This year's Blues Bash lineup features over 45 talented acts. Listed below are some of the highlights and critical picks for the first half of the festival.
Texas blues guitarist, songwriter, and singer Jones began working professionally with Freddie King's backing band the Thunderbirds, vocalist Bobby Patterson's outfit the Mustangs, Johnnie Taylor, and Charlie Robertson before joining harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite's band in the late-'80s. This is his official Charleston debut.
• A Dough Re Mi Pizzeria, Fri. Feb. 6 at 8 p.m.
• IOP Recreation Center, Sat. Feb. 7 at 5 p.m.
• Charleston County Public Library, Sun. Feb. 8 at 12 p.m.
• Circular Congregational Church, Sun. Feb. 8 at 6 p.m.
Based in Atlanta, singer/guitarist Morganfield took his time getting into a career in blues. He's the son of the legendary Muddy Waters. Morganfield's newest collection Born Lover demonstrates some mighty strong Chicago/Delta blues influences.
• Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ, Sat. Feb. 7 at 10 p.m.
Georgia-born blues musician Watkins is a killer guitarist who's worked with the likes of James Brown, B.B. King, and Ray Charles, and her first band, Piano Red and the Houserockers. She describes her style as "real hard classic blues, hard stompin' blues ... railroad smokin' blues."
• Charleston County Public Library, Fri. Feb. 6 at 2 p.m.
• Sticky Fingers, Sat. Feb. 7 at 7 p.m.
• IOP Recreation Center, Sun. Feb. 8 at 2 p.m.
Guitarist/keyboardist Maurice John Vaughn and singer/drummer Donald Ray Johnson have a remarkable musical history. Vaughn's Chicago-based soul/blues combo features singer and trombonist B.J. Emery. Now based in Calgary, Johnson is a veteran of the Phillip Walker Band and an original member of Grammy Award-winning soul/disco band A Taste of Honey.
• Charleston County Public Library, Fri. Feb. 6 at 12 p.m.
• Mad River Bar & Grille, Fri. Feb. 6 at 4 p.m.
• A Dough Re Mi Pizzeria, Sat. Feb. 7 at 8 p.m.
• IOP Recreation Center, Sun. Feb. 8 at 2 p.m.
Last year, singer/guitarist Daddy Mack dazzled the Blues Bash audience with a groovy set of totally reworked British Invasion hits from his album Slow Ride, as well as a slew of originals and standards.
• A Dough Re Mi Pizzeria, Sat. Feb. 14 at 8 p.m.
Two weeks ago, Gary Erwin — a.k.a. Shrimp City Slim — was traveling across northern France, gigging with friends at little clubs and hotels, and sending updates and promotional material to the press from a hotel room in the town of Bougival. This week, he's back in Charleston, rushing around town; double-checking on accommodations, travel plans, P.A. gear; and chatting to anyone he can find about this year's Lowcountry Blues Bash.
The local musician, blues enthusiast, and festival organizer is still full of genuine enthusiasm and can't bother to stand still.
Over the last few months, Erwin has carefully assembled over 45 blues, soul, and roots acts to play in 19 clubs and restaurants across the Charleston area. Showcasing the diversity within the blues is the heart of the festival.
"The first mission of the Blues Bash included giving the artists a high-profile podium to perform and creating an event that would stimulate more public interest in the blues," says Erwin. "From its first year, the Bash succeeded on both counts."
Since then, the numerous Blues Bashes have not only acknowledged veteran acts and their craft, but they've attempted to pull younger fans into the music. It's almost as much of an educational effort as it is an entertainment enterprise. Certainly, some of the hep characters on the roster — like gravel-voiced upstate S.C. singer/guitarist Drink Small or the Fender-slingin' Georgia peach Beverly "Guitar" Watkins — add plenty of raw energy and soulful joyfulness to the Bash, but a celebratory theme of cultural and musical history is consistent throughout.
"I love and miss the older cats, many of whom are gone and the rest are going. It is in their music and their contribution to blues culture that we find the deepest resonance," Shrimp City Slim says. "Of course, we have great people in the present and future of the blues."
Most of the national touring artists who perform at festivals like this one are professional and expect professional situations — whether the gig's in a smoke-filled dive or at an auditorium or outdoor stage. That means that Erwin has to arrange proper audio gear, lodging, transportation, and hospitality. Making the financial realities happen is usually the biggest challenge — especially with this year's dismal national economic situation.
"They're not like young guys who are dying to play their original songs, ride in the van together, and sleep on someone's living room floor. Like so many others who present live music in Charleston, I sometimes have to use the charm of Charleston and the charm of the Lowcountry in the winter months to lure people — and we smother them with love when they get here," Erwin says. "It's grassroots and on a shoestring — kinda like the way the blues has always been."
As a touring musician himself, Erwin understands the ups and downs of touring, and he tries to accommodate each artist the way he and his bandmates would hope to be accommodated out of town. "I know a lot of these visiting acts from being on the road and at other festivals," he says. "It's really like a moving community. This festival might not be the most lucrative for the bands, but it's probably one of the most comfortable and laid-back."
It's painful to consider the unpleasant fact that many of the "older" generation of traditional blues artists on the circuit may not be around much longer. Erwin puts extra effort into booking and featuring some of the more elderly acts, keeping in mind the possibility that they may not be able to travel or perform in forthcoming years.
One recent passing was midstate S.C. blues/R&B artist Napoleon "Nappy" Brown, who died last September at the age of 78.
"The older performers with history are the role models for everyone else trying to perform this music," he adds. "Blues after all is a folk music, handed down from one generation to the next."
Brown grew up singing blues and gospel. In the 1950s, he began working with the Savoy label, scoring several hits on the Billboard R&B charts. He continued to tour, record, and perform at festivals and blues events around the world — including the Lowcountry Blues Bash. Harmonica player Carey Bell, another Blues Bash regular through the years, passed away in 2007 at the age of 70 after suffering from a heart attack.
"If it weren't for festivals and events like the Bash, blues artists would have nowhere to play these days," says Erwin. "I deeply love the older cats. We've had many of the giants here over the years ... and many of them are gone."
Years before he adopted the coastal moniker of "Shrimp City Slim," Gary Erwin was a budding musician and a committed fan of traditional roots music. He was born in Chicago in 1953. Growing up, he enjoyed listening to and learning to play jazz, blues, and rock. His early blues influences included Lightnin' Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Professor Longhair, and James Booker.
After playing in various groups, Erwin eventually relocated from Boston to Charleston in 1983. He became a record store proprietor (older fans fondly remember Erwin's Music Shop on Wentworth Street), a music critic, and promoter.
He's perhaps best known in Charleston these days as the frontman and keyboardist for blues combo, the Shrimp City Slim band, a busy act that recently released a live collection of boogie tunes titled Highway 17.
By the early '90s, Erwin had established the local Blues Society collective and began spinning sides on public radio.
Erwin first started organizing the annual festival in 1991 after he was contacted by some local investors who purchased the former County Hall at 1000 King Street. This venue later became the King Street Palace before shutting down years ago.
"It was kind of an auditorium/convention hall type thing during the '50s," he recalls.
The first year's lineup included performances by Junior Wells, Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues, Drink Small, and Erwin's old band, Blue Light Special. It was his idea in 1992 to spread the live performances to other venues over the course of several days. Each year, he scattered the live performances across the downtown clubs beyond the walls of a single venue, creating a casual pub crawl for blues fans. The idea gradually blossomed into a 10-day series of events.
The festival kept growing with increased attendance. An array of talent from around the country made the trek to the Lowcountry each year to play the festival.
"In the 19 years I've been doing the Bash, one of the things I'm a little wistful about is that if I'd recorded, photographed, and documented every show, we'd have a major museum of blues here," says Erwin.
Erwin regularly organizes the annual Carolina Downhome Blues Festival in Camden in early October (he's already on his 12th year). The same month, he and the Kiawah Island Accommodations Tax Committee present an annual roots music event called the American Music Celebration. Additionally, in the spring, he ushers the annual Blues by the Sea events at Mingo Point.
When Erwin started putting on blues shows in Charleston, there was a national circuit that blues artists worked. Once vibrant with activity, that circuit has virtually dried up.
Over the years, he managed to increase the number of acts, booking clubs and restaurants "that had the right attitude and business acumen to come in and help make it work." The idea was to find a balance between presenting cool musical acts and creating a low-fuss, profitable situation for the local business. Years ago, Cumberland's — the much-missed, now-closed King Street bar and music hall — hosted most of the early evening and late-night gigs. This year, a handful of newcomers sparked new interest and stepped in to host many of the shows.
It's difficult to describe the overall musical theme of this year's Blues Bash. Erwin describes the musical tangle and overlap as "a panoramic view of the blues" with a healthy mix of seasoned veterans and deserving newcomers.
"At a festival like this, audiences can check out horn players, harmonica players, guitarists, accordionists, organists, all sorts of stuff," Erwin says. "Some of the big venues are heavy with the electric guitar blues-rockers, but it's a bit of everything. There's so much variety for everyone to enjoy."
In addition to Drink Small and Watkins, some of the stand-out acts include Milwaukee-based soul/blues vocalist Johnny Rawls, Mississippi-based gospel/blues singer Sharrie Williams and the Wise Guys, Memphis veterans the Daddy Mack Blues Band, Georgia blues-rock veteran and guitar wiz Tinsley Ellis, and Big Bill Morganfield, among many others (see sidebar).
The Bridge at 105.5 FM and the Andy Thomas Show on WQSC 1340 AM plan to feature acts in the lineup, and Channel 4's Lowcountry Live hopes to host a number of musicians as guests throughout the series.
"With all of the sameness in the local bars, and even those bands struggling for gigs, there's no better time for a blues revival," says Tommy Thunderfoot, the frontman for local combo the Accelerators and a longtime supporter of the Lowcountry Blues Club. "Thanks to Gary, we have this on a yearly basis."
There's certainly a conscious effort on the festival's part to bring in different types of blues — from the traditional guitar and harp styles to the modern, crossover hybrids.
Erwin claims that the work required to organize the Blues Bash goes on all year. Finding good artists is no problem, but dealing with the venue structure is the difficult thing.
"If you're a local guitar strummer, this is a fine place to play music; you can always go pick up a little $100 gig in some restaurant or bar and play cover songs. But because this event has always tried to hold its head up and be a national-level event, we get a lot of touring acts — and therein come all the accessorial details."
Fortunately, there's a high level of support aimed in several directions during an event like this. Bands and solo acts benefit from the opportunity to perform, network, increase exposure, and peddle merchandise, while the local clubs benefit from an association with world-class artists. To many local proprietors and agents, gaining credibility and bragging rights seems to be as important as the ticket proceeds and bar profits.
"As a venue devoted to mainly the blues, the Blues Bash sets the tone for the upcoming tourist season," says Stuart Johnson, a musician, audio engineer, and booking agent for A Dough Re Mi. "We gain a lot of momentum coming out of it. It gives us a chance to bring in bigger acts."
Tony McKie, longtime talent buyer for Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ, is just as excited to have the gigs on his calendar. "Obviously, the Blues Bash is one of our most important events of the year financially and artistically," he says. McKie booked all of the acts at the venue for this year's Blue Bash. "The type of artists we feature legitimizes us as one of the best blues clubs around."
One of the local favorites on the schedule is the "All-Star Blues Jam & Oyster Roast" held at Home Team BBQ. Erwin considers the event a "blues revue, with everyone taking their turn and doing their own set, with a few guests coming up." (see Music Board for more).
There are several valuable aspects of the two-week festival for every venue involved.
"With people coming in to town from all over, there is the obvious financial upside from having an expanded clientele as opposed to just having the local traffic, but artistically is a different story," says Randy Abraham, co-owner of Home Team BBQ. "Artistically it allows us to bring in a few acts that might on a normal week be outside our realm. Big Bill Morganfield, who has been a staple at Home Team BBQ now for the third Blues Bash in a row, might not be as viable on a normal week, being that he is a star in the blues world and commands a good payday."
"Anytime you have a blues/roots following as strong as some of these artists do, it is an honor to be in the mix," adds McKie.
Erwin's own saucy blues band — guitarist "Silent Eddie" Phillips, drummer LaMont Garner, and bassist LaVonta Green — is scheduled to play a number of shows on its own and with longtime-collaborator, vocalist Wanda Johnson.
Erwin also performs as a duo with Juke Joint Johnny at Home Team BBQ n Mo. Feb. 9, and as a duo with French guitarist Kola Washington at The Mill on Tues. Feb. 10.
"This is a way to give back to my idols and my mentors and inspirations," says Erwin. "It's also a way to give back to my peers. I love living in Charleston, so it's kind of like a gift to the city every year. Everyone really looks forward to it — not just the locals, but the people who come in from out of town. I feel very fortunate. When you're trying to make a living in the arts, it's not very easy. If you can stay afloat, then you feel pretty grateful, and you want to return the favor to those who might have helped you out along the way."