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OCTOBER 3-4, 2008

On a recent college visit to Mizzou with my son Jake, we decided to take in the Roots ‘n Blues ‘n BBQ festival in Columbia. The following is a review of our experience and the artists we saw among the three stages throughout the downtown area.

On Friday night we started out at the Flat Branch Park stage to take in Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ Malcolm.

Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ MalcolmBeing the grandson of R.L. Burnside did not cut Cedric Burnside any extra slack. He had to earn his place behind the drum kit just like anybody else. Growing up in the hills of Marshall County Mississippi, it was not uncommon to find twelve year old Cedric banging the hell out of the set at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint until three a.m., only to get up for school three hours later. By the age of sixteen Cedric had well earned his position with R.L. and Kenny Brown and abandoned his school work to hit the road.

At age 30, singer, guitarist, songwriter, and wild live performer Steve “Lightnin” Malcolm has over 16 years stage experience. Born in rural Missouri, Malcolm enjoyed the freedom of country life, quickly learning to entertain himself and others around him. Growing up in a little village called Burgess MO. in a country house next to the KCS Railroad that ran from Kansas City to New Orleans, the train has always been a theme in Malcolm’s music, as well as the inspiration for the steady, insistent bass rhythms of rural dance music.

This juke joint duo, which is the name of one of their recent albums, define the north Mississippi hills blues sound with their steady hard driving rhythms. They played a mixture of original songs mostly written by Cedric, a collection of R.L.’s songs and a few from the Junior Kimbrough songbook. Some of the most memorable were when Cedric sang his grandfather’s classics of Going Down South and When My First Wife Left Me. Lightnin’ did a soulful rendition of Jr. Kimbrough’s, Leave Her Alone, with a killer guitar riff, which he used throughout the set, sometimes playing an octave lower and others with a wah pedal. After the set, they were humble enough to spend time with their fans chatting and autographing CD’s. Jake and I decided this CD was a must for our collection.

Next we made our way to the Peace Park stage to check out Ruthie Foster.

Ruthie FosterRuthie is from Austin, Texas and has a deep background of old soul and blues and even some R&B. Early on, long before she got into the folk thing, she was doing more soul on acoustic guitar than anything else. Since returning to her native Texas in the mid-’90s after a period that found her touring with the U.S. Navy band Pride and even spending a few years in New York City under contract to Atlantic Records, Foster quickly established herself as one of the acoustic music world’s brightest stars from the Kerrville Folk Festival to Austin City Limits to stages all across North America and Europe.

This was my first exposure to Ruthie’s music, but will certainly not be my last! Ruthie was a tremendous vocalist and sang a mixture of blues, gospel, folk and reggae while strumming her six string acoustic. She described her approach to music as a little bit of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke with a little Ruthie in the middle. Sitting at the keyboards, she belted out Phenomal Woman, a cut from her latest album Phenomal, getting the crowd pumped up. On the softer side, she did Mississippi John Hurt’s, Praying on the Old Campgrounds, with the drummer using spoons as percussion with an incredible solo. Ruthie kept asking the crowd if it was ok to mix her blues with gospel, to which she certainly did while telling stories of her childhood church days with Aunt Cora in the choir while incorporating Browine McGee’s Walk On that left you with goose bumps and muttering Amen.

On Saturday, the next morning the festival started at 11 and Jake and I made our way back to the stage in Peace Park to check out Harper.

Harper, from Australia is an artist who blurs the lines between rock, blues, soul and world music. His harp performances, distinctive instrumentation, and the unhurried story telling of his songs occupy a category of its own. He is a musical visionary who is unafraid to mix the didgeridoo, a wind instrument native to Australian Aborigines culture of his homeland, along with modern percussive rhythms.

Harper’s voice is one of his best instruments, a solid vocalist who can make it deep and gravely while remaining harmonious, throwing in a little Jazzy scat as evidenced in his rendition of A Last Cup of Coffee. In his bag of tricks, he sang through his Shure Green Bullet harp mic, giving his stanzas a distortive tunnel effect. His harp playing and rock oriented stuff was Blues Travelersque.

As far as the band, the drums were mixed too loud and the bass player was overpowering, taking away from the performance. However, when he incorporated the didgeridoo which had a deep throaty tribal resonance, it vibrated through your entire body.

Once Harper finished his set, we headed for the main stage downtown, sponsored by Shelter Insurance. Next up on the bill was Tab Benoit.

Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Tab Benoit makes his home near New Orleans in Houma, LA. Born November 17, 1967, he's one of a handful of bright rising stars on the modern blues scene. For most of the 1990s, he's been working each of his records the old fashioned way, by playing anywhere and everywhere him and his band can play. Since the release of his first album, For Justice, Benoit has taken his brand of Cajun-influenced blues all over the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Nice and Warm, his debut album for Houston-based Justice Records, prompted some critics to say he's reminiscent, at times, of three blues guitar gods: Albert King, Albert Collins, and Jimi Hendrix.

Tab is a solid vocalist with a hint of the bayou accent. He brings the best of the Chicago Blues and New Orleans Cajun blues all rolled into one. His slow tunes were filled with emotion, while he jammed Muddy Waters driving rhythms using clean, crisp notes with an occasional wailing bent note thrown in for good measure. Some say the best note, is the note not played. This was never more evident than in Night Train, which left the listener yearning for some resolution. Another song that is a must in your music collection is New Orleans Ladies, a solid slow blues that raises the hair on the back of your neck. At one point, Tab took audience requests. One of the most memorable ones, which evoked crowd participation, was My Bucket Got a Hole in it, just a fun, good time song.

Next up was Bettye Lavette.

Born in Muskegon, Michigan in 1946, LaVette grew up in Detroit. Despite the palpable level of emotion and fire breathing intensity that permeates the essence of her vocal art, LaVette is one of the very few soul singers who did not get her start singing in the church. “Discovered” at the age of 16 by the legendary Motor City music raconteur Johnnie Mae Matthews, LaVette’s first single was the insouciantly swinging “My Man--He’s a Loving Man.” Recorded initially for Northern in the fall of 1962, the record was quickly picked up by Atlantic for national distribution. The net result was a Top 10 R&B hit that just missed the pop Hot 100 and would be eventually covered by both Tina Turner and Ann Peebles.
The 2008 Blues Music Awards were announced in the Mississippi Delta on 8 May 2008, where Bettye accepted her award for "Contemporary Blues Female Artist 2008". Her latest CD, The Scene of the Crime, has been nominated for a Grammy.
At the age of 67, Bettye’s live shows are full of theatrics reeking with emotion as she shakes her hips in concert with the long drawn bent notes from the guitar that drip with sexiness. Her sultry vocals are full of heartache and emotion that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up while you fight the lump in your throat. This emotion flowed as she sang the title song of her 1974 album Souvenirs, while she sat cross legged at the edge of the stage.
To wrap up her set, she dismissed the band and sang a song accapello about how she now has everything she has ever wanted. A reflection of an artist who has been in the business for 47 years and has finally gotten the recognition she truly deserves.

Buddy GuyTo close the festival was none other than the legendary Buddy Guy. I was excited to get the chance to see this living blues icon. Jake and I spent the afternoon jockeying for a position close to the stage directly in the middle. We had spent the afternoon surrounded by fans content to sit in their lawn chairs and just mellowing to the music. But as the roadies were setting the stage for Buddy, the crowd suddenly grew, people were pushing their way in to find their perfect spot. Fans with lawn chairs were forced to fold them up and stand to preserve their sacred ground. The streets overflowed with blues fans like water in a flash flood. The 4 story parking garage on the corner was not only full of parked cars but people were filling every space that allowed them to catch a peek at the show. You could taste the anticipation in the air! About this time I put my arm around Jake’s shoulder, who is an aspiring blues guitarist, and told him he was about to witness blues history, this would probably be the first and last time we have a chance to see this living legend.

Buddy Guy has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Traditional Blues Album category for Skin Deep. Though Buddy Guy will forever be associated with Chicago, his incredible story actually begins in Louisiana. Born in 1936 to a sharecropper's family and raised on a plantation near the small town of Lettsworth, located some 140 miles northwest of New Orleans, George "Buddy" Guy was one of five children born to Sam and Isabel Guy.

His earliest years were marked by the all-too-familiar characteristics of the Jim Crow South: separate seating on public busses, whites-only drinking fountains, and restaurants where if blacks were served at all, they were sent around back. But the social order of the day notwithstanding, it was tolerance, not bitterness, instilled in the young Buddy Guy.
He addresses the issue of racism on the soulful title song, Skin Deep of the new album, getting right to heart of the matter with a powerful series of personal memories and observations on the ways in which "underneath, we're all the same.

Buddy’s show was just mesmerizing. I have never seen a performer command an audience as Buddy did. He would be playing along, have the crowd all hyped up, stop in the middle of the song, and say, “Listen up! Listen to what I have to tell you.” The crowd would immediately quiet down and Buddy would start strumming his BG Strat softly and whisper the lyrics or story he was telling, holding all of us in a trance.

Buddy is a true showman, and knows how to work an audience. He will play his guitar with his elbow, behind his head, and with his teeth. He can make his Strat, Telecaster and Sitar moan and cry for what seems like an eternity. While also cranking out vicious, slashing, one of a kind blues riffs. He kept telling us he would play all night long as long as the audience was engaged which pumped the crowd even more. At one point, he quieted us down again and told us, “Look here, I’m going to show you how B.B., Albert and I use to do it in the old days.” He then disappeared off the back of the stage; surrounded by 3 or 4 security guards, the crowd began to part like the Red Sea as Buddy was playing and singing among his fans. He even made it to the parking garage, up the staircase a few levels, eventually coming out on to one of the garage floors, treating these fans to a personal show!

Upon returning to the stage, Buddy took the time to plug his new CD, followed by playing a few selected tracks like, Show Me the Money, Out in the Woods and Who’s Gonna Fill Those Shoes. When he began the title track “Skin Deep”, you could feel it bring the crowd together. As the lyrics told of personal experiences, we all reflected on the attitudes of yesteryear, and understood, we all are the same. For these few minutes, racism was erased.
Sadly, Buddy’s show did not go all night long, and he stuck to the hour and half time schedule, not even an encore. Once everyone realized he wouldn’t be back, the crowd began to disperse, Jake turned to me, “This might be the first, but let’s not let it be the last! Buddy made a lasting impression on both of us that we can never forget and a memory we will always share as Father and Son.

Later on, in another college visit, which took us to Chicago, Jake and I made a pilgrimage one night to “The Legends” on Wabash to experience Buddy’s restaurant and bar, only to arrive a few minutes past eight, when age restriction changed to 21, and we were sadly turned away.

In summary, the Roots ‘n Blues ‘n BBQ festival in Columbia, is a top notch festival and I would encourage everyone to make plans for the 2009 bash. There’s a variety of award winning BBQ, outstanding musicians, it’s a well behaved and courteous crowd, with visible security and police presence. The festival is easily accessible with buses running from the Mizzou campus and Hearns center. Check out the following link for more info: www.rootsnbluesnbbq.com

-- Jeff “Harpin Homer” Winder
The STLBluesometer

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