Diamonds in the Mud: A preview of the Big Muddy Blues Festival and a look at some niches in need of some Neil

Though budget constraints and the changing development landscape of Laclede's Landing will once again limit the 2008 edition of the Big Muddy Blues Festival to two days and three stages, organizers say the free event will continue to offer a wide variety of music from the blues diaspora.

"The objective is to present a good music event that will cross a lot of lines, a lot of boundaries," says John May, who books the talent for the festival. "There are so many different facets to what we know as blues music, with multiple genres that appeal to different people. We're trying to cover a lot of ground so it will be a good musical experience for everyone." May adds that the Big Muddy headliners this year have been selected with that variety in mind, ranging from the old-school Texas sound of Sonny Rhodes, who helped pioneer the use of the lap steel guitar in blues music, to the more rock-oriented West Coast style of guitarist Coco Montoya.

The varied musical traditions of Louisiana will be represented by multi-instrumentalist Kenny Neal (who's bringing his seven-piece band with horn section), while singer and guitarist Michael Burks, an Arkansas native, plays hard-edged blues in the tradition of fellow Midwesterner Albert King. May also touts the presence of soul singer Bettye LaVette, a Detroit native who's enjoying a well-deserved late-career renaissance and will close the festival on Sunday night. And he seems especially enthusiastic about Ruthie Foster, a gospel-influenced singer-songwriter from Texas whom he calls "a major artist, although she's young. You can't really put her in a niche," adding that she's "a crafter of songs" who's "almost like a female Keb' Mo'."

Above: Coco Montoya
Chuck Winans
Above: Coco Montoya
Right: Bettye LaVette
Courtesy of Anti-Records
Right: Bettye LaVette

Big Muddy 2008 also will offer a multi-generational sampling of St. Louis' deep pool of homegrown blues talent. Venerable acts such as Big George Brock and the Houserockers, harmonica player Arthur Williams and the Boo Boo Davis Blues Band will offer a direct connection to the original era of electric blues, balanced by up-and-coming young musicians such as Brian Curran, the Bottoms Up Blues Gang, teenage phenom Marquise Knox, the Rum Drum Ramblers and Carbondale-based singer-guitarist Ivas John.

From the generations in between, there will be a diverse selection of St. Louis blues, R&B and soul musicians, including singers Anita Rosamond, Kim Massie, Roland Johnson, Renee Smith and Marsha Evans, singer-guitarist Leroy Pierson, and popular working groups such as the Soulard Blues Band, the Ground Floor Band, Rough Grooves, and David Dee and the Hot Tracks.

In addition, the Big Muddy will mark a homecoming for pianist David Krull, a former St. Louisan now living in Alameda, California. Krull, a staple of the local blues scene here in the '80s and '90s, nearly died last year from kidney and liver failure, but was saved by a last-minute transplant. Now well enough to resume performing and traveling on a limited basis, Krull will team up with guitarist Ron Edwards for a set on Sunday afternoon. — Dean C. Minderman

3 p.m. to 11:15 p.m., Saturday, August 30 and Sunday, August 31. Laclede's Landing. Free.

Diamond in the Rough
The climactic moment of Cheech Marin's Chong-less 1987 film Born In East LA arrives as hundreds, maybe thousands, of Mexicans storm the United States border while Neil Diamond triumphantly announces, "They're comin' to America!" For most, this scene was nothing more than an impractical resolution to a forgettable film, but this clip is credited as the beginning of a fascination with Neil's "America" among Mexican immigrants. The song's allure has only snowballed over the years; "America" is now the song of choice for sing-alongs at immigrant-rights rallies. Diamond's pop gems have always benefited from their comprehensive appeal, so it is not surprising that specific subcultures have adopted his venerable tunes as anthems for their causes. Let's examine some other anthems in Neil Diamond's catalog — and the people that need them the most.

"Cherry, Cherry"
Between Chucky, that little turd from the Problem Child movies, and the "ginger kids" episode of South Park, redheads have a bad rap. Perhaps they just have low levels of pride caused by misrepresentation in the media and the lack of a unifying theme song. Maybe that song could be Diamond's handclapping "Cherry, Cherry." Neil may not be literally crooning about the crimson-domed on this track, but he brags that his cherry girl is "outta sight" and "really gets to me" and has "got the way to move me." What lady, rosy-skulled or not, can resist an aural tribute to her wild nature emiting from the golden pipes of one Neil Diamond? Though "Cherry, Cherry" speaks of a feminine character, it is effortlessly universal; redheaded males could easily anthemize the song as a tribute to the ginger women in their lives.

"Sweet Caroline"
It could be argued that "Sweet Caroline" is already an anthem of sorts, as it is traditionally sung during the eighth inning of Fenway Park baseball games. But ever since the Red Sox swept the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series, a small part of me has wanted bad things to happen to them. (Given the demographic of this newspaper, I am certainly not alone in my Red Sox hating.) I propose we raid their harbor, capsize their ships and strip Boston of its "Sweet Caroline" privileges. Let's give the song to somebody more deserving: the entire states of North and South Carolina. Besides the appropriateness and literality of the song's title, its bouncy feeling reflects the contours of the Carolinas' breathtaking Smoky Mountains. North Carolina could adopt the anthem immediately, but "Sweet Caroline" may have to be translated into the creole Gullah language spoken by many South Carolina locals before this Boston Neil Party takes action.

"He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother"
Does anybody else feel bad for the random overweight folks that are voyeuristically filmed from the neck down for news reports on obesity? It's embarassing and degrading. Fortunately, Neil Diamond can sympathize with the flabby. What better theme for the obese than "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother"? It's a virtual "We Are The World" for the pudgy; one can easily imagine "He Ain't Heavy" being harmonized with locked hands in a Fat Pride Parade. Its "heavy people are people too" sentiment is the perfect rally cry for the nation's portly, and its sluggish tempo is ideal for the slow pace required by a million-pound march.
— Ryan Wasoba

After the RFT went to press, Neil Diamond postponed his Scottrade Center show to Wednesday, September 10, due to acute laryngitis. Tickets for the August 29 show will be honored on the rescheduled date. Refunds will be available at the original point of purchase.
 
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