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LIVE REVIEW -- Ann Arbor Blues Festival
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August 19, 2017

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tino G's Dumpster Machine
Tino G's Dumpster Machine (L to R): Carlton Washington, Jeremy Kanouse (drums), Tino Gross, Mike Smith. Tino, who played drums for John Lee Hooker in his youth, served as the fest's emcee.

By Bill Dahl

photos: Lee Ann Flynn

          From 1969 to 1973, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival was the premier annual blues event of its era. During its first two years of operations under the auspices of the University of Michigan, the event spotlighted an amazing array of blues greats—B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Freddie King, T-Bone Walker, Bobby Bland, Otis Rush, and too many more to recount here. The organizers skipped 1971, but with an increased budget and a new braintrust of Peter Andrews and MC5 manager John Sinclair at the helm, the festival expanded to include jazz in ‘72 and ‘73, booking headliners that included Ray Charles, Miles Davis, and Count Basie alongside local blues performers Bobo Jenkins, Little Sonny, and One-String Sam.

          It’s been a long time since the festival’s glory days (or even since it existed), but James Partridge, the head of the Ann Arbor Blues Society, decided to revive the event this year on short notice. On August 19, he pulled it off impressively, bringing in a solid lineup of performers that included vocalist/bassist Benny Turner (Freddie King’s younger brother), Chicago guitarist Nick Moss, harpist Hank Mowery, the Norman Jackson Band, and several more for an all-day outdoor concert at the Washtenaw Farm Council Fairgrounds. Partridge researched the history of the festival and immediately knew what had to be done.

          “I found it just unbelievable that we weren’t doing that anymore, so I wanted to get that back,” he says. “I guess the real impetus was that the 50th anniversary of the first festival is coming up. I wanted to celebrate those first festivals and get that started again, so I kind of wanted to get a running start by doing a couple of smaller ones and trying to bite those off and learn what I can so the one that we try to do in 2019 can be that much better.”

Eliza Neals & the Narcotics by Lee Ann
Eliza Neals Band (L to R): Howard Glazer, Demarcus Sumter (drums),
Billy "Guitar" Davis, John Abrahm, Eliza Neals

          An estimated one thousand attendees witnessed eleven hours of non-stop blues in a wide variety of styles. For blues-rock enthusiasts, Eliza Neals and the Narcotics with guitarist Howard Glazer fit the bill, and they brought along Billy “Guitar” Davis, former fretsman for Detroit’s Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, as their special guest.

Norman Jackson Band by Lee Ann Flynn
L to R: Norman Jackson, Danny Williams, Rick Shortt

Southpaw guitarist Norman Jackson and his band (featuring showboat saxist Rich Shortt) and guitarist Chris Canas and his crew kept things in a more soulful and funkier bag.

Chris Canas Band
Chris Canas Band (L to R): Chris Canas, Angela Cottingham, Joe Aranda (bass), Chris Nordman (keys), (not pictured on drums: Michael Scott)

More traditionally minded listeners should have appreciated guitarist Alabama Slim as well as Delta blues specialist Blair Miller, who attended the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival and was mightily inspired by seeing John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Wielding a dobro, Miller filled the time between each band set with expertly crafted solo interpretations of pre-war classics by Robert Johnson, Son House, and Charley Patton.

Blair Miller
Blair Miller
Alabama Slim by Lee Ann Flynn
Alabama Slim

          Miller wasn’t the only one whose life was forever changed by the original festival. Harpist Hank Mowery found inspiration in a recording done that day. “When I was 18, I was barely into music. I sort of played, but hadn’t really started playing,” says Mowery. “I stopped in East Lansing at Black and Circular, a great little record shop, and was looking for something to buy. And Magic Sam’s Live at The Ann Arbor Blues Festival caught my eye, because of Ann Arbor. I didn’t even know Magic Sam I had no idea who he was. I bought that, and really it changed—before that, I didn’t know anything like Magic Sam. I only knew maybe a little Muddy Waters. Maybe. It really opened my eyes to more things out there.”

Hank Mowery
Hank Mowery

          Mowery and his Hawktones contributed a fine set to this year’s festival under bright blue mid-afternoon skies. The Grand Rapids-based harpist stuck mostly with finely honed originals during his mid-afternoon set, his Hawktones, anchored by guitarist Troy Amaro and bassist Patrick Recob, joined by Chicago guitarist Kate Moss. “I’m very excited that they’re restarting the famous Ann Arbor Blues Festival after having seen so much about it over the years,” says Moss. “I’m proud to be part of the first reboot.”

Kate Moss by Lee Ann
Kate Moss

Whether storming through the swinging “Let It Go” and “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid” or rocking on the surging “Excuses Plenty” (the title track from his most recent CD) and a tough “Turn Your Damper Down,” Mowery and his band jelled splendidly, Amaro and Moss splitting lead guitar duties right down the middle and Mowery blowing with gusto. “To be here for the first year back is just great, so we’re very proud to have been involved in it,” says Mowery of the rebooted festival. “It’s great to see it come back. Hopefully we can keep it going and have that anniversary come up in a couple of years and keep it going from there.”

Nick Moss
Nick Moss

          Back supplying the lion’s share of the vocal content within his uncommonly tight band, Chicago guitarist Nick Moss provided quite a bit of the evening’s fieriest musical pyrotechnics. After veering into a blues-rock mode in recent years, Moss has reverted to his traditional leanings with a vengeance—and he’s never sounded better. Eminently capable of peeling off a dozen-chorus jaw-dropping guitar solo without ever repeating a lick, Moss is as tough a blues guitarslinger as exists today—as he proved time and again in Ann Arbor. Opening with a piledriving instrumental, Moss segued into Muddy Waters’ Willie Dixon-penned classic “The Same Thing,” sounding thoroughly assured behind the mic.

          Moss has assembled an exceptional young combo anchored by drummer Patrick Seals, keyboardist Taylor Streiff, and bassist Nick Fane that does exactly what he needs them to do at all times—never overplaying or careening out of control, always staying in the pocket and complementing the man behind the mic. In addition to Moss, that included harpist Dennis Gruenling, who’s currently touring with the Moss band. Given to soaring flights of fancy on his trusty mouth organ, Gruenling was especially ferocious on torrid jump blues numbers on Saturday evening in Ann Arbor.

Dennis Gruenling, Nick Moss by Lee Ann Flynn
Dennis Gruenling & Nick Moss

          “I’m very excited that they brought it back,” says Moss of the festival. “I think they should bring back more cool festivals, instead of letting them die.”

          When teenaged guitar prodigy Brandon “Taz” Niederaurer had to cancel out at the last minute, Nick was recruited to stick around and fill in on lead guitar with headliner Benny Turner, the only performer on the bill to have appeared on the original Ann Arbor Blues Festival (he was big brother Freddie King’s bassist on the 1972 edition).

“I remember it well, and they recorded it,” says Turner.”I’m happy to see them doing this. I hope they keep it up and try to bring it back to what it was then. It was one hell of a festival then.”

Benny Turner by Lee Ann
Benny Turner

Benny concentrated on performing some of the same songs that he’d done with Freddie 45 years earlier. Over the course of all the years since then, the Texas native (he now resides in New Orleans) has developed into a highly dynamic front man who thrusts his bass guitar around like a rock guitarist and frequently indulges in lead lines (he plays his axe with a pick). Opening with a Freddie-inspired rendition of Earl King’s “Let The Good Times Roll” (aka “Come On”), Benny also revisited Freddie’s “I’m Tore Down” and a thundering “Going Down,” rallying a majority of festgoers to congregate in front of the expansive stage and engage in some serious getting down. Moss channeled Freddie’s licks like he’d been doing it all his life, and Benny’s wonderful New Orleans band—keyboardist Keiko Komaki and drummer Jeffery “Jellybean” Alexander—laid down some serious grooves with Turner right in the middle of it all.

Partridge is very encouraged by the way the rebooted Ann Arbor Blues Festival transpired. “I think that it really beat everybody’s expectations. That to me is great. It didn’t beat my expectations, but I had a lot of faith that this was a good idea, and this was something that people were going to come to, and that we could do it,” he says. “We certainly got some lucky breaks, especially in terms of the weather. And that was good.

“I’m really looking forward to next year.”

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About the Author: Bill Dahl has been writing about blues, postwar R&B, and soul music for 40 years. He specializes in producing, compiling, and annotating CD reissue collections and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines. He has two new books out, The Art of the Blues and Survivor: The Benny Turner Story, the latter the autobiography of Turner. His website,, contains features and reviews covering a wide range of vintage music genres.  

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