Thursday, January 12, 2006

For a thrill, try the blues

You've been through every popular musical style since you were a kid--rock, punk, disco, metal, country, alternative, oldies, adult contemporary. It's all gotten a little stale and today's music just doesn't thrill you either. Perhaps it's time to give the blues a listen.

If you liked Elvis, you probably know his hit "Hound Dog" was originally done by blues legend Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton. The Rolling Stones started as a blues band, recording songs by the likes of Jimmy Reed. Eric Burdon and the Animals and the Yardbirds, featuring Eric Clapton, took American blues classics and recycled them during the "British Invasion."

Around that time many white American teenagers discovered blues greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and B. B. King. Those performers influenced Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Green (of early Fleetwood Mac), and countless others. The blues had a child and they named it rock 'n' roll.

In fact, virtually all modern music styles evolved from the blues.

The blues today is alive and well, thank you, but gets about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield. There's Dan Aykroyd's "House of Blues" program and NPR, but blues gets little play on commercial radio. Blues festivals are mainstays for many performers and there are dozens across the country, including Duluth and Marquette.

Unlike pop music, blues reveres both young and old performers. King, who's breakthough hit, "The Thrill Is Gone" came in 1970, is 80. The influential Buddy Guy, based at his "Legends" club in Chicago, is also a senior citizen. But, there's room for youth, too. Whippersnappers Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang are in their 20s.

Shemekia Copeland, who played at Northern Michigan University in 2004, and Susan Tedeschi, reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt, are among blues' rising female stars.

The area's casinos have put on some memorable blues shows. By popular demand, Shepherd has appeared twice at the Island Resort and Casino, once backed by Double Trouble, Stevie Ray Vaughan's veteran rhythm section. George Thorogood's version of blues/rock ignited the crowd when he performed last May. The Fabulous Thunderbirds, featuring Kim Wilson's harp histrionics, also fired up the crowd during their appearance. Green Bay's Oneida Casino featured Buddy Guy and an acoustic performance by Jonny Lang Band last August in an outdoor concert. Sault Ste. Marie's Kewadin showcased the incredible talents of B. B. King a few years ago before several thousand appreciative fans. B. B. loves to tour and it shows.

Folks looking to expand their interest in the blues should get "All Music Guide to the Blues," published by Backbeat Books and edited by Vladimir Bogdanov. This 755-page tome reviews and rates nearly 9,000 recordings by 1,200 artists in all styles of the blues. Along with reviews, the book includes biographies for legendary blues giants and newcomers alike. The reviews also offer critics' suggestions for the best place to start exploring each artist.

The book's exhaustive essay section will make you an expert on the history of the blues as well as the various styles which evolved such a Delta blues, Chicago blues, Piedmont blues, and so on.

A few other must-own blues books include "Blues All Around Me," the autobiography of B. B. King; "Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues," the companion book to the PBS television series; and "Blues Odyssey," by ex-Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. The latter two books offer colorful easy-to-read histories of the blues.

Two national magazines offer interviews, reviews and features on blues artists. "Blues Revue" (800/258-7388) publishes six times per year and includes three free sampler CDs with a $23.95 subscription. "Living Blues" concentrates on the "African-American Blues Tradition" and is published by the University of Mississippi. Call 800/390-3527 to subscribe for one year at $23.95.

Now, armed with all the information you need, it's time to actually listen to the blues. Discover why with B. B. King and his friends the thrill is never gone.

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