seamlessly traded riffs. Lamont started with "Just Your Fool," then Mark followed with "Come On In This House" and "Hoodoo Man" and Lamont closed with "Help Me." This spontaneous burst of harmonica energy should have been captured on video.
Sugar Blue (James Whiting) made his first appearance in Louisville, acknowledging that this was the home of "The Greatest," Muhammad Ali. Sugar Blue is the Miles Davis of blues harmonica, as his singular style is unlike any one else. With his upper register notes, he sounds as if he is playing two harmonicas simultaneously. The crowd was awed, wondering how does he do that? Some might feel Sugar plays with abandon, but his dazzling technique hits each note with precision. Guitarist Rico McFarland's nimble fingers were able to keep up with Sugar's warp speed runs. When Sugar sang "Bluesman" from his recent CD, Code Blue, he was defending the dignity of the blues and its origins. Sugar's chromatic harp and sensual voice moaned like a Delta demon on "Another Man Done Gone." He ended his set with a long solo encore of "Help Me" and the crowd happily departed with their ears ringing like never before.
Thanks to Howard Rosenberg for being omnipresent and omnipotent during the whole festival. Thanks to Mike Suttles for booking the bands and managing the stage set up. Finally, thanks to Metro Ccouncilman George Unseld for appropriating funds so he could enjoy the music and learn a few dance steps on Saturday.