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Monday, June 13, 2011

Chicago Blues Fest Day Two

I left the Blues Fest on Friday feeling a little bummed. I went back Saturday, in spite of that. It has taken me a while to get my thoughts in order, but the quick summary is "I feel better now."

The weather was slightly better. Weather conditions matter a lot at these outdoor festivals, obviously. It is tough to get in a jolly, music-listening mood when the rain is coming down and the temps are low. And many folks stay away, which reduces the crowd count, which reduces the audience energy, which impacts the engagement of the performers. Bad weather kicks off a negative feedback loop at a blues festival.

By the time I hit Grant Park, the place was pretty full. There were many more young people in attendence yesterday - and they were dancing! This is a very good thing. I think its wrong for people to sit motionless while intensely rhythmic music is produced by highly engaged performers. I always feel like yelling "Get up offa that thing!"

While I heard several acts, I want to focus on just one set - Curtis Salgado, backed by Nick Moss and the Flip Tops.

Nick Moss is a torch-carrier. He is creeping up on 40 years of age, still a kid in the blues world. He started playing professionally around Chicago in his late teens, and he did his apprentice work with guys like Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Jimmy Rogers before he launched his career as a band leader. I have been listening to Nick for years; he amazed me the first time I heard him and he keeps getting better. He has mastered the craft of playing the blues guitar, and now he is moved on to creating art with his ax. Nick plays harmonica, and he started his career as a bassist. Ain't no flies on this fella. He also has "blues presence" - he is a hairy bear of a man, and he does the "blues face" really well. For those of you that don't know, "blues face" is the series of grimaces and squints that a guitar god conjures up while wrapped in the passion of a solo. I view Nick as a rock-toned player - in the same zip code as Melvin Taylor, but a bit more traditional in his phrasing and ideas. He also doesn't unleash the "wall of sound" as often as some of the rock-oriented blues guitarists. Nick is a dynamite player.

Nick's band is full of fresh young talent. Travis Reed on keyboards is capably filling the chair held by the legendary Piano Willie O'Shawny. Nik Skilnik on bass and Patrick Seals on drums are tight in the pocket, playing with assuredness not often seen in 20-something musicians. And sitting in on rhythm guitar and vocals, Michael Ledbetter really filled out the band - he has the vocal chops to match up against Curtis Salgado, no small feat. Michael comes from the R&B/soul school - his range and control are impressive, he can handle the falsetto swoops and vocal glissandos that most singers can only dream about. He is young, too - 26 years old, I believe. Unlike some bands in Chicago, Nick Moss' band is an intergrated team.

Nick's wife, Kate, also sat in on a tune - she can shred on guitar! She is a little easer to look at than Nick. Kate is not just a supportive spouse; she is Nick's business partner, too.

I am not a good person to talk about Curtis Salgado because he is one of my idols and I go all "fan-boy" when I get started on him. He is one of the top blues harmonica guys on the planet (up there with Kim Wilson and Billy Branch), but he doesn't play that much harp on his records. He often won't touch a harmonica for an entire set during his live gigs. I think that is interesting - he views his main instrument as his voice; the harp plays a supporting role. Salgado's vocal performances are stunning. His phrasing, tone, range and delivery combine to grab the listener by the throat and the heart. His personal story, the near-death experience with liver cancer and the liver transplant, make his energy and power even more impressive. Curtis opened with a Jimmy Reed tune (You Don't have to Go) and followed with a Muddy Waters cover (Long Distance Call) He is one of the few singers on the planet that is capable of delivering Long Distance Call - other cover versions I have heard have generally been mediocre, embarrassing or both. He covered Magic Sam and Little Milton too. It was an amazing and moving performance. Nick and the Flip Tops were very locked in to what Curtis was doing - it was a great ensemble blues performance. And Curtis played some harmonica - and he killed. Curtis and Michael Ledbetter also sang an R&B duet - their voices blended beautifully.

I didn't make it to the Chicago Blues Fest on Sunday; I was convinced that there wasn't anything that I had to see that day. I stand by my earlier comment that the event was an anemic version of past Fests, but seeing Curtis Salgado with Nick Moss made it all worthwhile for me.

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