This weekend hosted the Kitchener Blues Fest (KBF), and I spent some of my time checking it out with Kate. The highlight of the event for me was likely shaking 75-year-old Willie “Big Eyes” Smith’s hand after a Saturday afternoon workshop he played with Bob Margolin. Smith and Margolin are best known as the drummer and guitarist, respectively, of Muddy Waters’ backing band during the 1970s, though Smith played drums for Waters as early as 1959. (A young Margolin appears beside Waters in the 1978 concert film The Last Waltz.)
More recently, however, Smith has been known for his harmonica playing, of which he released an album last year with “Pinetop” Perkins. Perkins, the often-times pianist for Waters’ band, was slated to play this year’s KBF before his death this March at the age of 97. Margolin, Smith and Smith’s backing band played host to a tribute to Perkins on one of the main stages later on that evening.
Before Smith’s entrance on stage that evening, Margolin and the band invited Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin onstage to play a few Wolf numbers. Sumlin arrived on stage with the help of an assistant who carried Sumlin’s oxygen concentrator. Though Sumlin remained seated during his performance, he played some surprisingly sprightly riffs to the band’s accompaniment. As to be expected, Sumlin’s vocals were strained, but the 79-year-old bluesman received a standing ovation during both his entry and exit.
Willie “Big Eyes” Smith seemed quite full of life as he came on stage and led his band, along with Margolin, through a series of classic blues songs. Margolin is an exceptional blues guitarist, and though I vastly prefer his slide work to his non-slide playing, his playing was excellent throughout. The combo stuck to pretty traditional Chicago blues material, particularly songs associated with “Pinetop” Perkins. Margolin introduced the Perkins penned “Big Fat Mama” with an anecdote about Perkins’ appetite for women; namely, he preferred women that fit the song’s titular description.
While the “Pinetop” Perkins Tribute on Saturday night stuck primarily to Chicago-style blues, the similar hopes I had for Alvin Youngblood Hart on Friday were struck down by Hart’s performance in a primarily “blues-rock” style. Having only heard Hart’s first album, Big Mama’s Door (1996), I hoped to hear Hart perform songs in the acoustic, pre-war influenced style of that album. Though I recognized that with the addition of Hart’s band Muscle Theory on the billing, the show was likely not going to be acoustic, I did hope they would at least, like the Perkins Tribute, stick to Chicago-style blues. Though they did start with the pre-war-inflected “Big Mama’s Door,” the set quickly became more “blues-rock” and less “blues,” much to my disappointment.
Nonetheless, I did encounter some good music that I was not expecting to hear. While waiting for the Perkins Tribute, we caught the last half of the Robin Bank$ set. Bank$, from Chatham, Ontario, sang some soulful blues, while continuously emphasizing two things: the availability of her CD, and her music’s heritage in the Chicago style. Though not the style of blues I typically gravitate towards, her set was quite enjoyable, especially the empassioned playing of her saxophonist.
To take it back to the beginning again, and include some multimedia content, enjoy the following video of Muddy Waters accompanied by Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on the drums and “Pinetop” Perkins on piano. (If you haven’t seen The Last Waltz yet, do so immediately. During the Muddy Waters sequence, look for Margolin playing guitar and sporting an afro just behind Waters.)
Muddy Waters, “Long Distance Phone Call (Live, 1971)”