By Roy Kasten
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St. Louis' ongoing love affair with the blues is hardly a secret. In the 90 years since W.C. Handy penned his famed "St. Louis Blues," the city has borne witness to nearly all of the music's many forms, from barrelhouse and R&B to blues-rock and beyond. It's true that over the course of nearly a century, the relationship between St. Louis and the blues has seen its ups and downs. Marriages are like that. And although the revival that began in the 1980s has yet to peter out, the union still has its rough patches. Low attendance at gigs is a common complaint among blues musicians and club owners today.
That's what makes the Big Muddy Blues Festival such a vital piece of the St. Louis blues calendar each year: It's an annual opportunity for St. Louisans to celebrate all that is good about blues in the River City. It's a chance to renew the matrimonial vows between a city and its soundtrack. All of the elements for a great wedding party are in place: dancing, drinking and, of course, something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.
What follows is a look at some of the scheduled highlights for this year's festival:
It's unlikely that a more seasoned duo of blues musicians than Robert "Junior" Lockwood and St. Louis' own Henry Townsend, whose combined age is 181, will be performing anywhere this year. Yet these guys are no mere museum pieces. Both remain capable of delivering dazzling live performances when the spirit hits them. Lockwood, 88, is best known as the stepson of the legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson. That's a pity on two counts: First, it's not entirely accurate (Johnson was romantically linked to Lockwood's mother, but they never married). Second, it obscures the tremendous quality and diversity of Lockwood's own recorded output. Lockwood can be a prickly character, and his willingness to talk about his relationship with Johnson has varied widely throughout the years. These days he seems more resigned to the subject, even boastful. "You know I came up with Robert Johnson, right?" he asks. "Can't nobody play his shit but me. Anyone tells you otherwise is a liar."
Lockwood's own recorded legacy began after Johnson's death in 1938. A fantastic sideman, Lockwood has backed everyone from Sonny Boy Williamson II to Sunnyland Slim. He is capable of playing in a raucous Delta style but is just as comfortable in a more urbane, jazzy setting.
Joining him at the Big Muddy this year will be local blues patriarch Henry Townsend. At 93, Townsend is not just a local legend but a national treasure and one of only a handful of living bluesmen whose careers stem back to the genre's formative years.
There will certainly be bigger names and more experienced acts playing this year's festival than local guitarist Brian Curran, but few are likely to serve as a better testament to the ongoing viability and vitality of the St. Louis blues scene. Though still in his twenties, Curran specializes in a wide range of acoustic pre-World War II blues styles, from brutal Delta slide to lilting Piedmont blues. He also manages to mix in country and gospel tunes, electric blues and a strong dose of originals. With his long mane of hair and his brimmed hat, Curran is an instantly recognizable figure at blues clubs around town, but he makes no secret of his plans for wider exposure.
"I want to get out of the bar scene," he says. "I don't know how cats have done this for 35 years, playing 'Mustang Sally' every night," he says. "I don't want to be famous, but I want to play more venues." In that respect, this year's festival should be mutually beneficial to Curran and blues lovers alike.
One could easily argue that the entire genre of blues is built on borrowing. The music is littered with shared melodies and stolen lyrics, and that's part of what attracts its legions of fans. Consistent with that tradition is a band that appropriates the songs and sounds of one of the most important blues musicians of the last half-century. The Albert King Tribute Band intends to make the case that its namesake is the greatest of the blues world's Three Kings (Albert, B.B. and Freddie). Over the years, Albert King has had his share of disciples, and his presence and impact are especially strong in St. Louis, where he spent much of his career. Eight of King's former bandmates will come together at the Big Muddy this year to pay tribute to the late blues guitarist.
De facto bandleader Kenny Rice hopes the gig will inspire an even greater appreciation for King in St. Louis. The seeds of the tribute were planted in the drummer's mind in 1992. "When Albert died, I went to the funeral in Memphis," Rice remembers. "I was amazed at the turnout, just stunned. Bobby Bland was sitting behind me, tears just streaming down his face. Shirley Brown was there, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes -- it was like a who's who of blues and R&B. They literally closed down the city of Memphis for his funeral. I remember thinking that I wished St. Louis would do something like that for Albert because he loved St. Louis." The Albert King Tribute Band's performance -- which takes place from 4 to 5:30 p.m. on Monday, September 1, at the Budweiser Stage -- should go a long way toward righting that wrong. Something Blue