St. Louis Bluesweek Festival @ Soldier's Memorial Park, St. Louis, MO

Words and pictures by Duane Clawson
“Hearing the blues changed my life.” – Van Morrison

Well, I don't know if the blues music has changed my life but it has made me realize that without the blues, there would be no rock and roll.  The blues, you could say, was my introduction to music theory, in a roundabout way.  I somehow made the connection that many styles of modern music are a derivative of the blues.  After reading several articles on how the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and the Beatles listened to and played amplified versions of old blues songs, I became curious as to what those original blues songs sounded like. This my friends began a lifelong passion for blues music.  Before moving to St. Louis, my access to live blues music was limited, thank God, I landed here.  St. Louis was and still is a hotbed for blues music and this was reaffirmed recently as St. Louis was was named as the home of the National Blues Museum, scheduled to open in 2014.   

So all of this prelude has brought me to cover the St. Louis Bluesweek Festival. The festival was designed to bring awareness to blues music and raise funds for the museum.  The festival spans three days beginning late on Friday night and ending Sunday evening.  This year's festival was the fourth installment of this event. From local blues musicians to national touring acts, the festibal has an unbeatable variety.  Unfortunately, I was only available to cover Saturday's show,s but I'm going to believe that I chose the best day to cover a vast array blues styles.  Of course, the day I chose was not without incident.  A minor lens snafu at the camera store and a passing rain storm delayed my coverage but, as usual, I'll make it happen.  The rain was moving in as  I entered the park grounds and people were scattering for cover.  As it would turn out, the stage was cleared and a brief delay ensued.  After about a fifteen minute delay, it was back to the music. The first act I would see was Chicago's Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials.  I had only seen videos of Lil' Ed on YouTube and what I saw, I liked.  Some of Lil Ed's resume' from the past six years includes the following: 2007 Band of the Year (Blues Music Awards), 2009 Band of the Year (Blues Music Awards), 2009 Nominated BB King Entertainer of the Year (Blues Music Awards), and 2013 Nominated Band of the Year (Blues Music Awards).  Lil' Ed, with his perpetual onstage smile, may have been one of the happiest blues performers I have ever seen and seemed truly appreciative of St. Louis's favorable response to his music. While the Blues Imperials were playing a Chicago-styled blues riff, Lil' Ed was packing up his guitar and waving to the festival audience, as he was running late for a scheduled appearance later that night in Kansas City.

Next up was the Jeremiah Johnson Band with the Sliders, who would help to clear the afternoon skies over St. Louis. The band is a product of a St. Louis and local blues favorite.  The band's constant gigging and rockin' style of the blues have garnered them local and emerging national notoriety.  Mr. Johnson moved back to his hometown of St. Louis from Texas in 2009 and quickly assembled an all-star backing-band including Jim Rosse (trumpet) and Stuart Williams (sax), collectively known as the Sliders. The Sliders have quite a history by themselves, playing with such artists as Little Feat, Bob Weir, and Johnny Johnson, just to name a few.  Jeremiah Johnson used up almost every inch of the large Bluesfest stage by duck walking, falling to his knees, and moving from one side of the stage to the other, stopping briefly to jam with each member of the band.

Continuing with the theme of active performers, Marquise Knox picked up right where Johnson and the Sliders left off.  As with Jeremiah Johnson, Marquise is a local area musician.  That's where the comparisons end.  Mr. Knox is a traditional blues prodigy.  At the young age of 22, Marquise has already shared a stage with Pinetop Perkins, B.B.King, toured extensively in Germany, and has played a blues festival in Switzerland.  Knox's set began with the young band leader scoping out the gathering crowd and waited for the right moment to leave the stage to assemble a large conga line while singing the strolling blues.  Oh, before I forget, Marquise was also kind enough to let a young lady in the audience, along with a set of drumsticks, sit in with him and his band.  This young man seems to have a head start on a  bright future in the world of blues music.

Moving on to the evening's headliners, Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers brought yet another style of blues to the attention of the festival masses.  Rod and his band do two things well, West Coast blues and the harmonica, the latter, Rod does incredibly well.  Rod began his recording career in 1967 and has sat in with some great blues artists throughout his tenure as a musician.  Rod, in a well-tailored purple suit, jammed along with his wife, Honey (keyboards).  Mr. Piazza gained some new fans in the Lou when he took a page from the Marquise Knox playbook and left the stage to blow some serious harmonica in the middle an assembled crowd of blues music aficionados.  I would like to add that Henry Carvajal, guitarist with the Mighty Flyers, played some great solos and did a commendable job of singing the blues with heart and soul.

In the wink of an eye, this day of blues music was coming to an end but it would end with me standing in awe of the day's last performer, Mavis Staples.  For those not in the know, the Staples Family has a long, rich musical history.  The Family began singing in churches in Chicago in 1948 and signed into contract in 1952.  The group hit their stride in the 1970's with the hit, “I'll Take You There” and performing the song “The Weight” with the Band in the concert film, The Last Waltz.  Fast forward to 2013, Mavis Staples is still carrying on the family legacy at the tender age of 73.  One might be leery of what a lady of her age might sound like, well let me tell you, her body may be a bit broken down but the voice was like few I have ever heard.  One could tell from the onset that Mavis was having some trouble getting around and made mention of her knee being the work of the devil, but it wasn't going to keep her down.  As I heard Ms. Staples run through her catalog of songs, I got the impression that any song she lent her voice to became something special.  In tribute to the recent passing of Levon Helm, Mavis did her part to keep his memory alive with a goose bump raising version of “The Weight”.  On a side note to the performance of this song, it was pretty amazing seeing and hearing the different ethnic backgrounds and  those in attendance ages eight to eighty sing along with this timeless classic.  As one could guess, Mavis would end her night with “I'll Take You There”.  By night's end, Ms. Staples was clearly worn out from her time onstage but her voice remained strong and clear 'til the end.  I am going to put this performance somewhere up there with seeing the Rolling Stones live in 1989; stellar, stellar, and more stellar.  I would like to thank Dave Beardsley, co-founder of the National Blues Museum, for granting MTC coverage of this great day of music, all of the musicians that keep the music alive, and for more info on the Blues Museum please visit their website.  Pictures of the festival are below:

Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials
The Jeremiah Johnson Band, with the Sliders
Marquise Knox
Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers
Mavis Staples
Contributed by Duane Clawson
St. Louis Bluesweek Festival @ Soldier's Memorial Park, St. Louis, MO St. Louis Bluesweek Festival @ Soldier's Memorial Park, St. Louis, MO Reviewed by Scott Rowe, Editor on June 03, 2013 Rating: 5
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