By Jennifer Murphy
ALONG WITH THE re-birth of the historic Rialto Theater comes the birth of new traditions for Tucson blues fans. Beginning Thursday and continuing through Saturday night, The Rialto presents the Wintertime Blues Festival featuring seven well-known acts.
"I was getting lots of calls from booking agents wanting to book in their acts all at the same time, so I started to double them up," Jeb Schoonover says with a slight chuckle. "I didn't realize the Phoenix Blues Festival was going on."
Then he was struck with an idea that was based not on the Phoenix connection inasmuch as it was on a well-established annual Tucson event.
"It's not contingent upon whether Phoenix does it or not. I thought we could do a blues festival during a different time of year from the outdoor Blues Festival. The Reid Park festival is great--in fact, it is maybe the music event in Tucson.
"As an annual winter event, we won't have to worry about the weather, because it will be indoors in a more intimate setting, which is unique. We can bring in some bands and create a bit of a different environment. We hope the Wintertime Blues Festival can become an event people look forward to every year," Schoonover says.
The festival begins on Thursday, February 15, with harmonica maestro Gary Primich. Originally from Chicago, Primich moved to Austin, Texas, in the early '80s and soon made his mark both as a solo artist and by fronting a blues outfit called The Mannish Boys. Primich has been named top harmonica player in Austin five years running by the Music City Texas Poll, a considerable honor from a city that lives, eats and breathes the blues. His most recent album, Mr. Freeze, exhibits his passion by creating his own unique approach in a genre where too many resort to time-worn interpretations.
Friday night, Dallas-based blues rockers Mike Morgan & The Crawl bring the guitar edge to the party, with their originals being a combination plate of Texas shuffle, New Orleans R&B, Memphis soul and jazz-tinged Latin rhythms.
California-based Little Charlie and the Nightcats return to Tucson to dish up elements of Chicago blues, jazz-flavored West Coast blues, Texas swing, rockabilly, R&B and surf music, served with a sly sense of humor. The band picked up a number of new fans when they played the KXCI anniversary at the Rialto a few months back.
Billy Boy Arnold may prove to be the biggest surprise on hand. Born in Chicago in 1935, Arnold met his hero, legendary Sonny Boy Williamson, when Arnold was 13. Williamson taught him his trademark style of "choking" the harp, and Arnold was determined to become a bluesman.
While still a teenager, Arnold hooked up with Bo Diddley to record "I'm A Man" in 1955 for Chess Records. Arnold had a falling out with Chess and left to record "I Wish You Would" for VeeJay Records. A string of records followed, including "She's Fine, She's Mine," "Prisoner's Plea," and the classic "I Ain't Got You"--all recorded by the time he was 20.
The difficulty of raising a family and keeping a band together forced Arnold to drop out of music to pursue a career as a Chicago bus driver, truant officer and parole officer. In the meantime his songs influenced a growing rock and roll generation and were recorded by The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Blasters and David Bowie. Local blues god Rainer covered "I Wish You Would" on the Rainer and Das Kombo album.
Arnold stayed in touch with music by touring and recording in Europe; he played the occasional festival during the '70s and '80s. In 1992 he recorded Back Where I Belong for Alligator Records, which also issued his most recent album, Eldorado Cadillac.
Saturday night, the man known as "the Godfather of Austin blues," and a member of the Texas Music Hall of Fame, W.C. Clark, takes the stage. A veteran of the Joe Tex band, he teamed up with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Lou Ann Barton in the early '70s to form Triple Threat Review, and played with Jimmy Vaughan in Storm. A talented songwriter as well as an accomplished guitar player, he co-wrote the Stevie Ray Vaughan hit "Cold Shot."
Since 1975, Clark has been playing a mix of gospel, jazz, R&B and soul with the W.C. Clark Revue. Clark's inspired sound can be heard on Heart of Gold, his first internationally released album.
Soulful blues singer Angela Strehli has mastered a number of blues-related styles, ranging from a New Orleans shuffle to Memphis soul to Chicago blues to gospel. Strehli's career has included singing with Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Albert King, along with joining up with W.C. Clark in Southern Feeling. Don't be surprised to see Clark and Strehli together again on stage at the Rialto.
If you think of Midnight At The Oasis when you hear Maria Muldaur's name, think again. Muldaur has been exploring the blues for some time now and the results have garnered praise from Rolling Stone, Billboard, People and Entertainment Weekly. Her third blues album is due out this spring.
Schoonover wanted Muldaur and Strehli to perform on the same evening, adding an interesting and feminine slant to the blues.
Remember to wear your dancing shoes--and have a good time.
The Wintertime Blues Festival blows into town Thursday, Friday and Saturday, February 15-17, at the Rialto Theater, 318 E. Congress St. Tickets are $15 for all three nights, and must be purchased in advance from Hear's Music or Zia Records. Individual tickets can be purchased at the door: Thursday $5, Friday $10, Saturday $10. Thursday night is free to all KXCI and Tucson Blues Society members; Friday and Saturday nights will offer a $1 members' discount. All shows start at 8 p.m.
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