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Big Muddy Blues Festival Returns: A conversation with David Clayton-Thomas 

David Clayton-Thomas: "Rhythm & blues was a part of my music from the earliest years."

Don Dixon

David Clayton-Thomas: "Rhythm & blues was a part of my music from the earliest years."

This Labor Day weekend, the Big Muddy Blues Festival returns to the banks of the Mississippi River and Laclede's Landing. Three stages will hold some 30 bands, both national and local, ranging across a fairly wide spectrum of blues-anchored music, continuing a tradition of a downtown St. Louis blues festival that reaches back further than its "eighteenth-annual" descriptor suggests.

The festival has not been without controversy or setbacks. Last year, the event weathered the remnants of Hurricane Isaac, forcing the shutdown of outdoor stages and moving many of the bands inside to the bars of the Landing, resulting in a drop-off in attendance from a projected 60,000 to approximately 40,000. For the third year in a row, the festival will be partially ticketed, with the main stage priced at $13 per day and two smaller stages open to the public. As festival ticket prices continue to skyrocket, it's hard to argue with the price point.

For six years now, Emily Kochan, executive director of the Laclede's Landing Merchants Association, has been serving as Big Muddy's executive producer, organizing the event all but single-handedly, save for booking support from her mother, Laura, an experienced entertainment agent. The duo has managed to expand the national and international profile of the festival, keeping it rooted in homegrown talent and enduring the inevitable criticism from a community that expects entertainment to be free.

"Initially I think St. Louis was a little shocked by it," Emily Kochan says, "because we're used to a lot of free events. The zoo is free; the art museum is free. But we had to come up with a way to compensate for the lack of sponsorship and the reduction in grants for this kind of event. The only way we could keep bringing in Grammy-winning talent was to use this model. But over the last few years we've grown, drawing in people both nationally and internationally."

Along with Saturday's headliner, rockabilly madman and guitar hero Reverend Horton Heat, this year's Big Muddy boasts the jazz of Renee Smith, the reggae of Aaron Kamm and the One Drops, the punkabilly of Bible Belt Sinners, the funk of Big Brother Thunder and the Master Blasters, and the veteran St. Louis blues of Skeet Rodgers, Tony Campanella, David Dee and, of course, Billy Peek, as well as the Soulard Blues Band. Sunday's headliner, however, is truly notable: David Clayton-Thomas, the voice and principal songwriter of Blood, Sweat & Tears.

At first glance, Clayton-Thomas may seem like a surprising choice to close out the festival. But anyone who knows the history of Blood, Sweat & Tears, or Clayton-Thomas' solo career, knows how deeply rooted in blues music the Canadian has always been.

"A lot of people don't understand this," Clayton-Thomas says by phone from his home in Toronto, "but the city has always been a hotbed of R&B, going back to the '50s and '60s. In the States in those years, there was quite a color bar. If you were a Motown act and played in Detroit, you played in black clubs. Up here there was never a color bar. Chicago blues bands or Detroit acts, everybody from Ike and Tina Turner to B.B. King, they loved playing Toronto. They played the top clubs to mixed audiences, and the young musicians idolized them. Some of my earliest experiences going to clubs included seeing James Brown, Albert King and the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. The Muddy Waters Band was a regular on Yonge Street. It really instilled itself in what we call the Toronto sound."

Long before joining the New York-based, Al Kooper-led band Blood Sweat & Tears in 1968, Clayton-Thomas worked those same clubs, sometimes opening for many of those bands playing up and down the strip.

"Rhythm & blues, and blues in general, was a part of my music from the earliest years," Clayton-Thomas says. "That's what I brought to Blood, Sweat & Tears. They were all Juilliard and Berklee students, master's graduates most of them. Clive Davis [record producer and founder of Arista Records] said in his book that Blood, Sweat & Tears had a danger of being too esoteric. When they brought a blues singer to the band they connected. But in all fairness I owe a lot to my years with Blood, Sweat & Tears. Before I joined them my bands were hardcore R&B bands. When I went down to New York and collaborated with these Juilliard graduates, they opened my ears to so many other kinds of music. They showed me that there were other possibilities, lyrically and musically."

The reconfigured Blood, Sweat & Tears, led by Clayton-Thomas' muscular, blues-soaked vocals, became a different animal altogether. Songs like "Spinning Wheel" and "You've Made Me So Very Happy" became bestsellers — part pop, part R&B and jazz — and the group toured almost nonstop for decades. By the early 2000s, Clayton-Thomas was ready to say goodbye to all that.

"In 2004 I just gave up on Blood, Sweat & Tears," he admits. "I realized that most of the guys in the band weren't even born when we started the band. It was a name being peddled on the oldies circuit. That prohibits writing new music. The people coming out to those shows just wanted to hear the hits. I realized that I hadn't been writing or putting out new music for years. You know, you get to a certain age where your musical legacy is important to you. I don't want to spend the rest of my days playing 'Spinning Wheel.' I'm proud of that song and still play it, and songs like 'God Bless the Child,' in my show today, but if that's all you do, it's pretty stifling. Thanks to Blood, Sweat & Tears I'd reached a point financially where I didn't have to go on the road to survive. I had the economic luxury of getting to decide what I would do for the next twenty years. And I decided to devote it to writing music."

Following up 2010's album of standards, Soul Ballads, Clayton-Thomas released A Blues for the New World this year, a full return to a blues-based sound, though it's much more than that. While all original compositions, the album slides between reggae, gospel, Afro-Cuban rhythms, R&B swing and jazz while remaining anchored in the big-band, electric blues on which Clayton-Thomas cut his teeth. The title cut especially makes a direct argument that the blues are not just for baby boomers or retro garage bands. For Clayton-Thomas, the blues remain as protean as ever and still have so much to say.

"The title for the album actually came before the song," he explains. "I'd written half the album before I realized that the title would make a good song too. The concept for the song was just that: It didn't have to be, 'I woke up this morning, and my baby left me.' The blues could reflect modern, current, topical matters; it doesn't have to be the tried-and-true forms, much as I love them. You can move the blues forward. The songs have a traditional framework, and the musicians know how to play that, but we used a pure jazz arranger in Phil Dwyer, so the horn charts are very contemporary."

A Blues for the New World is also among Clayton-Thomas' most personal albums and features some of his best original songwriting since his days with Blood, Sweat & Tears. As a songwriter, he still largely works when inspiration strikes, on his own terms.

"Writing songs is a constant process," he says. "I have a studio in my condo, and I can just go to the computer and jot down an idea. But I tend to do most of my writing in the winter. When the snow is blowing sideways against the window you put on the coffee and pick up the guitar and write. In the summer I'll be doing concerts and also spending time outside of the city. It's harder to write when the weather is beautiful."

On his latest album the haunting song "Second Chance" meditates on the nature of a life worth living. It was written not long after the singer had heart-valve replacement surgery in 2010.

"I almost died," he says. "It was 50/50. I got to the hospital in the nick of time. Much of the album, and that song, are biographical. The song 'Common Ground' was written for my daughter, from the point of view of when a father sees his daughter strike out on her own. Some songs were just written for fun. 'Holy Moses' is just a Bible story, but 'Second Chance' is pretty raw, in terms of being a personal experience."

Clayton-Thomas recalls playing an early incarnation of the blues festival in St. Louis, back in the days of of a main stage that floated on the Mississippi River. When he returns this year he'll be bringing a full eight-piece band, including a four-piece horn section, and highlighting new material while also performing songs from across his five storied decades as one of the most compelling voices in popular music.

"I only do half a dozen or maybe ten concerts a year," he says. "There's a difference between doing concerts and going out on the road. When you're on the road, you're doing four out of five shows not because you want to be there, but because you have to put gas in the bus and meet the payroll. It's rib fests in Montana, reservation casinos in Utah. It's a constant grind. The hour or so you're onstage is the only fun you have. The rest of the time is running to the airport and being on a bus. I'd done that.

"But," he adds with emphasis, "when the Big Muddy was first proposed, I immediately said, 'Yeah, let's do it. That's a good one.'"

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