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.
Townsend and Lockwood perform from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 30, at the Budweiser Stage (First and Lucas Streets).
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.
Appearing with local harmonica ace Eric McSpadden, Brian Curran performs from 4 to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 30, at the Regional Arts Commission/Planet Hollywood Stage.
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.
It doesn't get any bluer than Bobby "Blue" Bland, who, at 73, is widely considered to be the greatest blues singer living today. Bland's voice has lost some of its youthful elasticity, but it's still a force of nature. Bland is one of those rare blues artists whose appeal isn't defined along racial or gender lines. Thanks in part to his longtime association with B.B. King, Bland has experienced broad crossover success. But he's also managed to maintain a rabid following among black audiences thanks to his constant touring along what is affectionately known as the "chitlin circuit," a sprawling trail of down-home blues clubs that cater to black audiences throughout the South and Midwest. Bland's delivery, equal parts swagger and seduction, makes him popular among both male and female audiences.
Although he's played St. Louis countless times over the past four decades, this year's festival appearance is sure to win Bland some new fans. "Festivals are a little different. I like the club setting. It's closer and more intimate. You can feel out the crowd a little better. But festivals are good, too," he says. "You get to play for people who might not normally attend a Bobby Bland gig." Those who fall into this category are in for a special treat when Bland performs at the Budweiser Stage on Sunday, August 31, from 8:30 to 10 p.m.
The highlights of this year's Big Muddy Blues Festival neither start nor stop with the aforementioned artists. Also appearing will be no fewer than four former bandmates of Muddy Waters (guitarist Bob Margolin, harpist Carey Bell, drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and bassist Calvin "Fuzz" Jones), Howlin' Wolf's longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin and famed Delta drummer Sam Carr. Local legends ranging from Oliver Sain and Johnnie Johnson to the Soulard Blues Band also will be on hand.
Those not yet convinced that the marriage between St. Louis and the blues has what it takes to last would do well to remember the old adage: The family that plays together, stays together.