One of the hazards of being a writer is that it's hard to just sit and observe or listen. The first time I listen to a new CD I'm almost always imagining my lead paragraph and trying to frame what I'm hearing in the context of a review. The same was true last Thursday at the Blues Music Awards. I wasn't just listening to the performances or documenting who was winning what; I was trying to construct a template to report it all. Within the first hour it became clear to me I wouldn't be able to fit everything in to one article without it bloating into a Russian novel so I split this into three part. The first part was the winners list. This, Part II, will focus on the performances and the experience of just being in the room. Part III — coming tomorrow — will look at how my ballot compared to the winners.
The night opened with a pre-show performance by Debbie Davies and was officially kicked into high gear by Candye Kane before getting down to the business of handing out awards. It was around this point that the first unbelievable thing happened to me. As I glanced around the room and over to the table next to me, I saw a long, familiar mane of beautiful auburn hair. It can't be! It was. Blues Hall of Famer Bonnie Raitt was sitting 10 feet from me, waiting to be called onstage to present Buddy Guy his Lifetime Achievement award. I wanted to go over and congratulate her but just about the time I got up the courage I realized she hadn't been able to put two fork fulls of her salad in her mouth without someone else coming over to do the same thing. I decided to hang back, so congratulations, Bonnie!
The first set of awards were presented and as I mentioned before, I was thrilled for Delmark's win in the DVD category. I voted for it so it was fun for me to begin the evening 1/1. That quickly changed as Derek Trucks took two awards, Instrumentalist-Guitar and Best Blues-Rock Album. I like DT and he's a great guitarist but I'm not in love with Already Free as an album. He wasn't in attendance and I suspect part of the reason is he's on crutches . A co-worker saw the Allman Brothers Band recently in Huntsville and Trucks had to perform seated (although that took nothing away from the performance, I'm told).
Next up we got the Duke Robillard block, as Duke took home the award for Contemporary Blues Male Artist and then took to the stage with his Jumpin' Blues Revue. They performed the title track from his nominated album Stomp! The Blues Tonight and then brought Sunny Crownover onstage for another number from the record.
Lovely Eden Brent performed a couple songs solo piano next followed by one of the highlights for me, Joe Louis Walker. Walker was nominated for five awards, one of them for his song "I'm Tide" which is the tune he and his band opened with. The band was tight and Joe Louis pierced the room with some fierce guitar leads on that as well as "If There's A Heaven." These performances were followed by 96-year old Pinetop Perkins coming to the stage to present Brent with the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of The Year award.
One of the happiest moments for me was seeing Curis Salgado receive the award for Soul Blues Male Artist of The Year. Salgado wowed the crowd at Rum Boogie the night before with Nick Moss & The Flip Tops et al and was such a deserving winner. I don't know how many people leaped to their feet when he was announced but I sure as hell did.
The next two signature moments of the night were the Koko Taylor tribute and presentation of the award newly named in her honor to Debbie Davies and the Buddy Guy tribute leading up to his Lifetime Achievement Award. Koko Taylor passed away shortly after her performance at the BMAs last year, her final performance ever. Taylor's daughter Cookie was on hand to present the award now named for her mother and Davies, while excited for her win, seemed aware this moment belonged to the legacy of Koko Taylor.
For the Guy tribute, John Primer played Buddy's early hit "Mary Had A Little Lamb," famously covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan on his debut Texas Flood followed by a spirited, high-octane performance of "Hoodoo Man Blues" by Billy Branch. "Hoodoo" is actually a Junior Wells song but Guy and Wells made several records together and Guy played lead on that particular song and album when it was recorded.
Blues Foundation president Jay Sieleman read a prepared tribute to Guy before bringing Raitt and Guy to the stage. For a few moments, Guy seemed almost bashful and looked down at his shoes as praise was heaped on him. The timidity didn't last long as Guy strode to center stage, picked up his Stratocaster, and led into an atomic performance of "Damn Right I've Got The Blues." I hope and pray those filming the performance didn't find me during this because at one point I leaped to my feet and threw my arms into the air, uplifted by the intensity of the performance of one of my heroes. Guy had the crowd eating out of his hands as he brought the song to a hushed crawl before blowing things up one more time. He has been known as one of the finest, flashiest showmen around and he finished his performance by doing something I still haven't quite figured out- he thanked the crowd, set his guitar down, and left the band onstage to finish, never to be seen again.
If Buddy Guy's exit left people scratching their heads, I bet everyone loved the way Billy Boy Arnold made his entrance. Bill Wax and Big Lou were amiable hosts for the evening but as with most award show emcees, a little of the hosts goes a long way. Arnold didn't wait for them to stop talking or to be introduced before kicking into "My Little Love Machine." After finishing it, Arnold told the crowd the songs he was doing tonight were first performed by people he knew. He then gave a fun performance of Tampa Red's "She's Love Crazy." Both songs are from the BMA-nominated Chicago Blues – A Living History album. Billy Boy was a classic and for those of you who don't know, Arnold played harp on some of those early Bo Diddley sides.
The surprise of the night for me came in the form of Guy Davis. I have known his name for awhile now but hadn't bought any of his CDs. That will change when I pay off some of my trip to Memphis. I don't know the names of either song he performed but he opened with a wonderful acoustic blues before breaking out his harmonica and giving a performance that had him singing a Capella and filling in with some great harp breaks. I became a fan.
In addition to the four awards taken home by Tommy Castro, another of the evening's big winners was Louisiana Red. Red is an interesting character. Buddy Guy doesn't look near his 73 years of age and even Billy Boy Arnold looks like he can get around pretty well for a man in his later years. Red looked the part of that aging blues man when he was accepting his awards but all that seemed to melt away when he got his guitar in his hands to play "Back To The Black Bayou," the title track to one of his two nominated albums. I've heard hundreds of slide players but none of them quite like Red, who sounded like he was trying to pierce the sky with those squealing highs.
You won't see my name when you read the companion piece to this article detailing the award winners at the 31st Blues Music Awards last night in Memphis but I feel like the biggest winner of them all. In addition to the magic that happened on Thursday night, I got witness a phenomenal set from Nick Moss & The Flip Tops at the Rum Boogie Cafe before they were joined by a series of legendary talents. At one point, Hall of Famers Charlie Musselwhite and Pinetop Perkins were joined by surefire future Hall of Famer Duke Robillard. Dave Keller, David Maxwell, Patrick Rynn, Eugene Bridges, and Curtis Salgado also joined in the unforgettable night. I stood one foot from Buddy Guy as he personally autographed my BMA poster.
As Eden Brent said before she began her performance, the blues is a family and over the two days in Memphis I got to meet some of the people who had previously existed only as e-mail addresses whose assistance and support have been invaluable to my writing efforts these past years. With your indulgence, dear readers, I'd like to thank them by name for their help. Without these people I may not have ever discovered some of the artists I now consider favorites and might not have ever undertaken this trip and my life would be the poorer for it, so in no particular order I'd like to thank: Kevin Johnson at Delmark, Betsie Brown at Blind Raccoon, Michael McClune, Amanda Sweet, Amy Brat, Mark Pucci, and Debra Regur. I'd also like to throw a special thank you to Nick and Kate Moss, for making it all possible and making me feel so welcome.