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Nothing but the blues: From Bluesweek into the Big Muddy

St. Louisan Big George Brock has performed at past Bluesweek festivals.
File Photo | Bluesweek

The history of St. Louis blues festivals -- like the lengthy, proud tradition of St. Louis blues music -- is a story that can be confusing. It's also a story that has plenty of different perspectives and fascinating characters, just like many of the famous blues songs born here on the banks of the Mississippi.

The Big Muddy Blues Festival has been a fixture on Laclede's Landing for 14 years, going back to 1997 when the original St. Louis Blues Heritage Festival moved from the Landing to Buder Park in southwest St. Louis County after a run on the Landing that began in 1991.

The move to the county backfired: Attendance sunk, and the Blues Heritage Fest went to its demise. Meanwhile, the Big Muddy Blues & Roots Festival, the original name of the event put on by the Laclede's Landing Merchant's Association starting in 1997, kept the blues on the Landing up to the present. (Click here for a schedule of this year's Big Muddy.)

The name has been shortened over the years to the Big Muddy Blues Festival, and it's back again Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 4 and 5, over the traditional Labor Day weekend.

But the first St. Louis Blues Festival actually took place on a stage in front of the Kiel Opera House in 1986, created and produced by the non-profit St. Louis Blues Society.

A new blues event is taking place from Aug. 26-Sept. 5. It's called Saint Louis Bluesweek, and it's an ambitious attempt to create an event that will communicate the depth, variety and importance of St. Louis blues on a national and international level.

Interestingly, the roots of Bluesweek go back to the first St. Louis Blues Festival in 1986. The Saint Louis Blues Festival, a key component of Bluesweek, is scheduled to take place Fri. and Sat., Aug. 27-28 on the steps of what will soon be the newly renovated Peabody Opera House.

In a press conference Aug. 5 at Soldier's Memorial across the street from where workers were well into rehab work on the Opera House, Mayor Francis Slay commented, "St. Louis is not the same without the blues, and the blues are just not the same without St. Louis. Music is such an integral part of the lives of the people in our city, and events like Bluesweek help bring awareness to St. Louis' rich musical heritage."

Mike Kociela, the driving force behind Bluesweek, as well as a primary organizer of the annual Taste of St. Louis event at Soldier's Memorial, followed Slay to the podium, telling the audience, which included many St. Louis musicians such as Big George Brock, Roland Johnson and others who will play at the Saint Louis Blues Fest that he was inspired to try to make Bluesweek happen after a visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this past spring.

"I see no reason that St. Louis can't eventually do something on that scale," said Kociela. "And this is the first step. We've also laid the groundwork for a St. Louis blues museum through the first Bluesweek event. And that's a huge plus for St. Louis music."

Among the highlights of Bluesweek are:

  • Thurs., Aug. 26: an opening cocktail reception sponsored by the St. Louis Blues Society at Union Station's Grand Hall;
  • Sun., Aug. 29: an All Star Blues Brunch at the Great Grizzly Bear Restaurant in Soulard. Cost: $5 cover charge, plus cost of food and drink;
  • Tues., Aug. 31: a panel discussion on the history of the blues at the Centene Building in Grand Center, costing a $5 donation;
  • Wed. and Thurs., Sept. 1-2: harp workshop at the Blues City Deli and guitar workshop at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups. Worskhops have a $5 donation;
  • Fri and Sat., Sept. 3-4: a Soulard "Blues Cruise" visiting 10 ten clubs featuring blues bands. Cost: $10 coverage charge;
  • Sun., Sept. 5: A culminating Blues Awards at the Old Rock House to honor 10 blues legends with Lifetime Achievement Awards. Cost: $5 donation.

It's certainly an ambitious event, but one that Kociela and fellow Bluesweek organizers, such as John May, manager of BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups, and bassist for the Soulard Blues band and KDHX DJ Art Dwyer, all think is long overdue.
"I've been involved in just about every blues festival since the very first one," states May. "I worked on all the Big Muddy Fests as well. This time around, I think we're putting together something that's based on a festival celebrating St. Louis musicians. We're also honoring St. Louis' blues tradition as well as trying to pass along knowledge about the music to help keep it alive."

Dwyer is pleased that some of the legendary musicians who helped make the St. Louis blues scene what it is, especially for some who are still alive.

"I'm not usually big on awards because of the competitive aspect," states Dwyer. "But when I think of all the blues men and women who have gone unheralded for so long in this city, especially the ones the ones who are gone and were never honored, I'm glad that we decided to give these Lifetime Achievement Awards. Unfortunately, we've lost several great musicians in the past few years, and it's too late to give them an award. But there are others who are still around, and we can honor them while they're here."

Bluesweek and the Big Muddy do have some overlap, with both festivals holding events Sept. 4 and 5. The bands at the Landing's Big Muddy play from 1-10:30 p.m., Sat. and Sun. Bluesweek's Soulard Blues Cruise on Saturday runs from 9 p.m. - 1 a.m., and the Lifetime Achievement Awards at Old Rock House on Sunday runs 8:30 p.m. to midnight.

Whether the two events can join together to be part of an overall larger festival -- or can manage to co-exist on different tracks -- remains to be seen.

The bottom line for St. Louis blues fans appears to be a resurgence of interest in blues music and blues history. At least for the next two weeks.


The centerpiece of Bluesweek is the Saint Louis Blues Festival on Fri. and Sat., Aug. 27-28. Click here for a complete schedule.

The Saint Louis Bluesweek Festival is designed to include as many St. louis musicians as possible. Performances are designed to be all-star sets rather than performances by existing bands whenever possible.

Here is the lineup:

Fri., Aug. 27

5-6 p.m.: Opening ceremony commemorating the 111-year-old ballad of "Frankie and Johnny"

6-7:15 p.m.: Born under a bad sign -- the Albert King tribute with Kenny Rice, Vince Martin, Gus Thornton, Frank Dunbar, Curt Landes, Oliver Johnson, Tyrone Perry, Vince Sala

7:45 - 9 p.m.: Harp Attack -- a St. Louis tradition from Sonnyboy Williamson to today, with Tom Ray, Eric McSpadden, Jim McClaren backed by the Bel Airs with Bob Lohr

9:30-11 p.m.: Nighttime is the right time -- St. Louis blues and soul revue, with Marty Abdullah, Marsha Evans, Roland Johnson, Renee Smith Soulard Blues Band with the All-Star Horns

Sat., Aug. 27

3-4:15 p.m.: Roots, rhythm & rollin' -- Stomp 'em down to the bricks with Brian Henneman, Mark Ortmann, John Horton, Dade Farrar, Kip Loui, Dan Kathriner, Vince Corkery, John Jump, Bob Breidenbach, Fred Gumaer, Margaret Bianchetta, Gary Hunt, Tom Hall & Rakish Paddy

4:45-6 p.m.: The spirit of St. Louis, the heart and soul of America's music, with David Dee, Kim Massie, Skeet Rogers, Bosman Twins backed by Brock Walters, Jimmy Hinds, Terry Coleman, Gerald Warren, Steve Martin, Eric Slaughter

6:30-7:45 p.m.: Jazzland revisted with Legacy Jazz Quintet led by Philip Dunlap, Tom Byrne and Have You Heard with special guest Steve Ewing on vocals

8-9:15 p.m.: The legends of the St. Louis blues, with Silvercloud, Big George Brock, Arthur Williams, Boo Boo Davis backed by Ron Edwards, Marquise Knox, Big Mike Aguirre, Keith Robinson, Nephew Davis

9:30-11 p.m.: Guitar masters all over St. Louie, with Alvin Jett, Rich McDonough, Beau Shelbybacked by the Rhythm Rockers and special guests

The lineup for the Big Muddy Blues Festival presents a wealth of options.  

Two that should have wide appeal will appear on the Anheuser Busch mainstage:

Booker T and the MGs at  9 p.m. Saturday Sept. 4

Kim Massie and The Solid Senders "Tribute to Women in Soul" featuring the music of Etta James and Aretha Franklin at 5 p.m. Sept. 5

But that's this editor's pick, check out the schedule:

Sept. 4

Anheuser Busch mainstage
1 p.m. United States Navy Band, "FREEDOM"
3 p.m. Moreland and Arbuckle
5 p.m. Nick Curran and the Low Lifes
7 p.m. Eric "Guitar" Davis & the Troublemakers
9 p.m. Booker T

Second and Morgan Street Stage
1 p.m. The Red Headed Strangers
3 p.m. Blue City All Stars
5 p.m. Marcel Strong and the Apostles
7 p.m. Scott Kay and the Continentals
9 p.m. Marquise Knox

Second and Lucas Street Stage
1:30 p.m. Bottoms Up Blues Gang
3:30 p.m. Melissa Neels Band
5:30 p.m. The Lucky Old Sons
7:30 p.m. Hard Tale Blues Band
9:30 p.m. Arthur Williams

Sept. 5

Anheuser Busch mainstage
1 p.m. Paul DeMarinis Sextet
3 p.m. Roland Johnson and the Voodoo Blues Band
5 p.m. Kim Massie and The Solid Senders "Tribute to Women in Soul" featuring the music of Etta James and Aretha Franklin
7 p.m. Willie "Big Eyes" Smith
9 p.m. Magic Slim and the Teardrops

Second and Morgan Street Stage
1 p.m. Alvin Jett and the Phat Noiz Blues Band
3 p.m. Ground Floor Band
5 p.m. Miss Jubilee and the Humdingers
7 p.m. Billy Peek
9 p.m. Soulard Blues Band

Second and Lucas Street Stage
1:30 p.m. Inner City Blues Band
3:30 p.m. Soul Reunion
5:30 p.m. Rough Grooves
7:30 p.m. David Dee and the Hot Tracks
9:30 p.m. Marsha Evans & the Coalition

--Donna Korando

Terry Perkins, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered the local music scene. This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.