Kind of BlueThe annual St. Louis area Labor Day blues event, which has gone under several names over the past decade, is now known simply as the Big Muddy Blues Festival -- no "Heritage" or "Roots" appended to the title, just blues. And that's what you get at the festival, which features three days of local and national acts performing on six stages -- up from four last year. All six stages will be operating on Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 2 p.m. and ending around 11 each evening.
The most familiar names on the bill are John Mayall, who closes out the main stage at 8 p.m. Saturday with his band, the Bluesbreakers; and Taj Mahal, who closes the fest at 4 p.m. on Labor Day. Mayall, one of the pioneers of the 1960s British blues scene, featured musicians such as Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green and Mick Taylor in his early bands. Still going strong at age 66, he just finished a British tour that culminated with a performance at Royal Albert Hall.
Taj Mahal has also been performing the blues since the '60s, starting with a focus on rural blues that has expanded to include amalgamations of blues with various world-music styles, including those of Africa, the Caribbean and Hawaii. His excellent live shows pull together all sorts of musical styles reflecting the vast influence of the blues.
The Big Muddy has also booked an assortment of blues talent that deserves a wider audience. Arkansas guitarist Michael Burks, a recent W.C. Handy Foundation Best New Artist nominee, plays at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on the stage at Second and Morgan streets; and Shannon Curfman, a 15-year-old North Dakota teen who's been likened to a young Bonnie Raitt, opens the main stage at 3 p.m. At 5 p.m. Sunday, Bill Sims -- who has a fine 1999 release on the Warner Bros. label -- will be featured, and on Labor Day, Scott Holt, who worked with Buddy Guy for a decade and has strong roots in the Hendrix/Stevie Ray guitar approach, opens the main stage.
But one of the best experiences the Big Muddy offers is the chance to immerse yourself in St. Louis' own blues talent -- from legends Henry Townsend, Johnnie Johnson and Erskine Oglesby to Arthur Williams, Bennie Smith, Tommy Bankhead, Leroy Pierson, Ron Edwards and Keith Doder, along with many more. And it's all free.