By STEVE SEYMOUR
Blues superstars Tab Benoit and Watermelon Slim headlined the 5th annual Marquette Area Blues Fest over the Labor Day weekend, impressing crowds at Mattson Lower Harbor Park with a fascinating display of a genuine American music.
Louisiana native Benoit and Slim, who resides in Oklahoma, gave the event a distinctive southern flavor, as did Texas-based Erin "Icewater" Jaimes, a rising blues player my wife Sue and I waited a year to see.
While Benoit and Slim, also known as William P. Homans, certainly deserved their headliner status, closing the concert program on Saturday and Sunday, respectively; Jaimes performed her set early on the first day. She followed the On The Spot Blues Band, a group of young friends from the Copper Country influenced by Texas-style blues.
Referring to her marriage to Marquette native Thomas Oatley earlier this year, Jaimes introduced herself by telling the audience: "I just married a Yooper."
Plucking on her bass guitar with confidence, she opened with "I Don't Mind," a track she composed for "Soul Garden," her second compact disc, released last year. But, don't let her paucity of recorded output fool you.
She made a commitment to the blues by moving from Massachusetts to Austin, the live music capital of the world, in 1994, sharing the stage along the way with such notables as Double Trouble, Pinetop Perkins, Angela Strehli, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Hubert Sumlin and Sue Foley.
That experience was reflected in Jaimes' assertive bass-playing and powerful vocals on songs like "Find My Love," "Sneakin' Around," "Fear," and "A Woman Will Do Wrong." Marquette's Fast Eddie Consolmagno added harmonica during part of Jaimes' program. Her no-holds-barred style was probably best exemplified by her exciting version of the blues-classic, "I'm A Woman."
Another Texas act, the Eric Tessmer Band, performed next with Jaimes remaining on stage as bassist. Originally from Wisconsin, Tessmer moved to Austin after graduating from high school. The 27-year-old Tessmer and his band played a set which included songs from their "Blues Bullets" CD. A terrific guitarist, Tessmer seemed most at ease blazing through blues standards such as "I Can't Quit You Baby" by Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker's "I Want to Hug You."
Chicago-styled blues followed Tessmer's program with the appearance of Mississippi Heat, founded in 1992. Anchored by the harmonica-playing of leader Pierre Lacocque, a Belgian who moved to Chicago in 1969, the band has had numerous members through the years. During their Marquette stop, the group was bolstered by the smooth guitar talents of veteran bluesman Carl Weathersby. A highlight of their set was "Blues for George Baze" which featured a beautiful Weathersby solo and classy harp work by Lacocque. Singer Inetta Visor added her dynamic vocals to many of the group's songs.
Mississippi Heat counts Green Bay bluesman Billy Flynn among its former members. The Wisconsin guitarist was responsible for coaxing Nora Jean Bruso, the next performer, to return to music after she quit the blues scene to raise her two sons.
The Mississippi-born Bruso showed Upper Peninsula concert-goers why it was her destiny to sing the blues when she took the stage following Mississippi Heat. Appropriately, she opened with "Going Back to Mississippi," the title track from her second album, released in 2004. With vocals reminiscent of Etta James and Koko Taylor, Bruso wailed. While she performed many of her own compositions, Bruso seemed particularly motivated during "Wang Dang Doodle." She stormed through the blues classic, persuading the audience to sing along with the "all night long" chorus.
With a day-long build-up, the crowd was ready to hear headliner Tab Benoit, a Baton Rouge guitar slinger who ably mixes blues and Cajun styles in a rockin' blend which has earned him many fans. He has won the Contemporary Blues Artist of the Year Award from the the Blues Foundation for two consecutive years.
His die-hard fans know Benoit's name is pronounced "Ben-WAH." The emcee, however, transposed the syllables, announcing the singer as "Ben Taboit." Unfazed, Benoit launched into "Fever For the Bayou," but the malapropism became a running joke during the rest of the show.
Backed by bassist Leon Medica and drummer David Peters from Louisiana's Leroux, Benoit kept the groove going with "Lost in Your Lovin'," and "These Blues Are All Mine." Benoit asked for requests from the audience, some of whom had seen him play at Northern Michigan University in 2004. Following shouts from the crowd, the trio played "Night Train," the title track from Benoit's newest CD, recorded in Nashville last year.
Bringing Louisiana to the forefront, Benoit played "We Make Good Gumbo" as well as "New Orleans Ladies," the 1978 Leroux hit composed by Medica. Medica responded to the crowd's approval, saying: "You treat old people nice up here."
Pointing toward Lake Superior, Benoit asked: "What is that over there?" The audience replied: "Ore dock."
He powered through "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," "Stackolina," Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and "I Got Loaded," a hit for Los Lobos. Following "One Foot in the Bayou," Benoit explained that New Orleans still hadn't recovered from the damage caused by Katrina. Unfortunately, the country acted like the hurricane didn't happen, he said. He finished with a medley of "Jambalaya," "Iko, Iko" and "When the Saints Go Marching In." During his encore, Benoit paid tribute to Freddie King by performing "Pack It Up."
Sunday's program got underway with the Red, White & Blues Band, a five-piece group calling the Upper Peninsula home. The band mixed original material with some classic Memphis standbys and Chicago sounds.
The Delta Jets kept the emphasis on the blues with dynamic performances of "I'm So Glad," "Howlin' for My Baby," and "Susie Q," among other songs.
Marquette's Flat Broke Blues Band followed with their fifth consecutive Blues Fest appearance. They were joined on stage by the Million Dollar Horns, led by Dr. Matt Ludwig, music instructor and band director at Marquette Senior High School.
Moving from the enthusiasm of high school players to the experience of a blues veteran, the audience was treated to a set by guitarist and vocalist Johnnie Bassett.
Bassett taught himself to play guitar in 1946 when his family moved from the south to Detroit. He opened with "The Cat," by renown film composer Lalo Schifrin. Fans also heard a pleasing rendition of "Bassett Hound," Johnnie's theme song.
Motor City Josh and the Big Three shook things up with their version of "funky blues." Frontman Josh Ford has been a full-time blues musician since 1991 and performs about 300 shows every year. For his Marquette engagement, Josh brought along drummer Eric Savage, 17-year-old bassist Alex Lyon and lead guitar-player Johnnie Rhoades, 22.
Their incendiary show took the crowd by surprise.
They opened with "Dust My Broom," the venerable tune by blues legend Robert Johnson. Audience expectations built when Rhoades stepped up to play the neck of Josh's guitar in a dual display of six-string virtuosity.
Josh left the stage to amp-up the excitement by walking through the crowd. "Woman With a Whole Lotta Dough," followed while the band earned the audience's respect with a jaw-dropping take on the Allman Brothers classic, "Jessica."
With the crowd suitably fired-up, Watermelon Slim & the Workers appeared to show why they have been named 2008 Blues Band of the Year.
Fronting a band composed of bassist Cliff Belcher, drummer Michael Newberry and guitarist Ronnie "Mack" McMullen, Slim's committed vocals shone through on Slim Harpo's "King Bee," the original "I'm A Wheelman" and Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightnin'." The singer added dobro slide guitar and tasty harp work.
Slim, who has been performing since the 1970s, told his story in an autobiographical set which included "The Ashtray" and "Devil's Cadillac." Next came a terrific version of "Tomorrow Night," originally recorded by George Mayweather, one of Slim's mentors. "Dad in the Distance," about not seeing his daughter after a divorce, told another chapter in Slim's life.
Slim has seen his ups and downs. A Vietnam War veteran, he has been a truck driver, sawmiller, salesman and collections agent. He also has degrees in journalism and history and has a genius IQ, qualifying him for membership in Mensa.
Referring to his lyrics, Slim told the crowd: "It's all true stuff."
Next, Slim tackled "Call My Job," written by pianist and vocalist Detroit Junior. "Long Distance Call," had Slim summoning the spirits of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. "Juke Joint Woman" evoked more feeling while Slim dedicated the night's final song, "Archetypal Blues," to his friend Craig Lawler, a gifted harp player dying of cancer.
If that wasn't enough, many of the performers continued their musical exploits during a post-party jam session at the Skyboxx bar in downtown Marquette.
Because we knew we'd witness an amazing night of improvisational blues jamming, Sue and I virtually ran to the Skyboxx. That's where we saw Erin Jaimes perform for the first time last year, even if it was only three songs. This year she hosted the party along with guitarist Eric Tessmer. We weren't disappointed. Jaimes, Tessmer, Watermelon Slim and a host of other talented players entertained us into the wee hours.
It was an impressive weekend, from start to finish.
Marquette blues fest photo gallery
On the Spot Blues Band
Erin Jaimes and Band performing at the Skyboxx
Motor City Josh & Johnnie Rhoades
Tab Benoit and Leon Medica
Nora Jean Bruso and guitar player