Rant’n’Roll: Rubbing Shoulders With The Real Deals At The Bourbon Street Blues Fest

(Photo by Cathy Miller)

It certainly was a thrill and an honor to get up on stage as longtime Aquarian dude and introduce Chicago blues practitioner Bernard Allison to a staunch assemblage of blues fans who cheered lustily when I mentioned that the legendary Luther Allison [1939-1997] was his father. A longtime member of Koko Taylor’s band, he told me backstage that it was Johnny Winter who taught him to play slide guitar. His afternoon set included Jimi’s “Voodoo Chile,” funked-up originals and his daddy’s songs. As the sun peeked through the clouds on a cool late May day, the fact that we were all on hallowed ground started to resonate. Waterloo Village in Stanhope, NJ has hosted such greats as Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Willie Nelson and the Lollapalooza music festival. The move to make it palatable again to major tours is underway.

Mike Zito is a died-in-the-wool road dog, a honky-tonk hero from St. Louis, MO who now lives, works and plays deep in the heart of Texas. His set was an example of the very pronounced Texas strain of blues (like the aforementioned Winter and Vaughan going back to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Gatemouth Brown, Albert Collins, Fab T-Birds, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Freddie King). Zito took that history and rammed it on down our throats as the sun set. He twirled around the stage with his guitar firing off incendiary licks with split-second precision. Nobody sat down. A cover of John Fogerty’s rocking “Fortunate Son” never sounded as newsworthy as it does today. Zito woke up in Texas that morning after working on his new CD for the last few days. He’s not on tour and came up just for this gig. Now that’s a road dog! His 2014 Gone To Texas masterpiece still resonates and his “Roll On” is the theme song of the FX hit series Sons Of Anarchy. Needless to say, he blew us all away. Making Zito’s set even more valid as real Texas roadhouse blues was the fact that Zito done got Freddie King’s piano player, Lewis Stephens, in his band who Jerry Lee’d his 88s into submission, especially on King’s greatest song, “Going Down.”

Talk to this man Stevens and he’ll tell you of times pounding piano for Delbert McClinton, bluegrass legend Vassar Clements [1928-2005] and Bobby Bare as well. When young upstart Gary Clark, Jr. first made a name for himself, it was Stevens whom he called into the studio.

By the time headliner Kenny Wayne Shephard closed out the first night of the fest, we were woozy with the feeling. Watching Shephard at work with the rhythm section of The Rides, was like watching a young Johnny Winter as his long blonde hair flipped, flopped and flied with every shake of his head. The Rides is Shephard’s “other” band with Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg (of Two Jews Blues fame with Mike Bloomfield [1943-1981]).

The Above Ground Blues Band, the Bob Lanza Blues Band and Lee Delray provided the rest of the soundtrack to an incredible day. The following day, it was Robert Cray, 63, whose blues comes smooth. Bonerama, from New Orleans, wowed the crowd with trombone dexterity. Event publicist George “Dazzling” Dassinger, a former Aquarian Weekly journalist, commented how much Bonerama seemed to enjoy performing and their infectious enthusiasm caught the crowd by surprise. Another Aquarian alum, photographer Cathy Miller, provided the artwork accompanying this column. By the time the smoke cleared, we all knew we had witnessed something very special.

Stay tuned.