Due to space limitations the review of the Chicago Blues Festival is continued this month. Several more photos of the musicians performing during the three-day festival can be viewed as a power point display on the LMN website:www.louisvillemusicnews.net/blues. This added feature will inspire me to include more pictures for future articles.
Instead of kneeling down to pray on Sunday morning, I went to the Jazz Record Mart, which was hosting their Annual Blues Brunch. At 27 E. Illinois, this store is hallowed ground for jazz and blues lovers. It is the world's largest jazz and blues shop and they publish a free quarterly magazine, Rhythm & News; they record musicians at their Riverside Studio for Delmark Records; and it is just a cool place to hang out, for you never know who will drop by. That morning, the very Rev. Bob Koester, the owner of JRM, was officiating, making introductions and comments. Several Delmark artists arrived to make brief appearances and perform in the cramped corner behind the record racks. John Primer, Kenny Smith, Little Al Thomas, Dave Weld, Willie Buck, Taildragger, Rockin' Johnny, Eddie C. Campbell and Pierre Lacocque with Mississippi Heat were some of the musicians in the house.
Sunday was another cool day with low clouds drifting between the high-rise towers. By now I had learned the tricks of living on the streets and in Grant Park. Survival involved taking free samples of Ocean Spray punch or Hinckley Springs Water for drinks or Zone Nutrition Bars for nourishment. The public restrooms by the Buckingham Fountain provided a better alternative than the well used port–o-pots.
Today, the guitars ruled on most of the stages with the following acts:
•Dancin'Perkins is a seventy-eight-year-old bassist from the Maxwell St. era who strutted and pranced around the stage and was backed up by the Checkmates.
•Teaming Carl Weathersby with Larry McCray was a volatile mix involving two different styles of guitar. Weathersby opened with "Serious" and then McCray meshed in on "My Girl." The set was guitar power at its most potent with each trading off solos.
•The Homemade Jamz Blues Band was a trio of young siblings from Tupelo, MS, that I first saw at the 2008 Chicago Blues Festival. They impressed me then and they blew me away this time. They, as well as their music, have matured well, still staying fresh and original. Ryan played lead guitar and sang while his brother Kyle was on bass. Both of their homemade guitars looked as if they were fabricated from polished chrome mufflers, with Ryan using a double-neck and Kyle playing a six-string. At eleven, Taya kept a strong beat going on drums. Their father, Renaud, blew some unobtrusive but effective harp. This family affair is bound to go somewhere.
•Guitar Shorty is a compact little man who packs a wallop when his fingers start picking his Fender. Many of his songs had a strong political and social justice content like, "Please Mr. President," "This Is A Hard Life" and "What is This World Coming To?" Shorty was one of the few performers I had ever seen jump off the high Front Porch Stage into the photo pit to greet the crowd and hand out his picks without missing a beat.
The blues came to a nostalgic end Sunday evening with a Chicago Blues Reunion. These veterans were part of the Paul Butterfield/Mike Bloomfield era in Chicago during the 70s that exposed the black music to a wider white audience. Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, Harvey Mandel, Corky Siegel and Charlie Musselwhite brought their diverse backgrounds together. Musselwhite played "Help Me," recalling when he used to hear Rice Miller (Sonny Boy II) play it at the Twist Lounge on the South Side. Musselwhite began a very subdued version of his signature instrumental "Christo Redemptor" on his harp and Mandel closed it, going into outer space on his guitar.
After this set, Buddy Guy introduced Barry Dolins to the crowd and announced that Dolins will be retiring after this year. Dolins has been the behind-the-scenes guy who coordinated this great festival since its beginning in 1983. We will miss you, Barry!
A final thought on this festival was the awareness of the aging of some of our older bluesmen. They moved and played a little slower, sang a little less, but they were still out there giving it everything they had. Musicians like the Taildragger, Big George Brock, James Cotton, Sam Lay, Matt Murphy, Sonny Rhodes, Honeyboy Edwards, Hubert Sumlin and Nick Gravenites now take a seat on the stage, but they won't take a back seat to performing.
As a stark contrast to the size and intensity of the Chicago Blue Festival, the 2010 Mary Ann Fisher Concert Series in Russellville, Kentucky is intimate and laid-back. This diversified community is the county seat of Logan County where the Russellville Blues Society has presented the Mary Ann Fisher Concerts for the past three years. These concerts are dedicated to Mary Ann, who lived in Russellville for six years as a young girl with Ms. Sitty Merritt and attended the AME Zion Church. Mary Ann would go on to be the featured vocalist with Ray Charles in the mid-50s and have a solo singing career nationally and later in Louisville. Both the home and church are near the open grassy area where the concerts are held. When I arrived, the neighborhood around Sixth and Morgan Streets was alive with kids and adults gathering for the first of this summer's concerts on June 5.
The sounds of the Mississippi Delta came to Russellville that night with Mississippi Millie and Tiger Gagen opening for L.C. Ulmer. This energetic duo has been playing together for two years. Millie McLaine is from Columbus, MS, deep in the Delta and has been touring since the Eighties. Millie and Tiger met at a venue in Nashville called Richard's, where they honed their skills playing together. Millie sang her heart out. She said, "I believe that the voice is the first instrument that God ever created. I use my voice to make the Mississippi Delta come alive." The rhythm was punctuated by her playing a small rub-board in the shape of a neck tie with spoons and stomping on a board with her high heels. Tiger was quickly off the stage and out into the audience using his slide on his polished steel resonator guitar. Their music was original and animated, with fresh songs like "Win Me Back Again," "I Take My Time," and "Here You Come Again." Millie composed "Hush Child" for her mother where she gently beat on a shallow drum and sang, "Can't hear nothin' when you're thinking aloud." Near the end of their set. they were backed by local musicians Michael Gough on guitar and Rodney Williams playing drums. Millie and Tiger would be a strong contender in any solo/duo blue competition.
I first heard L.C. Ulmer perform at the 2008 Chicago Blues Festival and was amazed at how this then seventy nine year old bluesman was unknown to me. I purchased his only CD, Long Way From Home, that was recorded live at the Roots N Blues Food Festival in Parma, Italy in 2007. To see Ulmer perform in Kentucky was too good to pass up. Michael Gough introduced Ulmer by saying, "I competed against Ulmer at the 2009 International Blues Competition in Memphis in 2009 at the same club. Ulmer won the early round and went to the finals. Even though he didn't win he got a standing ovation. I knew then I had to get him to Russellville."
Now at eighty one this spry musician originally from Laurel, MS, has been playing for sixty eight years. He stays trim and fit by not eating beef or pork or drinking diet soda. His mother named him L.C. but while in the military he had to have a specific name and so he used Lee Carter. He was once known as the "Shake It Man." Ulmer performed as a solo act that night but he said, "I once was a twelve piece one man band, where I played keyboards, drums, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, kazoo, bells, cymbals, clapper, tambourine, and harmonica besides the guitar." This multi-instrumentalist once lived in Joliet, IL, playing the blues clubs around Chicago. He returned to Mississippi in 2001 to settle in Ellisville. He didn't record until recently because he was always on the move. There is another CD in the works that will be recorded live in Oxford, MS, under the direction of Justin Showah.
When it was show time Ulmer propped himself against an old stool with his trademark striped bandana slung over his shoulder. Ulmer's blues has a distinct county sound heard sixty years ago. His rambling textured rhythms echo Lightnin' Hopkins while his Texas twanged voice recall Frankie Lee Sims and then you add some Mississippi hill country propulsive boogie beat to the mix and you have L.C. Ulmer.
Ulmer mixed both covers like "Sweet Home Chicago" and original songs like "Blues Leave Me Alone" in his ninety minute set. I became so mesmerized by his music that I stopped taking notes and just got caught up in the spontaneity of the experience. There were some rough, ragged and rambling moments but that was what made his performance so real. Michael and Rodney came to the rescue near the end to keep Ulmer on track and bring his show an unforgettable conclusion. Ulmer's last song was improvised on the spot about Russellville.