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I've Got A Mind To Ramble
Swinging At The Gate
Any outdoor festival is at the mercy of the weather. On October 8 and 9 the Garvin Gate Blues Festival lucked out with two perfect fall days. This was the fifteenth year for what has become the "People's Festival." This racially diverse and multi-cultural event is still free, with no boundaries. The only 'cover' is the love of the blues and having a good time. For me it has become an annual reunion, a chance to see musicians, past KBS members and old friends.
On Friday evening, it started out slowly but quickly picked up, as the Stella Vees filled the crossroads at Oak Street and Garvin Place with their distinctive, smooth jump blues. They have been working some new songs into their repertoire, like "Tramp. That's What You Are" and "Don't Tell Me Your Name." Harp man Mark Hoekstra said, "The band is working on a bunch of new material." The band's encore at the time the sun was setting was appropriate: "Where Were You When The Evening Sun Went Down."
Moreland & Arbuckle, a band I had heard on CD but never live, was all that Mike Suttles, who booked all the acts, promised they would be. This electric trio included Aaron Moreland, who played a variety of unusual guitars, Dustin Arbuckle, who blew some edgy harp and sang, while Brad Horner backed them on drums. Both Moreland and Arbuckle were raised in Kansas and introduced at an early age to music by their musician fathers. Upon hearing Son House, Elmore James and B.B. King, they became immersed in the blues. After performing together for just three years, they made the solo/duo finals of the 2005 International Blues Competition. The exposure provided them the opportunity to break out of Kansas and tour nationally.
This new breed of young musicians conjured up the primeval spirits of the raw Mississippi Hill Country, with sounds similar to Cedric Burnside and Lightin' Malcolm. Moreland & Arbuckle learned their roots well from the masters of country blues and adapted it to a contemporary sound. Their raucous music was energetic, with Moreland pacing back and forth on the stage fingering and sliding on his four-string cigar box guitar (Punch Rare Corojo Cigars). He wasn't trying to be showy, just sincere. Arbuckle's raspy vocals and expressive harp groove mesmerized the crowd as they left their seats to gather at the front of the stage. This was Moreland & Arbuckle's first Louisville appearance and by the crowd's reaction, they should be back soon.
"Somebody shoot that thing" shouted James ‘Super Chikan' Johnson several times during his closing set. The unpredictable bluesman from Clarksdale, Mississippi put on a show that was one of the most memorable in the history of the Gate.
My first encounter with Super Chikan was back in 1997, when a group from the Kentuckiana Blues Society went to the King Biscuit Festival in Helena, Arkansas. We stayed at a motel in Clarksdale and commuted to the festival. One night after the festival, we returned to Clarksdale to dance the night away at the Blues Crossroads at 224 Sunflower Avenue, which was owned by Super Chikan. When twelve of us showed up to party, he quickly assembled an ad hoc band of local musicians to entertain us. The club no longer exists, but I will long remember the blue walls with the portraits of local blues musicians, including one Big Jack Johnson, Super Chikan's distant uncle.
Super Chikan performed at Stevie Ray's in 2000 with his band The Fighting Cocks. When he brought his Fighting Cocks to Garvin Gate, it was all women. (He should have called them the Rockin' Chicks.) On keyboards was Miss Laura (‘LaLa') Craig who has been playing with Super Chikan for seven years. The excitement between them was contagious. Super Chikan's daughter Alisia was on drums and the bassist was a young woman playing a homemade guitar. Every guitar Super Chikan played was a custom-built creation, especially his long-necked, multicolor "Mississippi Chikan Head Chopper," which had a body shaped like a double blade axe. (He received the Mississippi Governor's Award for Excellence In The Arts in 2004 as a folk artist of homemade instruments.)
Super Chikan opened with "Ain't No One Bad Like My Baby" and spent the next ninety minutes covering a gamut of urban and country blues with a humorous attitude. Occasionally he crowed like a rooster or simulated the cackle of a chicken on his guitar, hence his moniker, Super Chikan. His set ended with an extended version of his mantra, "Somebody Shoot That Thing." This song was based on many nursery rhymes with double entendre verses. He could have played all night long and the crowd would have loved it but it was time to open Oak St. to traffic. The band had to return to Clarksdale for a gig at Ground Zero the next night. Friday night set a Garvin Gate record for attendance, based on the beer sales.
The ladies ruled on Saturday with the theme "Dames and Divas" similar to what MERF has recently done with their "Viva La Diva" benefit concerts. The 2010 KBS Band Competition winner, Bryant-Stevens Band, kicked off the afternoon with Cole Steven's slashing slide guitar driving "Ain't Nobody Love Me" and Dana Bryant pleading her case on "Where's My Man." There will be a benefit for the Bryant-Steven's Band at Stevie Ray's on Sunday, November 28 at 5:00 PM to raise some traveling money for their trip to the IBC in Memphis next February.
Robbie Bartlett worked her Garvin Gate appearance in between a tailgate party at Papa John's Stadium and a gig later that evening in Madison, Indiana. It was worth it - she was presented with the 2010 Sylvester Weaver Award following her set. Robbie was the fourth diva to receive this honor since it was first awarded at the 1989 Garvin Gate Festival. Her predecessors include Mary Ann Fisher, Tanita Gaines and Sue O'Neil. Her brother Rick was there to share the moment before his regular piano/singing gig at Buck's Restaurant.
Because this was Divas Day, all of the women rose to the challenge, especially, Arti Wells with the Walnut Street Blues Band. Her soulful version of "Dr. Feelgood" cured the crowd's symptoms of the boogie disease. Sue O'Neil and Blue Seville brought plenty of grit with "Hound Dog," which included several choruses of "Bow Wows." Her take on "I Can Love You Like A Woman, But I Can Fight You Like A Man" said it all in the title. Sue dedicated "Let The Good Times Roll" to all the survivors of breast cancer and she closed with the crowd favorite "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On."
Cheryl Renee made her first appearance at the Gate in 2008 with Keith Little. She returned this year with her band Them Bones. Seated behind her Hammond XB-2 and Roland RD-150 keyboards, Renee played and sang from a varied playlist of traditional and contemporary blues. Her emotional voice matched her expressive face as she sang, "Don't You Lie To Me" and "Person To Person." Attired in an appropriate black and white dress with musical notes and piano keys and chewing gum, Renee projected an attitude of casual sassiness. ‘Little" Al Thomas, her guitarist, is about as small as Magic Slim is thin. Thomas has been a part of Cincinnati's blues scene a long time, having previously played with the Cincinnati Blues All Stars and Sweet Alice Hoskins' Unfinished Business bands. Thomas sings and plays the blues with the maturity that few musicians do today.
Before the closing set, a tribute was made to the late Metro Councilman George Unseld, who generously supported the festival during the past four years when it returned to the Gate. His daughter Missy was presented with a picture of Unseld, which was displayed on the stage during the festival. In addition, she received a small bronze memorial plaque in the shape of a guitar.
Deitra Farr brought the festival to a grand finale with her band of top Chicago bluesmen. She had been living and touring in Europe the last three years and this was her first performance in the U.S. since she returned. She acknowledged to the audience "I'm back for good." Farr was singing with Mississippi Heat when they headlined at the Gate in 1995. She brought back drummer Alan Kirk and guitarist Billy Flynn from that group. Flynn is one of Chicago's best go-to guitarists for festivals and studio work because of his reputation as a musician's musician. Rounding out the rest of the band was bassist Melvin Smith (who had played with KoKo Taylor), Rodney ‘Hot Red' Brown on sax and Roosevelt ‘Mad Hatter‘ Purifoy, playing both fixed and portable keyboards. Farr sang several songs from her two JSP CDs, Let It Go and The Search Is Over. Toward the end of her set she sat down to sing "It's A Mean Old World" which turned into a moving a capella serenade to the crowd. Farr closed the festival with an encore of "This I Know To Be True." You can read Deitra Farr's Artist to Artist interviews with other musicians in Living Blues magazine.
The fantastic weather, the ‘Chikan' and the six divas made the 2010 Garvin Gate Blues Festival a perfect weekend.