Sunday, June 27, 2010

Urbana Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival

This Friday and Saturday, the sons of a lot of famous blues musicians rolled into town for the Urbana Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival. In addition, there were five or six different establishments offering barbecue, and there was cheap beer outside and good beer inside -- but I never made it inside.

On Friday night, Big Bill Morganfield was the middle of three acts to play on the main stage in the evening. The son of Muddy Waters, Big Bill Morganfield only started playing the blues after his father's death -- raised by his grandmother in Florida, he started his professional career as a schoolteacher. He played mostly originals -- at one point hushing an audience request by saying, "How 'bout I play you something that I wrote?"

Big Bill's band had some good chops. Clark Stern on piano took some particularly notable solos (although he sometimes needed to warm up into them) and, when he really got hot, appeared to be playing the keyboard with a karate chop! Doc Malone was also blowing pretty hard on the harp, although the timbre of the guitar and the harmonica were very similar in the mix, which diminished the ability of the solos to really stand out. That said, I never quite felt like they got into the pocket and so the set stayed a little shy of really drawing me in.

For dinner on Saturday, it was a pulled pork sandwich from Bliss Barbecue in Charleston, Illinois. The pork was pretty well smoked but not melt-in-your-mouth tender. In part, I made the mistake of not putting enough sauce on the sandwich.

Bernard Allison closed out the night on main stage. Wearing a blue track suit, he moved around stage with a lot of energy -- a contrast to the classic stationary bluesman grimace with which Big Bill Morganfield played. The set was energetic, but the members of the band didn't stand out quite as much as those from Big Bill Morganfield's band.

On Saturday, I headed back over to the festival grounds -- two blocks from my apartment -- for lunch.

Lunch was from Louie's BBQ -- a catering outfit that doesn't have a restaurant. Their pulled pork sandwich was good -- the pork had some nice spice to it, helped out by the mix of tangy and hot sauces that I put on it, and the bun was just the right kind -- but they were relying on some sort of oil (which got all over my hands), which kind of breaks the barbecue rulebook, I think: they achieved their tastiness using means beyond the smoker, in other words.

The band that was playing at 12:30 on Saturday afternoon to a rather small crowd (the picture makes it look worse than it was -- people were seated in the shade off to the side) was the Blues Deacons (misspelled on the official schedule as the Blues Decons -- I thought perhaps they were a bunch of Derridists, but no, that was not the case).

These guys were playing to a small crowd, but they were playing all out. A trio of guitar, bass and drums, they had a sound that was equal to a five-piece -- a testament to what can be done if you get the right tone on your amplifier. (Indeed, I thought of Andy Bean's collegiate quest for "perfect tone" -- back before he traded in his electric guitar for a four-string banjo.) They were playing high-energy, raw-sounding tunes -- it was solid stuff by which to eat a sandwich. Then I split to watch the USA go down to Ghana in the World cup.

Coming back in the evening, Wayne Baker Brooks put on a set with a little too much P-Funk going on in the bass line. When they played a Howlin' Wolf tune, it was interesting to hear the ways in which the rawer sound of the original were just much more compelling that the glossy sheen that comes from bands playing today.

I went and grabbed a pulled pork sandwich from Po' Boys BBQ. Served on white bread, rather than a roll, it was a little bit messy. I liked the sauce that was on the sandwich but found the meat a little undersmoked: it tasted more like pork that had been cooked and then shaved rather than smoked and then pulled apart.

Waiting for John Lee Hooker Jr.'s set to start, I got to see the harmonica player from the Kilborn Alley Blues Band doing a solo set out on the midway. He was working it! Blowing away on the harp and sometimes switching to a second, high-pitched harp, while pounding out the rhythm on a kick drum, this was good blues music. He had a funny patter that showed up in between musical phrases, and a nice crowd gathered around him to hear and see.

John Lee Hooker Jr. came out on stage and was distinctly not his father: no guitar, no "Boom Boom" -- armed with a microphone and a funky backing band, he played music that was more original than some of the other acts at the festival, even as it stretched beyond the boundaries of the blues. There was a dose of hip-hop; there was some Gil Scott Heron-style messaging; there was some more appropriate P-Funk bass. I dug what he was trying to do, although when I finished my commemorative mug full of beer, I decided that I had dug enough and headed home.

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