Keep The Blues Alive

Keep The Blues Alive

with Koko Taylor, Jeff Healy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Allman Brothers

Amongst all the big names and the little names at Music Midtown 2000, there was a mini-festival that fit snugly in this 130-band lineup – a little blues festival. This year’s festival included a blues-rock guitar hero’s dream. From local bluesman Tinsley Ellis to Chicago’s Koko Taylor then back to Georgia’s Allman Brothers Band.

V-103 hosted the Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, and her Blues Machine to a mostly white, middle-aged audience. I’m sure that was a shock to this urban radio station’s ad-men. Even with a new CD due to be released, this ageless beauty drove out the classic blues, and even threw down a little boogie. With a career spanning decades, she certainly had a very large catalogue of songs to choose from. During her song “Come to Mama,” Koko swung her hips and sashayed with her guitar player, Mr. Dynamite, while the crowd chanted “Go Koko, Go Koko, Go Koko!” She sang “I’m a Woman,” which I guess is a reply to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man.” Koko Taylor is about Chicago blues, and although her gospel singing upbringing comes through on her songs, it’s the guitar that wails with every note. The two guitar players of the Blues Machine made those Fenders holler with a style Stevie Ray Vaughn would have admired. Koko was the only afternoon band I saw that had an encore. And even after she was done singing, the Blues Machine kept on jamming until the promoter had to close the set to allow the next band to play.

Over at the 96 Rock stage, the Fabulous Thunderbirds were pumping out a blues boogie. The members took the stage all in black, and with hairstyles dating back to 50’s rockabilly fashion. They played “I’m a Man,” I guess to answer back what Koko was saying earlier in the day. The T-birds had the audience dancing to their upbeat tunes, but an overly long harmonica solo followed by a longer piano solo had me searching for something to eat instead of paying attention to the music.

The next night saw a trio of blues and blues influenced music. Toronto’s Jeff Healey was brought on stage and led to a guitar on a stand. I’ve heard the Jeff Healey Band before, but was unaware of his affliction. Seeing that he was blind only added to my awe of his guitar playing. And seeing him play live knocked me out. Jeff stands before his guitar smiling like a little kid. He runs his hand over his instrument touching the strings and switches. He counts out an eight-beat and proceeds to rip through the sound barrier with his searing guitar work. That guitar did not stay in its stand long. He grabbed that thing and clutched it to his body as he swung and spun emoting to every guitar lick he could muster. And he frets with his thumb, which really blew me away. From his new CD, he played “Macon, Georgia Blues” which I thought was interesting, since the Allman Brothers were just three hours away. He closed his set ala Pete Townshend by smashing his guitar stand, his microphone stand, and then tossing his guitar down on the stage and stepping all over it. Once the feedback and noise settled, he stood there meekly as a little boy again, and waited for his guide to lead him offstage.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd followed, showing a little more respect to his guitar. He didn’t smash it, he just played it. And man, did he wow the audience with his mastery of the Stratocaster. It’s amazing what these children can do with a guitar. He ended his show with a Jimi Hendrix medley that mixed in his own guitar work, proving that he certainly fits right in with the other guitar gods.

By the time the Allman Brothers took the stage, the crowd has swelled to Turner Field proportions. From the photographer’s pit, it looked like a sea of heads for a quarter mile. Although considered a “southern rock” band, the Allman Brothers cross a variety of musical styles, but Gregg Allman’s voice and Derek Trucks’ guitar work definitely come from a blues source. They even opened with “Statesboro Blues.” Their set went for over two-and-a-half hours with an encore. It included a bass solo and a percussion only section. They were a fitting closer for a weekend that saw blues rock guitar blare out from almost every stage every night. And what a beautiful sound it was.

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