Monday, August 22, 2011

Chi-Town Blues Harp Bash

If this can't get your Mojo Working, well it just won't work for you. Looks like plenty of Chi-town type blues harp talent on tap gonna be bringing it to the table. The fact that the tone monster himself, Gary Smith, will be getting fat and nasty sure tempts me to book a ticket from Texas to Chicago. I saw Morry Sochat on my last visit to Chicago and the man swings. SPACE is a great, intimate place to hear what will just have to be a fantastic show. Go to for the lowdown on the blowdown.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Navasota Blues Festival 2011-Recap

Well, I certainly got my blues fix during the month of July. I was still dripping from the blues from the Texas Harmonica Festival when the saturation continued at the Navasota Blues Festival this past weekend. Since I was only able to make it to Saturday extravaganza, these pix and tidbits come from the Saturday event. My plan was to have this all posted by yesterday, but this danged blogger service sometimes just won't cooperate with picture downloads sometimes. Michael Birnbaum, who has excellent instructionals on playing Mance Lipscomb's style of guitar, told me that Friday's show was a great one and went very well. He opened Friday's festivities with he and his daughter doing Mance's stuff. My loss. Birnbaum also kicked off Saturday with a guitar tutorial in the morning, prior to the showcase acts.

Sweet Mama Cotton got the day off on the right foot and got the crowd into the spirit of the day with a solo set. Accompanying herself on keyboards, she ran through her sassy woman blues with her big and powerful vocals. In the solo setting I got a better feel for her musicianship on her axe than when she's backed by a full course band. The sweet mama can really get the notes rolling on that keyboard. The crowd's always a bit on the light side 1:30 in the afternoon, but those that showed up were an enthusiastic bunch and they gave Sweet Mama plenty of blues love.

Sweet Mama Cotton lays it on down
Bernie Pearl spun tales about his personal relationship with Mance Lipscomb, including a story about spending Christmas 1973 in Navasota with the Texas Songster and his wife. He mentioned that back then he played what he called "Right Hand Blues", because he always sat on the right hand side of Mance, Lightnin', or Mississippi Fred McDowell in order to watch how they fingered the fret board. Matter of fact his newest CD is entitled Right Hand Blues. He learned his lessons well, running through Mance tunes such as, "Blues In A Bottle", "Night Time Ain't the Right Time", some of Lighntin' Hopkins repertoire, and after breaking out the National steel guitar and slide; some McDowell and Son House. He really did shake 'em on down on McDowell's "Shake 'Em On Down". He packed a bass player with him this year in the body of Michael Barry, who helped fill out the stage sound. He even gave the bass player some, by allowing a few thumping solos to take place. Great couple of guys, playing the music that has been in their souls for a long time, and they travelled from California to do it.

Bernie and Michael saddled up their ponies and ride

Bernie Pearl breaks out the National steel and slides the blues
David Egan and Twenty Years of Trouble hit the stage with his booming voice filling the room and his fingers moving lickety split across his keyboard. He mixed in quite a few of his originals along with substantial covers of tunes like "Scratch My Back", "That's My Soul", and "Messaround". He tends to add a humorous, real life take on the blues to the songs that he has penned, or co-penned with his good-time buddy, Buddy Flett. Loved it when he sang about the need to get his butt out of Mississippi. He mashed up straight ahead blues with old time rock n roll, rhythm and blues, and soulful soul.

David Egan scratches the back of his keyboard
A pause for the cause, which is awarding scholarships in Mance Lipscomb's name to hard working students from Navasota High School, had Mance's sons Jimmy Lipscomb and John Lockett passing out certificates and congratulating recipients; previous and current.

Mance's sons congratulate scholarship recipients

Perennial fest favorite, Rob Roy Parnell took over the bandstand with his skin tight band to blast through his roadhouse rumble, swamp ballads, and pure Texas blues. Accompanying his smooth as molasses vocals with his ripping blues harmonica tone, he picked up where Egan's high energy set left off and gave it his own boost or two. I put Rob Roy on the same pedestal as Delbert McClinton. Both are Texas treasures and mine similar musical territory. The dance floor stayed mighty lively as he swung through songs from his CD releases and covers from the likes of Ray Price. He had the crowd on its feat with his solo harmonica breakdown that segued into a tough and nails Texas shuffle about boogie woogying all night long.
Just had to include a shot of Rob Roy's Customized Masco amplifier and speaker cabinets with a 12 and 10 inch speaker in each--heck of a tone monster.

Rob Roy blowing heavy through that Masco rig

Hard to say enough about Texas Johnny Brown and his Quality Blues Band. The man's a legend and proved that his chops are solidly intact, both vocally and instrumentally, as they were back in the '50s and '60s when he led the bands of Bobby Bland and B.B. King, and when Duke/Peacock records hired him as a studio guitarist. He had the crowd rocking, swinging, and swooning throughout his set. He pulled classic blues, R&B, and soul from his vast repertoire. It did not take long for the multitude to realize that they were in the midst of blues royalty; honest to goodness blues royalty. While his bass player restrung a string, he nailed solo renditions of Lightnin' Hopkins "Short Hair Woman", Bill Broozy's "Key To The Highway", John Lee Hooker's "Crawling Kingsnake", and a snappy "Rock Me Baby". By the time he stepped off the stage and began prowling the venue aisles, picking and grinning all the while, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. An African-American Corvette organization from Houston got the dance floor moving and grooving with their concise, precision line-dancing, that added to the party atmosphere that Texas Johnny Brown got going.

Texas Johnny Brown picked immaculate blues notes for "real"
Texas Johnny took his guitar to the dance floor and wowed 'em

Having just witnessed the highly talented Texas Johnny Boy's band at the Texas Harmonica Festival a few weeks before, I knew that he'd bring it. I also felt that Texas Johnny Brown would be a hard act to follow. Texas Johnny Boy managed meeting the challenge extremely well with the "BIG" band that he brought to the festival. This was an old school, horn driven blues band that he rounded up to blow the roof off of the Grimes County Expo Center. Having headlined the festival last year, Texas Johnny Boy decided to up the ante, so to speak, this go 'round and treat the audience to the type of blues reviews that have been lost to time. With a horn section fueled by Eric Demmer's sax and Andre Hayword's trombone and adding ringers like guitarist Hash Brown and keyboardist Christian Dozzler to his working band, they took the downhome lowdown blues uptown more than a few times. Kicking off his set with his fat tone harp, Johnny Boy took Willie Dixon's "I Just Want To Make Love To You" out of Chicago and jacked it up with a swinging rhythm. He slicked up Slim Harpo a bit also. Guitarist Dave Haley's slide kept an Elmore James' tune rooted, but Johnny Boy did put the song into a tux. His strong vocals were as fat toned as his harp all night. He knows how to put a song across. The band swung with the power of a B-52 and the crowd swung with it. Great way to cap off a day of the blues.

Texas Johnny Boy's Blues Revue gettin' her done
Texas Johnny Boy and Hash Brown blowing the Mojo
Yep. The blues chased a rabbit and swirled all 'round my head by the time I woke up Sunday morning. The Navasota Blues Festival volunteers get a hats off and salute from me for putting together a fine show for blues fans and they might have even gained more than a few converts that showed up at their doors. Their hearts are in the right place. I had no idea the a statue of Mance Lipscomb had finally been built and then dedicated during the weekend. All I have to say is..."Ain't it about time". These Navasota folks know just how important the old sharecropper's music was to the world.

Now, given the time and inclination, I would have mentioned all the fine musicians that shared the bandstand with their bosses, but I just tend to get way too caught up in the music to get that done very well any longer. Just let me say that the degree of professionalism was unparalleled by the musicians that graced the stage at the festival. 'Nuff for now.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Master Blaster

I couldn't help myself. I just had to post this vid of Little Walter playing the fire out of his harp. Those that speak of LW's skills deteriorating late in his career should listen carefully to what the master's doing here. I say that he was in total command of his sound and the instrument before he died. He might have slipped a bit in his overall performance, but he ruled over the blues harp.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Texas Harmonica Festival Video

Here's some great video from the Texas Harmonica Festival. Most of it highlights the harmonica clinic conducted by Sonny Boy Terry, Ronnie Shellist, and Steve Schneider and the attendees jamming with a "Real" blues band; some for the first time. The highlight of the video is the interview segments with Sonny Boy Terry. It is long, but worth it. Especially if you weren't there or double especially if you were. Guy Schwartz shot the flick for his and did a fantastic job.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Navasota Blues Fest

Since it's August, it must mean that the Navasota Blues Fest will be rolling around. Not that it's always been in August, but has been for the past several years and does always provide a respite from the Texas heat with some mighty fine blues. The fest began, and still is, a tribute to hometown legend, Mance Lipscomb. I've got a bit of history with the fest going all the way back to the first one, when I wrote several of the musician bios for the program for a couple of years and blew my harmonica at several of them. Watched plenty of fine performances and gained some good friends over the years. The event this year will run from Thursday, August 11 through Saturday August 13 at the cavernous Grimes County Expo Center. Before I get too ahead of myself and if you don't care to read through this post go to: You'll know as much as I know about this year's event. Well, maybe not as much as I know, but pretty much. Click on the band links for even mo' knowledge for yo' brain.

Some old hands and some new bands will be slinging and bringing it again, beginning with the appetizer being served up by the Navasota BluesCapital Revue featuring a slew of talent from the from the area. This event is sponsored by Navasota Blues Alley and will be held at the historic Miller Theater, which has limited seating so call 936 830-3331 for details. I do hear that Joe Tex Jr will be in performance, so that should be a treat.

The first course will be served up Friday night. Friday nights have always kicked off the festival with what they used to call a "dance". The Blues Brothers Tribute Act have filled the opening bill for a few years now and after parking their blues police cruizer in front of the building, they'll commence their humorous take on these humorous blues men. Tubie and the Touchtones follow with set of blues, tinged with a bit of rock.

Don Kessee headlines Friday night with his blues from the "Old School", because he's in that class with B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, T-Bone Walker, etc, etc...His band is always as tight as a snake skin and he puts a song across vocally just as well as the aforementioned masters. Bonafide blues will be on tap.

The main course, of course, is the Saturday blues whomping from 1:30 pm until midnight. Carb up the night before and come early to stay late. If you don't, they have plenty of food available. Michael Birnbaum will actually start the proceedings with a guitar clinic, demonstrating Mance's technique. I had the pleasure of playing a set with Michael a few years ago at one of the Friday night dances, and the man knows his book of Mance.

Sweet Mama Cotton will open up the showcase at 1:30 with blues belted out in the tradition of Sippy Wallace and Bessie Smith. As one of the fest veterans, she know how to kick start the crowd with her big, booming voice refusing to allow anyone to remain glued to their folding chairs. She always brings a finely tuned group of muscians to the show from her homebase in Houston.
One of the highlights for me was the first time I saw Bernie Pearl at the festival. I'd long had a CD of his stuff that he recorded with Harmonica Fats from some years back, but nothing prepared me for just how deep this man could play the blues. At the time, I had no idea at the time that he'd sat elbow to elbow with Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Fred McDowell back in the day at his brother's legendary Ash Grove Club in LA. The club was these guys home away from home when they were in California. Bernie pulled out all the stops that day and slayed me with his mastery of blues guitar. He'll do it again, for sure, on August 13.

David Egan & Twenty Four Years of Trouble returns to the fest again this year to lay down his high energy show, marked by mighty fine singing and great musicians. His forte is the song, because he's been covered by a who's who in the blues over the years.

Rob Roy Parnell is one of those previous mentioned friends that I've made over the years. He is a Texas bluesman and that can be hard to define, because that style mixes the swamp of Louisiana, with big city grooves, and West Texas swing. He's got a voice that's big as Texas too and blows the hell out of a harmonica. The roadhouse rumble will start with his set.

Texas Johnny Brown was a member of Amos Milburn's band when they backed him on his recordings in 1949. He led the bands of Bobby "Blue" Bland and Junior Parker and played the part of studio musician for Duke/Peacock Records, and he wrote the classic "Two Steps From The Blues". I thought that I'd throw those tidbits out throwing around the well-worn phrases, "Authentic" and "Real Deal", but if anyone fits the bill, then it sure the heck is he. The price of admission is worth seeing Texas Johnny Brown and His Quality Blues band put that authenticity and real deal blues to work. Heck of a great guy, too.

Just witnessed what Texas Johnny Boy (yeah, Johnny Boy, not Brown) can do with a blues harp in his mouth last weekend at the Texas Harmonica Festival and I guarantee that he can get it going, both vocally and instrumentally. Plus, on this gig he just might break on the flute. Flute? In blues? Trust me, you'll have to see it too believe how well he can make it work. Not saying that he will mind you, because he's bringing in a blue review conglomerate that will also feature DFW stars, Brian "Hash Brown" Calway and Christian "Vienna Slim" Dozzler. I've seen both those boys blow harp, so maybe they'll just all throw it down together, even though guitar and keyboard (respectively) seem to be their main axe choices. It'll be an old fashion blues review completed by the horn section made up by Eric Demmer (sax, Gatemouth Brown alum), Andre Hayward (trombone, Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsailles). They hit the stage at 9 pm and take it to the midnight hours, to they ain't no telling what's gonna take place while they're doing it.

There it is. Sounds like some good sounds to me and a mighty cool place to be when the temperature is still 90 degrees at ten o'clock in the evening time. 'Nuff said.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Texas Harmonica Festival Whomped 'Em!

Blues harp nirvana. The Texas Harmonica Festival held this past Saturday at Houston's Dan Electro's Guitar Bar granted every wish that blues harp fans could possibly dream up; including excellent instruction on getting to the next playing level, how to get that amplified tone happening, an opportunity to jam with the pros, and witnessing one whale of show by incredibly talented blues musicians. And I mean incredible talent.

Sonny Boy Terry has produced excellent blues harp shows for almost as long as I've known him. He's put together harp rumbles and blues blasts sporadically over the past couple of decades and has always pulled in the best danged blues harp talent in the state, and plenty from elsewhere too. Last year he ramrodded his first harmonica festival, that included an instructional clinic, so successfully that the second annual event became a must-do. He tweaked and fine-tuned his model from last year to produce a stupendous show that topped last year's, which I thought would be pretty danged difficult to achieve. Keep in mind that what is posted here is from memory, I found it difficult to sit and write anything while my jaw dropped all night. True. I'm going to run out of superlatives quickly, so if I repeat a few, forgive me.

The afternoon kicked off with the master demonstrating and instructing how to get a harmonica to play the blues for the beginner to the instrument. He covered things such as the difference in playing straight melody in first position on such tunes as Ol' Suzanna and coaxing the wailing blue notes from the harp in cross harp or second position. He stressed the importance of getting that single note and getting it to bend down or up in order to get the blues going on. In his laid back personable style he demonstrated the blues scale on the harmonica the importance of working it into the grooves and keeping a groove witht he music. He had the entire assemblage of sixty or so blowing Muddy Waters "I'm A Man" by the end.

Sonny Boy listens close to an attendee.
I can't say enough about Ronnie Shellist, so I'll just stop here. No, just joking. Shellist was one of the first blues harp instructors to tap into Youtube and offer to share his knowledge with a hungry audience wanting a bigger menu of harmonica playing tips. Today he offers his blues focused harmonica lessons on his website with an array of instruction aimed at everyone from beginners through the advanced student. Shellist followed Sonny Boy's clinic with exhuberance and enthusiasm as he took the lessons to the intermediate level players in the crowd, starting on how to hold the harp and cup it to make it wah-wah properly. His discussion covered first, second and third position playing, tongue blocking slaps and pulls, flutter tongue technique, hitting bends, the importance of rhythm, and other advanced tricks of the trade--including overblows. Attendees were running up and down the blues scale and playing a Kim Wilson rhythmic whomp before he was finished with them. It was plain to see that he wants you to know everything that he knows about the playing the blues and nothing but the blues.
Ronnie Shellist does some one on one.
Stephen "The Professor" Schneider stepped up with a trio of amplifiers and a bagful of microphones and pedals for his demo instructional on how to amplify the little instrument and get huge, fat tone from it. He began by illustrating the importance of obtaining a good cup around the mic and harmonica, so that the amplifier receives the best representation of the note being presented to it. From there he demo'd how to dial in the Fender Reissue Bassman for stage use and explained how he'd modified it to be more conducive for harp playing. He fielded questions relating to the choices for microphones and the pros and cons of each one, and then blew a few tonal differences. He broke out a few Lone Wolf harmonica pedals, such as their harp octave, to show how they could improve the tone of amplifiers that don't quite cut it for harp. Few can explain what goes on inside an amplifier to get that nasty ol' blues harp tone as well as The Professor. From input tubes, to rectifier tubes, to power tubes, to speaker area; Schneider knows the score and shared all on that score.
Stephen Schneider demos a mic.

After a short break after watching the Pocket Full of Soul harmonica documentary, Sonny Boy Terry rounded up his rhythm section of Brian Scardino (drums), Lenny Fatigati (bass), and Holland K. Smith (guitar) for the jam session. These three guys were amazing all night. Except for a break during Texas Johnny Boy's set, these guys backed everyone up all afternoon long and night until the 1 am quitting time. They never missed a beat, regardless of who was calling out what number, and things kicked off with the jam intended to get the clinic participants off their butts and onto the stage to blow the blues. Attendees were given a preview of the kick butt blues harmonica that would follow for the evening with Sonny Boy setting the tone by blasting out his signature sound with the band. From there, the jammers lined up to form what he called a "conga line" and two players at a time stepped on stage, grabbed a harp mic, and joined band's groove with whatever notes they could conjour. Shellist and Sonny Boy highly encouraged participation from everyone, regardless the level of their expertise and play with a real blues band. All levels of expertise did hit the stage and all received a warm welcome and a warm round of applause, whether they squawked out the notes or hit the tone right. Plenty of smiles lit up Dan Electro's room and a big fun vibe permeated the premises.

The jammers did some jamming.
Heather Korb presented her award winning documentary "Third Ward Blues", which portrays the slice of blues life of Houston's Third Ward. Invaluable interviews with Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Gatemouth Brown, and Albert Collins highlight the film with snippets of the music that they were known for, along with a history lesson about the era and the area.

Heather Korb introduces "Third Ward Blues".
 Texas Johnny Boy brought his band to the stage to set the bar high for the rest of the blues harpist to follow. He kicked off with a tough, deep toned, Chi-town style instrumental and proved just how well he has that stuff down. His forte, though, is stylistic shiffs and he has the perfect voice to jump into Louis Jordan jump territory and cover Ray Charles on a tune like the "Messaround". He moved from full blast amped up diatonic to jazzy chromatic and a touch of unamplified acoustic harp and it illustrated his tonal pallete very well. Johnny Boy brought a skin tight band with him in the form of Richard Cholokian (drums), Parker Murphy (bass) and Dave Haley (guitar). They really had a feel for the variety of grooves demanded from Johnny Boy's set. Haley really had a nice touch for the R&B type stuff and could really lay down some jazzy riffs. Johnny Boy will be headlining this year's Navosota Blues Fest on August 13. If you've never caught his show, the fest would be an excellent venue to do so.
Texas Johnny Boy kicks the showcase in gear.

Holland K. Smith kicked butt with a scorching set of blues standards. Sonny Boy had roped him into coming down from his Dallas homebase and the man played impressive blues guitar all night long, but really rocked the joint on his own set, where he was allowed to share his vocal chops with us also. He absolutely scorched "Black Cat Bone", both vocally and with his strings, and how appropriate to thrown down a tune from one of Houston's lengendary bluesmen, Hop Wilson. Smith plays stone cold, solid Texas blues guitar, not blues rock, BLUES guitar. The stuff Johnny Copeland, Albert Collins, Joe Hughes, T-Bone, and Freddy King threw around. Loved his energetic set. He also allowed Lenny to sing one. The bassman surprised me with vocal prowess on a jump number. I can see frontman in his future at some point.

Holland K. Smith lights up the crowd.

Lenny Fatigati sings the blues.

Don't know what can be said about Tommy DarDar that hasn't been said, but since some of y'all ain't heard it said--the man is a Texas treasure. Best known around his Houston stomping grounds, he's one of those talents that should be better known way beyond the Texas Gulf Coast. DarDar does the blues that inner bred with the Louisiana swamp and comes out jumping and jiving with its own viberation. He's got a ruff tuff voice that fits the music like a welder's glove and swings it hard. When he hits the stage, its party time from "Big Mamou" to "Let The Good Times Roll", and buddy, they did roll while he held court. His harp playing doesn't evoke Chicago as much as it does the Gulf Coast and it's there to support his songs, not eclipse them. He'd swing up some rapid runs up toward the higher end of the harp and finish them off with some deeply drawn low notes, reverberating the ceiling fan above him. Don't know if they call him Big Daddy Gumbo any longer, but it fits his style. I do know that we were calling him "Good Time Tommy" Saturday night.

Tommy DarDar loves that "Big Mamou".
Even though Ronnie Shellist demonstrated some of his harmonica licks during his instructional time, I wasn't prepared for the Chi-town toned set he blew through during his showcase set. I thought that Kim Wilson had taken the stage. He had me hooked from his opening instrumental and as he blasted through Junior Parker's "Mother-in-Law Blues", I knew that he was one of the "Real Deal" blues harp guys now, and his vocals are polished and expressive. As he bounced call and response notes back and forth off of Holland's guitar, there was no doubt left that Shellist had a deep feeling for the music inside of him and he enjoy the hell out of sharing it. A highlight of the set was when he called up Greg Izor for a little friendly head cutting session. Seems that those two hung together in New Orleans and the gig provided a bit of a reunion for them. They smoked the stage, pinging fat notes to each other and back again. Izor returned the favor during his set, with much the same results.

Ronnie Shellist has his rooster crowing.
I really don't think that a straight jacket could keep Greg Izor's energy level in check. He hit the stage full steam ahead and never once let up. Once he placed a harmonica mic to his lips, the music moved him and put him in constant motion. Having reviewed his CD on the blog here recently, I knew darned well that his harp playing had "it"--all the fat and no filler, just killer stuff. He blew like his life depended on it and sang as well as anyone out there doing the blues today. Then he broke out his chromatic harmonica. Wow! I can't remember the last time I heard anyone play the blues on chromatic as well as Greg Izor. He was all over the big harp, button. He swoop from the high octaves and then bottom out and boom heavy, heavy stuff from the low octave. His telling me that he grabbed hold of Johnny Sansone when he was in New Orleans and never let him go until he learned all that he could proved invaluable. Then, of course, the returned the head cutting favor by getting Shellist back up and they went into blues harp frenzy.
A little friendly head cutting going down.

Greg Izor's blowing it fat and nasty.

Sonny Boy returned to join the band and show why he's such a legend in Houston. As many harp players as I've listened to over the years, no one does it quite like Sonny Boy Terry. He's just got a style and deep tone that he can call his own. Plenty of Chi-town fat, but there's something about that humid Gulf Coast vibe that permeates what comes out and it drips blues like sweat. He coaxes nuances from his harp, mic, and amp that just sets him apart from others. Sonny Boy got up and did his thang and took no prisoners and then orchestrated the "Grand Finale", which, of course, blew the roof on Dan Electro's.

Sonny Boy wraps up the showcase.
By the end of the evening, blues music had seeped through the crowd like molasses that'll take days to wash away. 'Nuff said.