Thursday, November 02, 2006

Island Casino's blues acts shine

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With major entertainment being offered twice a month in recent years, the Island Resort and Casino has often stressed country and oldies acts.

Yet, the Harris-based casino has also hosted a series of great blues performers, including the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jim Belushi and George Thorogood. My wife Sue and I were impressed by all four shows.

Today's Thunderbirds, featuring harmonica master Kim Wilson and firebrand lead guitarist Kid Ramos, kick started a national blues revival in the early 80s, and were the perfect act to launch the casino's foray into the genre.

Of course, if you're a blues fan you know Stevie Ray Vaughan's older brother Jimmie was the original lead guitarist in the T-Birds when they burst upon the scene more than two decades ago with four incredible albums.

By the time of the band's appearance locally, "Tuff Enuff," had scored hit status, but Vaughan had departed for a solo career. Demonstrating some muscular guitar power during a show on Nov. 25, 2000, Ramos ably showed why he was a fit replacement.

Along with veteran keyboardist Gene Taylor, the Texas-based band tore through its repertoire, including "My Babe," "The Things I Used To Do," and "Wrap It Up." Actually, the program was more jam than hit-driven with Wilson blowing some lung-challenging harp solos, to the delight of the crowd, while alternately showcasing his baritone-tinged vocals.

Another fine show was headlined by blues sensation Kenny Wayne Shepherd along with the influential Double Trouble, Stevie Ray Vaughan's original rhythm section. Comprised of bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton, Double Trouble had recently put out a disc, "Been a Long Time," featuring different guest singers on each cut.

Shepherd, born in Shreveport, was just ten days shy of his 24th birthday when he appeared on June 2, 2001. The young guitarist, sounding like a seasoned pro, played tracks from his "Ledbetter Heights" compact disc, including the memorable "Blue on Black," which had earned considerable radio play.

Pacing the stage, Shepherd drew roars of approval from the audience with his fiery technique.

You might think of Jim Belushi mainly as an actor, with credits ranging from television's "According to Jim," to numerous movie roles, but there's more to him than that. True, he has a likable personality and good sense of humor, but he can sing the blues, too.

He proved that on stage on March 23, 2002, during an appearance with the Sacred Hearts. Belushi, no slouch on harmonica, led the band through a raucous set including "29 Ways," "36-24-36," and "Born in Chicago," changing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band song's original 1941 reference to 1951.

A master at building rapport with the audience, Jim showed why his late brother John wasn't the only member of the Belushi family who could relate to the blues.

Delaware native George Thorogood, meanwhile, brought his FM hit-filled show to the casino on May 28, 2005. Thorogood has a audience-pleasing formula, and doesn't stray too far from riffs originating in the Chuck Berry songbook. Dressed in black, the 2005 Billboard magazine Blues Artist of the Year took the crowd through thirty years of blues-rock classics.

As you might expect, he did "Bad to the Bone," "Born to be Bad," and the John Lee Hooker song he made his own,"One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." You might not expect mature women to scream, but they did for Thorogood, bringing a sly smile to his face.

In just a few years, the casino hosted a series of outstanding blues performers that in the past you would have had to travel to see. Hopefully management will continue to book such acts as the casino readies its new 1,300-seat showroom.

Local audiences would surely love to see blues legends like B. B. King, Buddy Guy or Robert Cray. Wouldn't you?

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