This summer and fall I’ve been able to attend a few more festivals than usual, and see some thrilling performances. I’m writing this from Tunica, Mississippi, just down the road from Helena, Arkansas, where the King Biscuit Festival just wrapped up. Koko Taylor headlined one night and it was great to see her singing at full force after her life-threatening surgery last fall. It was as though she were 20 years younger than her age of 76. Of course it’s always a joy to see Pinetop Perkins and Bob Margolin together, and Diunna Greenleaf showed her vocal potential in a short but exciting guest appearance. The Holmes Brothers brought the church to the blues fans in one of their always-joyful sets. It was my first time ever seeing Eddie Bo, who rarely gigs outside of New Orleans, and his Professor Longhair-influenced piano and onstage energy was a delight. Gatemouth Brown delivered a terrific set, full of his trademark mind-boggling guitar, wry vocals and precision band playing. And Marcia Ball was in gorgeous voice, bringing the very rained-on crowd to their feet again and again.
Earlier this summer, at the wonderful Pocono Festival, there were too many excellent sets to count. I especially loved the acoustic interplay between Kenny Neal and Billy Branch, the fresh songwriting and warm stage presence of Mighty Mo Rodgers and above all the heart-stopping Mavis Staples performance. When she finished “God Is Not Sleeping,” and was almost too overcome by emotion to continue, much of the crowd (myself included) was on the verge of tears. King Biscuit, Pocono and of course the Chicago Blues Festival are among the world’s best. If you haven’t attended them, you’re missing out on some of the best blues experiences imaginable.
Speaking of missing out, if you haven’t picked up Carey and Lurrie Bell’s intimate “Second Nature” CD, W.C. Clark’s latest blend of Texas blues and Southern soul, “Deep In The Heart” or Mavis Staples’ transcendent “Have A Little Faith,” you’ve missed some of the best blues and roots music of the year (no brag, just fact).
A few issues ago (before I took some time to write about some blues friends who died this year), I was telling you about the pre-production for Alligator’s first CD by the guitar genius Roy Buchanan, When A Guitar Plays The Blues. After Roy, co-producer Dick Shurman and I chose from among Roy’s original instrumentals, I asked Roy about whether he had ever played slide. He had started off playing lap steel, and suggested that if we could find a nut extender to raise the strings on his regular guitar, he’d take a shot at a slide tune, playing it lap style. Then we began looking for a song that fit Roy’s limited vocal range and chose Roy Lee Johnson’s “When A Guitar Plays The Blues,” a song that Dick had turned me on to and we had recorded a couple years earlier with Albert Collins. We knew Roy was a reluctant singer, so we decided to invite some special guest vocalists. Otis Clay is one of the world’s premier soul singers and we were thrilled that he agreed to sit in. O.V. Wright’s “A Nickel And A Nail” was a song Otis sang almost every night, and Roy loved it. Gloria Hardiman, one of Chicago’s finest female blues singers of the 1980s was another obvious choice. For Gloria, my friend Denise Osso wrote a lovely slow blues, “Why Don’t You Want Me?” (actually inspired by a failed romance of mine).
Roy wanted a band that could dig deep into blues and soul, and Dick and I put one together for him. On bass we chose Larry Exum, who had recorded with Fenton Robinson and was a core member of Jimmy Johnson’s powerhouse band. For rhythm guitar, we tapped Criss Johnson, the extraordinary gospel guitarist who had co-produced Koko Taylor’s albums with me. For keyboards, I called on Bill Heid, the excellent player from Michigan who had recorded with both Fenton and Koko. And on drums, we drafted Morris Jennings, the extraordinary former member of the Chess Records 1960s studio band. It was an inspiring group of musicians, and they lit a fire under Roy.