Text and Photos by DOROTHY L. HILL

Blues Music Awards, May 8, 2008

The 29th annual Blues Music Awards were held in Mississippi for the first time in an historical tribute to the rich blues legacy of that state. The blues elite congregated at the Grand Casino Event Center in Tunica along with more than sixty-five nominees and inductees. Almost everyone involved in the blues scene was there to share in the excitement generated by the premier blues awards event, which was previously known as W. C. Handy Awards.

At a private Blues Foundation Charter Members Dinner the previous evening, induction into the Hall of Fame was bestowed on Hubert Sumlin and Jimmy McCracklinJohnny “Guitar” Watson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Mississippi Sheiks and Peetie Wheatstraw were posthumously inducted.

The awards pre-party kicked off the evening and featured musical performances which got little attention since everyone was so caught up in meeting and greeting. How could one resist hanging out with Pinetop Perkins, Koko Taylor and Hubert Sumlin sitting on the sidelines posing for the blues paparazzi and sharing little jokes with each other!  It was a mad scene with everyone catching up and meeting new people. Since there was no seating, it made for a very social occasion.

The awards ceremony was an amalgamation of awards and performances which went far into the night although it made for a more interesting program. On hand was one of the nicest people in blues, Bobby Rush. The usually soulfully naughty Bobby Rush has more recently gone back to his country blues roots and his acoustic solo performance included heartfelt tunes from his “Raw” CD which garnered the award for acoustic album, one of the three he won this year.

Special moments included Big George Brock who was resplendent in his powder blue suit satisfying Governor Haley Barbour’s request for some Mississippi blues. Ruthie Foster gave the most captivating performance of the show winning a standing ovation.  Big James Montgomery wowed everybody with a contemporary blues excursion. Sharrie Williams was outstanding with a passionate vocal style and clear, confident delivery.

I think just about everyone got misty eyed when Queen of the Blues Koko Taylor accepted her two awards and performed “Gonna Buy Me A Mule” for which she received the Song of the Year award.  Hubert Sumlin’s smile radiated with joy all evening as he basked in the adulation. The Holmes Brothers accepted their award for Soul Blues album (“State of Grace”) with dignity. Diunna Greenleaf and Jonn Richardson were ecstatic with their honor as Best New Artist Debut for their CD “Cotton Field to Coffee House.” Tommy Castro was humble in being chosen as B. B. King Entertainer of the year.

The artists seemed to be having just as much fun as the audience as this spectacular show just kept getting better as each performing group displayed the diversity and quality of the music we love—blues at its best. The stage production was first rate and the only complaint of the evening was the dinner (but who was there for the food!). For blues lovers, this was the Academy Awards, the Grammy, the Tony, and the Emmy all together and the Blues Foundation is to be commended for making it a groovy party as well.

The complete list of winners can be found on the Blues Foundation website

Delta Blues All-Star Revue, May 9, 2008
at Ground Zero Blues Club, Clarksdale, Mississippi

Before heading over to the revue show, it was mandatory to go to Hopson Plantation for the unveiling of the Mississippi Blues Trail Marker for Pinetop Perkins.  It was hot in the outside setting but there was a large gathering to honor this legend of the blues.  Eden Brent was on hand to entertain for the occasion — this young woman is a delightful performer and can skillfully execute “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” as she did on this day or just as proficiently impart supple vocal phrasing to a blues or jazz tune. Just being in the presence of the sweet Pinetop Perkins is such a delight and may the awards keep coming for this still vital ninety-five year old phenomenon.

It was a scramble to get to the revue show, which started at 2 p.m. and get a front row seat at Ground Zero. In addition to the revue there was a free party going on in the parking lot featuring some of the Delta Groove artists. I could only tear myself away to catch a couple of tunes by the fantastic duo of Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside.

The festivities kicked off with an exhibition of American roots music with Jim Hanft.  Next up was Lionel Young propelling an amped-up violin into the blues and alternatively switching to guitar for the tune “There Is A Devil In The White House” which got roars of approval from the audience. Bill Sims, Jr. and Mark LaVoie started off their set with Sims doing a blues rap which segued into a Charley Patton blues tune in a set which employed a subtle sense of timing and dynamic duo interplay.

The Rhythm Room All-Stars ramped up the proceedings starting off with an harmonica excursion by Marco PandolfiDave Riley on guitar and vocals and Bob Corritore on harmonica dedicated the upbeat stomping blues tune “Jelly Roll Kings” to Frank Frost and Sam CarrTomcat Courtney captured attention with an engaging performance of powerful country blues on guitar and vocals. Big Pete Pearson is known for his shouting blues style and he did not disappoint with his burnished deep vocals.

The new aggregation known as Los Fabulocos featured Kid Ramos on guitar. This high-energy band was about as far from the blues as one can get with their Tex-Mex and rockabilly style.

One of the groups that performed at the Blues Music Awards and garnered much acclaim was The Insomniacs who had been nominated for Best New Artist Debut. Their performance this day validated the attention—this young group from Portland, Oregon is hot. Their well-crafted arrangements and original tunes set them apart in the blues tradition and they display musical maturity in execution. “Serves Me Right” written by guitarist/vocalist Vyasa Dodson was a blues jump shuffle and their eclectic set of blues ballads and up-tempo jump tunes was memorable. Bassist Dean Mueller reported that the group sold more CDs than anyone else.

Producer Randy Chortkoff introduced the next band with glowing praise—even going so far as to admit that among all his artists, they were his favorite! The Jackie Payne Steve Edmonson Band has long been one of my favorites and the exposure this day was an eye-opener to many in the audience who ate it up!  Payne’s gospel-infused vocals and Edmonson’s concise guitar support truly make them “Partners in the Blues,” the title of one of their highly acclaimed CDs—add in the perceptive jazzy saxophone interpretation by Carl Green and it don’t get no better than this! Payne’s raspy vocals encompassed soulful balladry to sweet falsetto to kickin’ R&B which had the audience enthralled. They especially got a kick out of the tune “Mother In-Law Blues” (”I’m going to marry my mother in-law” The blues shuffle from their new CD “Overnight Sensation” said it all—“They call me an overnight sensation but it’s sure been a long long night.”

The Mannish Boys is a blockbuster group of blues veterans in a shifting rotation. The support group consisted of Kirk Fletcher and Frank Goldwasser (aka Paris Slim) on guitars, Richard Innes on drums, Ronnie James Weber on bass, Randy Chortkoff on harmonica with Kid Ramos soon joining in the proceedings. Johnny Dyer was the first vocalist featured and his rendition of “Mannish Boy” was crafted with unerring instinct. Bobby Jones (aka Bobby Jonz) has the classy elegance befitting a soul star and his vocals were rich with intonation on the rollicking blues of “Mary Jane.” Jones has one of those sumptuous voices that reeks with soul and his performance was outstanding. 

Finis Tasby is a unique vocalist with incredible timing and he displayed expert phrasing on the introspective “As The Years Go Passing By” with minimalist lyricism at its best. Debbie Davies was in the house and joined the stage for a couple of tunes. Phillip Walker and his bassist James “Broadway” Thomas took over for a Texas to Mississippi set. Walker commanded the stage solo in an acoustic interpretation of the Lightnin’ Hopkins tune “Hello Central.”  He closed out his set with his witty homage to women “Bad Blood.”  Walker’s exquisite guitar styling was masterful. Mike Zito followed with a set of electric rockish blues that was engaging but threatening to the eardrums!

As the evening progressed, so many wonderful artists keep the audience engaged that it went amazingly fast but it was now 1 a.m. and time to split even though the party was not over and what a party it was!

Big George Brock’s 76th Birthday Party

The next evening Ground Zero Blues Club was the setting for Big George Brock to celebrate his birthday with gusto. The weather was calm and balmy upon arrival but in the middle of the show severe tornado warnings began appearing on the TV screens to our alarm. Sheets of rain and hail appeared and the lights went out briefly a couple of times.  We could not decide whether or not it was better to be sober or inebriated when it hit so we just drank up!  We later learned that three tornados hit within thirty miles.

Bentonia, Mississippi native Jimmy “Duck” Holmes opened up the show with a solo country blues excursion.  His voice astonished me on the first tune “Dust My Broom”—it was hauntingly reminiscent of Lowell Fulson.  He concluded his extraordinary country blues set with emotional expression on “Rock Me” with the added comment “roll me, just don’t get me killed.”

Big George Brock took the stage in a gold lame cape and we knew we were in for some old school blues. His talented support group included Bill Abel on guitar and Ben Wells. As a former heavyweight boxer, Brock takes the stage like a fighter in command. As he was performing “Hoochie Coochie Man,” the lights went out for about fifteen minutes but Brock kept singing. Brock’s vocals were expressive and his harmonica playing was intensely earthy as he cupped the harp in his massive hands. Clarine Wagner, Brock’s companion, did a couple of tunes and displayed great stage presence and nuanced vocal control—her rendition of “Downhome Blues” was steeped with polish. She joined Brock on the spiritual “Lay My Burden Down.” The second set was hilarious with Brock in the most outrageous farmer outfit and performing most of the set on the floor in front of the stage bemoaning life’s woes. The only thing missing from this show was birthday cake!

Foxfire Ranch

On Sunday, Clarksdale is deserted and since we still craved more Delta blues, my blues traveling buddy Onnie Heany and I found out there was a place outside of Oxford where Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside were playing and we headed out with very sketchy directions. Fortunately, Lightnin’ Malcom returned my phone call on the way and gave us great directions which led us up country roads to a lovely residence beyond which was a huge open sided pavilion. The Foxfire Ranch was presenting only the second of their concerts which will continue every Sunday. We were greeted like old friends by the family who presents the concerts and blues writer Scott Baretta was there as well as Honeyboy Edwards who spent the whole time in his car. Since it was Mother’s Day, the attendance was sparse unlike the first week where it was reportedly jammed with 150 blues fans.

It was well worth the eighty-mile trip each way—this duo projected the euphoria of a full band. Malcolm’s vocals were rich and immersed in Mississippi blues and he can play a mean guitar with relentless energy. Burnside is the grandson of the legendary R. L. Burnside so it is like mother’s milk to him. Burnside’s funky drum solo on “Juke Joint Duo” (the title song of their new CD) magnificently portrayed his technical skills and in lesser hands would have been just another drum solo. Malcolm’s vocal on “Keep Your Hands Off Her” was powerfully raw blues. We reluctantly had to leave before dark since we had a long drive on country roads but we left happy campers!

I always sum up my trips to Mississippi by saying this was the best and this one surely was but if your heart is in the blues, it is the place to be!

>>>>> Dorothy L. Hill
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