March 28th, 2009
Earlier this month Madison lost a great talent when bluesman Bobby Bryan played his last show in town on the 12th. I caught him at the High Noon Saloon that night when he opened for Shemekia Copeland. It was a fantastic show, if bittersweet and, unfortunately, I neglected to bring my camera.
Bryan was accompanied by the Uptown All-Stars which were bassist David Davenport, drummer Terry Galloway, and the stalwart Steve Skaggs on keys. They ran through a rocking set which included some tunes from Bryan’s Stranger Blues as well as numbers which will no doubt be on his upcoming and as of yet untitled album. For those of you that missed him while he was here, I’ll start with cliché by comparing his sound to the likes of Robert Cray. But funkier. Even his songs which seem to adhere most closely to what comes to mind when we think of the blues still have a certain swagger to them – it’s like Albert Collins teamed up with Funkadelic.
I spoke with Bobby after the show for a bit. He was ambivalent about his move. Leaving Madison meant leaving friends and fans but New York City held the promise of advancing his musical career. Bobby was incredibly excited about his new album and the future generally. I wish him all the luck in the world.
Shemekia Copeland stepped onto the stage with a smile and she never let that feeling go. Copeland’s set leaned heavily on her latest effort, Never Going Back, which showcases moves her away from the more bawdy stompers of her early efforts. For example, she introduced “Broken World” by relating the exhilaration she felt performing for soldiers in Iraq and about her desire to do little things to help make the world a better place. “Never Going Back to Memphis” burned slowly while “Sounds Like the Devil” soulfully took on politicos claiming to have God on their side while the salt of the earth suffer.
But the night was anything but dreary. Also from the new album was the country gospel of “Big Brand New Religion” which got people shaking their butts. And Copeland didn’t neglect her back catalogue either. Songs such as “Wild, Wild Woman” and “It’s 2 A.M.” brought down the house.
Here’s some footage from the show.
I believe that the last time Shemekia Copeland was here in Madison was several years ago at the now defunct Madison Blues Festival so it was nice to have her back. Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials played last night at The Harmony. When was the last time they were here? I saw them at The Crystal Corner about 12 years ago but surely they been back since. It seems like after Luther Allison’s death, the blues dried up here in Madison. Yeah, local blues musicians kept going at it, but it felt like the clubs just didn’t bring in touring acts as frequently as they did previously. Mostly we were stuck with wannabes like Johnny Lang and Susan Tedeschi but we had the Blues Fest for a bit. I just don’t recall the likes of Lil’ Ed and Lonnie Brooks showing up at The Crystal nor anywhere else in town. Chicago was only about 130 miles away but it could have been a million as far as getting the blues into Madison clubs. The blues didn’t disappear but I think there was a paucity of touring acts stopping here to complement Madison’s small blues scene.
But the situation has slowly been changing. Bobby Bryan became a band leader a couple years back and ended up representing Wisconsin at the 2008 International Blues Challenge. As he leaves, Shemekia Copeland makes an appearance as well as Lil’ Ed. And I can’t forget the new Chicago Blues Tuesdays at The Frequency led by local muso A.J. Love.
While any resurgence of the blues here in Madison is due to the work and dedication of many, Love is certainly the most public face of the trend. Not only did he start Chicago Blues Tuesdays but his company also represents the legendary John Primer. Primer has been at The Frequency twice this year already and returns there in May with shows at the High Noon and The Harmony on tap this summer.
Looking through Love’s website further, I see that he has started a magazine devoted to the Madison blues scene called Blues Mojo. From the initial edition:
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when I was in my twenties, I used to go to the Crystal Corner on Willy Street just about every weekend to see and hear (and meet) some of the greatest Blues artists of all-time. Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, The Kinsey Report, Jimmy Dawkins, Lonnie Brooks, Lefty Dizz and many more all played there, and it was an incredible time for Blues in Madison. There are still great touring artists who play in Madison from time to time, but it’s just not the same as it once was.
It’s nice to see a blues revival happening here in Madison. Love and company have an uphill battle considering that the blues are on the wane in Chicago itself. As the article notes, the genre’s big names having passed on or are getting older as are the audiences. (Are the decline in Chicago and revival here related?) But perhaps this can work to Madison’s advantage. As audiences and venues decline in Chicago, blues musicians there will still need gigs. Can Madison help fill the void?
We’ll have to wait to see how it all pans out, but, for now, we can enjoy the ride.