Masters of Their Domains

Hometown legend Bennie Smith joins other blues greats at the "Guitar Masters 2002" show

Though the blues is a common thread, the bill reflects the variety of traditions underlying St. Louis music. Billy Peek started as a rocker, emulating Chuck Berry on early singles such as 1962's "Twisting Johnny B. Goode" and going on to back the Wizard of Wentzville for a number of years. Spotted by Rod Stewart during a televised performance with Berry, Peek worked with the rooster-haired vocalist on four albums and numerous tours in the late '70s before returning home and settling into the local club circuit.

Alvin Jett, who grew up in East St. Louis, also played rock before turning to blues as a member of Tommy Bankhead's band. Influenced by Carlos Santana, he shows off everything from jazzy octave riffing to James Brown-style funk while fronting busy local combo the Hired Help. "Alvin has learned his blues properly and is not only a great guitar player but a great entertainer," says May.

Dave Black learned rock and country in his hometown of Gary, Indiana, delving into blues and jazz after moving to St. Louis in 1982. These days, Black works in a variety of contexts -- a duo with saxophonist John Norment, the funk band Dangerous Kitchen and the jazz quartet Brilliant Corners -- and plays solo acoustic-guitar gigs that incorporate jazz, blues, folk, country and classical influences.

Bennie Smith is a direct connection to the progenitors of postwar electric blues.
Jennifer Silverberg
Bennie Smith is a direct connection to the progenitors of postwar electric blues.

Tom Hall played electric guitar in ensembles such as the Geyer Street Sheiks, the River City Rhythm and the Illusions and has also carved out a busy career as a solo performer, playing slide and fingerstyle guitar, banjo and dulcimer and drawing from Delta blues, folk and world music.

Billy Barnett did a long stint playing rock, soul and fusion with Streetcorner, spent a year playing with country fiddler Shoji Tabuchi in Branson and now fronts his own blues/funk/rock band. Rich McDonough has performed with the Soulard Blues Band and Rondo's Blues Deluxe and now works with his own quartet and the St. Louis Social Club. Tony T. (he uses only the initial) has played with Barbara Carr, Renée Smith and Bankhead, and he currently bends the strings for Cryin' Shame. Blues-rocker Mike Matthews, who recently moved to the city from Southern Illinois, leads a band (also including second guitarist Jim Alexander) that has opened for acts including Big Brother, Etta James and Chuck Berry.

Each guitarist will have a featured set, with Black and Hall playing solo and the rest performing with their regular working groups. With more than eight hours of virtually nonstop music, there will be something to please most every fan of great guitar playing, May promises: "This is to showcase the guitar players. They consider it an honor, and the bands really rise to the occasion."

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