Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review (music festival): Paramount Blues in Grafton, 2010

“Tom & Kim – Livin’ the Blues in Grafton, Wisconsin”
5th Annual Paramount Blues Festival – September 17 & 18, 2010
As attended by Tom Wilmeth & Kim Koehlinger
Essay written by Tom Wilmeth

I wasn’t sure what to think. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Five years in, and the Paramount Blues Festival of Grafton, Wisconsin, almost seemed to have a cloud over it. The past couple of years had seen some pretty undesirable weather days for an outdoor music event. It had been moved to an earlier date, but this didn’t help. Sponsor money had dried-up; there were concerns over getting quality acts. In some ways, 2010 seemed like it might be a make-or-break year for the festival. And the weekend weather report was not promising. However, Friday afternoon arrived – Lime Kiln Park opened. It was overcast, breezy, and a bit cool -- but the rain that had been forecast had gone south of us. That was a major win. And while past years may have seen more recognizable names, I would say that this was the most successful of the Paramount Blues Festivals. Here is what I saw, heard, and thought:

The Bands:
Maple Road
Kim and I arrived for just the last couple of songs by this group, which opened the festival on Friday evening. Jenny Abbott seemed to be the group leader and was certainly the focal point. She played some fine leads on her Fender Stratocaster, taking this four-piece band through some unremarkable but satisfying Chicago blues. Hey, they can put that as a quote on their next CD: “Unremarkable but satisfying!” As I recall, they did a version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” I should have taken some notes at the site, but didn’t. As such, this is all coming from two-day-later memory. Bottom line – a well rehearsed group that I would go hear again. We only saw the end of the set, but I give them the grade of a solid B. I remember saying to Kim – “That will be representative of a lot of what we hear this weekend.” Oh that it were true for the next band.

October Soul
When this group got going, it made me really glad that we had arrived for even the end of Maple Road’s set. These guys were the low point of the festival. It’s too bad, really, because female vocalist Jamie Brace had some very good pipes. But she was trapped in front of a band that covered her voice and played odd songs. And although she did have talent as a singer, Brace didn’t help her own cause much. Her overall presence and especially her stage patter needed a lot of work. Between every song she was urging the audience to vote for the band in the upcoming contest in the local Shepherd Express paper. Not subtle; not cool. (And they would be the last band there that I would vote for.) They also prided themselves on playing a lot of different musical styles. Fine, but not at a blues festival. And when they did play in another musical genre – an acoustic guitar country tune, for example – they still couldn’t quite decide what they wanted to do with it. I remember turning to Kim after the second number and commenting on the strangeness of the tune. He agreed. Another bad stage move was that Brace repeatedly told us how two members of the band had just joined. Um . . . if you have a quartet with two brand new guys, that’s not a good sign for group stability. They played too long (or at least it sure seemed like a long set) and were very needy – after every song was the vocalist’s call for assurance, “How we doin’?” Not good. Anyway – this band just didn’t get it. Glad to get this one out of the way. Grade: D (ouch, but they were below average)

Aaron Williams & The Hoodoo
After the disaster that was October Soul, I was fairly nervous about the quality of the next group. I mean, I knew that the festival had gone through some economic troubles, but I was hoping that the last band would not be indicative of the music quality for the weekend. After all, Kim & Donna had driven up from Leo, Indiana, specifically for this event!

No problem – As soon as Aaron Williams came out, all was well! Williams hit the stage playing an odd and interesting string instrument – an electrified cigar box. (Kim has an excellent picture of this.) It was during this set that Kim suggested we go up to the stage – something I was contemplating but hadn’t yet moved on. Once stage side, we pretty much stayed there for the rest of the festival, as Kim’s photographs make clear. The cigar box sounded a lot like a dobro. As I later looked at it, there was some metal mesh in the two F-holes. I wanted to ask Williams about it, but the opportunity didn’t come up.

I was very glad we went up to the stage for this set because from our chairs this looked to be an old black guy in a fedora hat. As we approached, it was clear that here was quite a young man dressed in an older manner. He had studied the styles of an earlier era. And this guy could play. As appropriate as his clothes were, his blues licks were just as studied – and yet fresh and distinctively his own. At the conclusion of the first number, which he took as a solo, two guys emerged and then they smoked as a trio. After what seemed like a quick set, Williams introduced the band and said they had one more tune. Especially after the overly long set we had just endured, I was sorry to hear this. And while Williams told the truth, that last number lasted about 20 minutes. And was great. He did the crowd-pleasing act of walking through the audience while still playing – something that wireless technology now makes pretty simple. They stretched like mad and played with great energy and enthusiasm. After the set was clearly over, he did come back for an unplanned encore. Unaccompanied, Williams played “The Star Spangled Banner” Jimi Hendrix style. He didn’t let it roll into the lengthy medley, but stayed with the melody. Brief and fine. The young man can play. I would go see these guys again tonight. Right now! Grade: solid A

The Jimmys
It would be tough to top the act we just saw. In fact, it would be tough to be on their level, I thought. However, when the road crew started to set the stage for horns, I was optimistic. The evening’s closer was to be The Jimmys, a local band I had never heard of. By this time in the night there were quite a few drunks wandering around in front of the stage. One stopped to tell Kim that all of the people in this group were named Jimmy. Wow, we said – what are the odds?

In fact, only the leader was named Jimmy – Jimmy Voegeli – a keyboardist who had been in another local band for about 15 years and was clearly starting his own group. I spoke with him a little as he was setting-up. He had a stripped-down keyboard that sounded like a Hammond organ, but it sure didn’t look like one. He assured me that it was a Hammond and, when I asked, pointed to the hidden Leslie cabinet. We agreed that no synthesizer could replace the sound of a Hammond, and I left him alone. Which was good, perhaps, because their sound check was interminable.

But when they finally did play it was very hot and well rehearsed. Nice to hear three horns and great to finally hear a harmonica at a blues festival! The trumpet and the two saxes were quite a bit younger than the rest of the band. They seemed both nervous and grateful to be there, repeatedly pointing to Jimmy the leader/organist to give applause credit to their group leader. And as much as I liked this band, I would still say Aaron Williams was a more exciting and fun set. But maybe I was getting tired by this time – they were very good, and as the night began to close The Jimmys played an intricate instrumental feature where the three horns were trading 8 bar phrases, then 4 bar, then 2 bar. It was impressive and, for me, probably the high point of their set. The harp was fine, the guitarist was quite good but seemed to want to stay out of the lime light. Late in the set I noticed that the three members of The Hoodoo had stayed for this band and were watching closely from the backstage area. Williams had nothing to worry about, it seemed to me, but the guitarist with the Jimmys was older and played a very different, more relaxed style. The Jimmys also played an encore – the surprising but great horn-soaked choice of “Ophelia” by The Band. I was happy with the set, but ready to call it a night. A-

And so the first evening ended. Kim and I headed back to my place after a successful opening.

Day II – Saturday afternoon

Kim had taken several hundred photographs of the performers on Friday night. We didn’t go to the after-party at The Bridge Inn in Grafton for the local band The Bel-Aires, but we did stay up quite late looking at the many pix he took. Some great ones which he has just sent to me, and which I hope he is willing to share with the Grafton Blues site and perhaps even the performers – they are professional shots!

So – we got to bed late. The following morning we listened to the recently released complete set of Johnny Winter at Woodstock, followed by numerous very early B. B. King singles. O Yes -- Plenty o’ Blues.

We waited for our final addition to arrive – son Dylan Wilmeth, who came back from college specifically to go to the festival with Kim and me. Dylan has told previous tales of driving fast from Chicago to Minnesota with Kim & Donna while listening to XM’s Bluesville channel the entire way. Dylan was impressed; Kim is an enthusiast. Our wives, by the way, had right around zero interest in the festival, so instead they went to the bash held over in Cedarburg during the same weekend. I think it was called “Knick-Knack Crap” or something like that. Anyway – to each his own.

So -- Dylan, Kim, & I walked the few blocks to the park on another nice fall day. Cool, but fine.

The Bands:
Robert Allen, Jr. & Cadillac Pete
I’ll tell you what – when the most memorable thing about a band is the fact that they can’t decide on a name, there’s trouble. These guys were were billed as “Robert Allen and The Zoot Suits with Cadillac Pete, formerly known as The Zoot Suit Boogie Band.” Ouch. Allen played a big Gibson guitar and Pete played harmonica. Bass & drums accompanied. Nothing wrong with this set, but nothing right enough about it to really make it stand out. C+

Grana’ Louise
I will indicate my prejudice right from the start – there are very few blues vocalists that engage me much. And even fewer female blues singers who do it for me. It all seems like it’s got to be modified fuck-talk and how much and how often they like it from their man, who is invariably unworthy of the woman giving the lecture. Grana’ L. fit that bill exactly, and more. Her set had too much dull sexual rap to the women of the crowd, and her band didn’t do a lot for me.

Still – having said all of that: I didn’t hate this. The set had its moments, and I appreciated the fact that Louise was quick to give credit to her musical influences, such as Koko Taylor. But women who think they are really something while working blue are not the reason I come to the festival. Not offended, just bored with it. C

Dennis Jones
This was a trio that I remember liking, but I don’t recall a lot about them. I think I was getting ready for Little Ed, the next act. I give them a B grade even though I can’t be at all specific about them. It was the blues, that’s fo’ sho’. (Maybe something will come to me -- I should have taken motes!)

Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials
I was looking forward to Lil’ Ed and he did not disappoint.
Still, it was sort of an odd situation, perhaps based on my high expectations:
I had seen Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials when I lived in Texas. They were wild, and really tore-up the small club in College Station. I remember Lil’ Ed riding through the room on the back of one of the other band members while he played some hot lead. As I watched the band set-up at the Paramount Blues Festival, it was immediately clear that Ed’s riding days were behind him. I didn’t see anybody in that band who could support Ed for a piggyback trek of any duration. That’s fine. Hell – the date I saw in Texas had to be more than 20 years ago.

I had been at that Texas show with Tony Davidson who, when he learned that I was going to see him again, told me to ask for the song “20% Alcohol.” So after Dennis Jones’ memorable set I walked up to the stage and asked Lil’ Ed if he would play the song. This is a fierce anti-alcohol number that appears on The Blues Imperials’ second album. It was written by Lil’ Ed’s famous uncle, J. B. Hutto, who taught Ed to play guitar. Tony told me that Lil’ Ed had gone through some substance abuse days, but (again) this was an anti-booze song.

So standing there alone in front of the stage, I asked Lil’ Ed if he could play “20% Alcohol” during the set. He looked at me for a long time in silence. I asked, “Do you guys still do that tune?” The rest of the band had stopped setting-up and were now looking at me. Lil’ Ed said – in an unmistakably surly tone –“I’ll play that song for six thousand dollars -- in advance -- cash.” Hm. . . . So I said, “Well, it would be worth every dollar.” And that was pretty much the end of the discussion. What the hell do you say to a response like that? I mean, the song was on one of his albums; it’s not like I was asking for something associated with another artist. When I later related that story to Tony Davidson, he snapped – “Man, if I’d been there I would have asked him if was too good to play his uncle’s songs!” Tony was pissed! Good to hear some real passion about music coming through the phone lines from Texas.

Ed is a distinctive sight. As the name indicates, he is not large in stature. Also, he wears a bright red turban-like hat of some height. In fact, he was putting this on about the time I was talking with him, a full 20 minutes before the set started. I guess he just likes wearing it. Or maybe he wants to make sure that you know just who is leading the group. I’m sure he has no problem letting his band know who the star is.

Lil’ Ed did not play “20% Alcohol” that night, and he did not ride around on the back of a band member. But his set was still the high point of the night, if not of the entire festival. His slide guitar was on fire and he smoked through a fine hour of blues. Dylan and I were very close to the stage and we saw Lil’ Ed put on a real show. What impressed me, in part, was how generous he was with the rest of his band. He had Mike Garrett on second guitar, a thin white guy who was great at holding down the rhythm section and playing single-line solos when given the chance. Ed’s huge brother (or so said Ed) was on electric bass, and drummer Kelly Littleton kept it honest with a very solid beat. Actually, I was surprised that I did not get tired of the distinctive sound of Ed’s slide, because he rarely played anything else. I think that was partially due to his willingness to share solo space with the other guitarist. Ed played an unusual guitar that looked custom made; I’m sure that Kim’s photos of the set picked-up the name on the guitar. He looked to have 3 absolutely identical axes in the rack, and played just one fire engine red & white guitar for the entire set.

At one point people behind us yelled that the sound mix was bad. It was fine where we were, but I guess his vocals were buried farther from the stage. That’s OK; you don’t go see Lil’ Ed to hear him sing. But that’s when the attitude briefly emerged that I had seen before the set. “What? You can’t hear me?” asked Ed. “Listen harder!” And he then stormed into the next number. That’s fine. It was a very good set. And like Aaron Williams on the previous evening, Lil’ Ed closed by walking unencumbered through the crowd playing wireless guitar and then returning to the stage to wrap-up the set.

One last thing that was impressive – after Lil’ Ed left the stage, the trio probably played close to 10 minutes without him, vamping-out on the closing number. It was here that you could again really appreciate the rhythm section and especially the abilities of Garrett’s second guitar. Good stuff. And I know Dylan had dug it, because when we got home he immediately went on-line to see if Ed would be playing in the area again anytime soon. Probably will, since he is out of Chicago. I found that reaction a win, and I agreed with Dylan that Lil’ Ed’s set was great.
Grade: A!

Zac Harmon
There was no doubt that Zac Harmon loves Grafton. He has played here four out of the five years we have held the festival. He came out in the middle of the day to participate in the dedication of the Blues Marker, linking Grafton with the blues of Mississippi through the Paramount Records label. When he hit the stage as the festival closer, people were ready for a hot set. And he gave it to them . . . for a while.

Harmon’s trio hit the stage and launched into a fine, up-tempo version of Chick Corea’s “Spain.” Wow. What a breath of fresh air – the fusion aspects and the unusual chord changes made this instrumental a welcome earful for me. They played pretty much a complete version of the song, replete with solos and back to the head when the bass player walked over to Harmon and yelled, “Hey man! This is a BLUES festival!” The trio turned on a dime and dropped into a very slow 12-bar blues pattern. Great. Planned? Of course. But some wonderful musical theater.

After a couple of straight-ahead blues numbers, though, I thought the band sort of lost their way. In fact, they devolved into an offshoot of the Grana’ Louise school of talking too much to the crowd instead of playing music. They had a planned disagreement within the band about how Grafton wasn’t really a Zac Harmon town, and Zac had to prove it with enthusiastic crowd reaction. As well as the fusion opening worked for me, this self-adulation routine failed. What also hurt the bit was that Harmon had already lost a large chunk of the lawn audience early in his set. Part was weariness of the crowd and part was the heavy dew that was quickly forming in the grass. Also, after Lil’ Ed’s high energy set, this was a come-down -- and the departing lines to the festival gate made that clear. The latter part of the set was also marred by a lengthy tune where Harmon brought out the main festival organizer, sat her on a stool, and sang to her for quite a while. Yawn. As I say, after a great beginning they lost me. Maybe Zac Harmon should take a year or two off from the festival. Grade B-

Kim took pictures to the end and we then headed back home to look at his day’s shots, this time numbering over 1000 photos!

And, well, that was the festival. I could write a bit about the Mississippi promotion tent, where southern diplomats gave away maps of their state and free Hohner harmonicas. I also liked the walk that Kim and Dylan and I had down to the river and the generally relaxed atmosphere of both days. I could talk about the lights set-up so people could make huge shadows on the abandoned lime kiln structures after sunset, and some other nice touches. But I think you get the idea. It was a well run festival, and if this was a make-or-break year, I’d say it was a win!

Tom Wilmeth
(262) 243-4218
Friday, 1 October 2010
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  1. The problem with the internet: amateurs instantly published. If I could get past the misfit opinion and vulgarity, I’d give this critique a C- not worthy of serious consideration.

    I, too, attended the Paramount Blues Festival. I was there for its entirety and after parties (where magic occured as festivalgoers and musicians met over beer). The festival was well organized with pleasant touches. The weather was uncooperative. The line-up of amazing talent and the milestones celebrated made this year. The blues were well-represented; and the people… they laughed and they danced!

    One item that Wilmeth neglected – aside from a quick mention of the “Mississippi promotion tent”– was why the gentlefolk from the south were visiting. Grafton was recently awarded a spot on the Mississippi Blues Trail for being home to early recordings of legends (e.g. Charley Patton) at Paramount Records – the namesake of the festival. The trail marker was unveiled on Saturday. Wilmeth missed this historical high point – must have been the time spent in his room. Naughty. Great job to the GBA for making this possible!

    My experience was far better than expected; certainly not in agreement with Wilmeth. The first night was dedicated to the music of local bands, some of whom I learned played for free – kudos! Maple Road was the festival’s perfect opener. October Soul was amazing (more on this later due to unfair depiction), Aaron Williams & The Hoodoo were surreal and the Jimmy’s were spectacular.

    Saturday saw the likes of Noden & Filisko and Leroy Airmaster (with special guests Jim Liban and Greg Koch) – very much harmonica-filled. Robert Allen, Jr. & The Zoot Suits with Cadillac Pete were fun – though it was lame that Robert “double booked” and skipped out on his much advertised after party appearance; Grana Louise was a real treat with feminine idealogy and classic female-fronted bluesmanship; Dennis Jones (formerly of Zac Harmon’s band) was fantastic (he and his band even showed up at the after party and played to an intimate crowd); Lil Ed proved his expert showmanship even though he is older now and not able to ride the backs of his bandmates any longer (It is disturbing that someone has the audacity to bother performers preparing their sets by approaching the stage and claiming to have a “conversation”; then portraying that conversation as some special inside information. It’s even more bizarre that the person would be offended by an artist not wanting to perform a requested song that obviously has deep rooted personal meaning – if you want a jukebox go to your local tavern and put a quarter in the machine; if you want a “well rehearsed” show, then stay seated); Zac Harmon’s headline was sweet and ended jamming with the Dennis Jones Band (his song to Kris Raymond, GBA Founder, was a special tribute for being such a huge influence on blues in the area - it was sassy class).

    And October Soul… while the set was not traditional blues (they even proclaimed so), every song certainly had blues idealogy behind it. Anyone who claims country and rock are “odd” and not directly influenced by the blues has no capable opinion. Their setlist included originals with themes such as overcoming domestic violence and homelessness. If the band seemed to drown out super-vocalist Jamie Brace, anyone should identify that as the sound professional’s error, not the band’s. Brace did mention recent change that in no way indicated instability as they did an oustanding job for a newer line-up. I was impressed and after research, this band certainly has clout. As for self-promotion, every band self-promotes.

    Wilmeth’s scribblings are pre-occupied by line-up or name change. I wonder if he is familiar with Santana or the Rolling Stones? The blues is not narrowed to simple instrumentation and stories of cotton fields that purests climax to. Legends like Hubert Sumlin never would have come to be if they confined themselves traditionally.

    Paramount Blues Festival performers: A+. Wilmeth: I’d find something else to read.

  2. One note of correction. "Little Wing" was performed by October Soul not Maple Road as stated in your review.