Nothing but the blues: From Bluesweek into the Big Muddy
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 30, 2010 - 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 Sat. and Sun., 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.
Terry Perkins, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered the local music scene.