Sunday, February 17, 2008

Bubba Mac Blues Fest/Pre-After Action Report

Bubba Mac Blues Fest Preview

Ready for a nirvana?

Herb Birch is setting up Atlantic City for a mystical experience this weekend.

Herb, also known as "Bubba" of the Bubba Mac Shack and Bubba Mac Blues Band, is promoting the Mid-Atlantic Blues Fest all day Saturday and Sunday, which is going to be an experience in itself, but he's also hooked up with the Chopperexpo and they're throwing a joint mid-show party at the House of Blues with the Rads Saturday night.

What can be better than that?

Blues, bikes, barbeque and the Rads, the New Orleans' gargae band, are all ingredients that make for a really great time.

Thanks to Bubba, the Mid-Atlantic Blues Fest is set to make it's mark on Atlantic City, an ambitious, two day, all day, outdoor fest at Bernie Robbins Stadium, which conjurs up recollections of other such events - the Atlantic City Pop Fest, the Atlantic City Jazz Fest, the Bally Grandstand summer and the Stone's Steel Wheels finale, all one-time affairs that never could be repeated. If successful, the MidAt Blues Fest could be more significant, if only it happens again.

Not just to put on the blues, Herb's vision is bigger - a string of Bubba Mac Shacks, barbeque & blues, up and down the east coast, each with a big stage for a stable of hot bands that rotate through the circuit - a new chitlin' circuit of Bubba Mac Shacks. With the Bubba Mac Blues Band one of the acts, imagine they extend the curcuit and Shacks to Europe, and put on the occassional festval now and then. But now they got to make this nirvana happen first.

Some of the acts in this fest are familair to the patrons of the Bubba Mac Shack in Somers Point, the now defunct club that had a good run (2000-2006), or you might remember them from the Point's Friday night beach concerts and Good Old Days Picnics, and remember the Radiators from their tremendous Day at the Bay concert a few years ago.

As portrayed in the CP profile of Bubba [See:], Herb is determined to actualize his vision, and the All-Star lineups he's put together for Saturday and Sunday will certainly bring it into the real of possiblity.

Drawing heavily from the bands he jammed with in New Orleans and others from the Chicago blues circuit, there's a good mix of familiar and new acts, and none of the superstars who play the same stuff over and over. These are a more obscure acts who have either been playing sidemen for the late greats or as with Sunday's show, it's their kids - the next generation of the blues.

Before I give you a rundown on the MidAt Blues Fest lineups for Saturday and Sunday you need tickets to the show.

For Tix : [ See: ] or call 888-333-3091, and the $30 one day or $50 weekend pass are certainly worth any one of these acts, and a Saturday ticket will get you in the HOB Rads party, a joint affair with the Choppoerxpo at the Atlantic City Convention Center [See:].

Also check out their joint blues and chopper TV commercial, which is on cable tv between midnight and six in the morning, and should be available on youtube, as it is pretty interesting.

The blues are just right for a baseball stadium, especially for Phillie Phans, and baseball will be on many minds this day, as the Phillies and the Mets slug it out for the championship at the same time, and Lil' Ed is like the leadoff hitter in the lineup, with the job of getting on base.

Lil Ed & the Blues Imperials will open the fest Saturday morning at 11, starting slow with Lil' Ed's smokin' slide guitar, it won't take long to pick things up since each band only gets fifty minutes of stage time, and nobody wants to be stood up by a hotter act. You might have seen Lil' Ed try to teach Conan O'Brian how to play guitar on TV, and with his hot band the Blues Imperials, you too should be toe dancing before their set is over. Lil' Ed just might hit a home run.

Saxman with a harp, Eddie Shaw & the Wolfgang, who played the Somers Point beach, are up for the second act, and the former Howlin' Wolfpacker leads the way for a slew of ex-Wolfpax and Muddy Waters sidemen. Eddie's son Eddie Van Shaw, Jr. on bass is also a forshadowing of what's to come tomorrow - the blues next generation.

While Who's Dat is listed third, that must be like TBA, before the Bubba Mac Blues Band.

Herb "Bubba" Birch has been playing guitar since he was a kid, so he knows how to play, but he's surrounded himself with some of the best musicians in South Jersey and together they are the best band around. With Herb's best buddy Richie Baker on guitar (and author of "Thank You Baby"), the BMBB also features the multi-talented string man Lew London on guitar and fiddle, piano pounding Chris Sooy, Lee Urban on drums, Mike Conti on bass, Charlie Winters on harp and Karen Logan-Graham and Terri Showers on vocals. Some of other local musicians, like guitarist Danny Eyer, might sit in on a few songs.

The BMBB sets up the main attraction for most on opening day - the Legends of Chicago Blues - Hubert Sumlin, Bob Margolin, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, George Buford and Calvin "Mojo" Jones.

Howlin' Wolf's sideman Hubert'Sumlin's infectious and unique guitar riffs are well known to rock & rollers via Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, who borrowed them, and we owe due credit to the Stones, Animals and other British bands who took the blues and gave back to us a better appreciation of our own homegrown music. Especially influencial were the Wolf and Muddy Waters, whose song "Rolling Stone" inspired the naming of the magazine, the band and the other song. And ex-Waters men like Bob Margolin, drummer Willie Smith and harp bender George Buford will really shine on this day.

While the Chicago Legends are a hard act to follow, the guys from New Orleans can handle it, especially the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Louisiana Bayou guitarist Tab Benoit. The brass band is the Dixieland horn section that you think of with "When the Saints Come Marching In." Tab Benoit on the other hand, whails out on guitar. Benoit is a W.C. Handy awared winner and Grammy nomminee can be heard on McGillivray Freeman's "Hurricane on the Bayou" documentary film that plays IMAX theaters. When they play you'll hear cuts from "Goin' Home - A Tribute to Fats Domino" and contribute to the Tipitina's Foundation, to benefit New Oreans musicians displaced by Katrina.

Rounding out the first day of the fest will be Chicago soul harp and guitarist Billy Rush, who wil feature some songs from his new CD "Raw" and send everyone off, but not home, on a good note.

It's only 7:30 pm, the night is young and everyone is heading to the boardwalk, to the Showboat on the other side of town, where the "After Party" party continues at the House of Blues. This joint - Bluesfest/Chopperexpo party will feature the Radiators in one room and Rooster & the Chickenhawks leading a jam in the Club Harlem, named after the old Kentucky Avenue jazz and blues club that went out with casinos.

If you were at the first Day at the Bay a few years ago at Kennedy Park in Somers Point, you remember the Rads, as they tore up the place, and they're sure to do the same at the HOB. From the DAB, the last song they played as an encore, - after the manditory request for "The Weight," was "As Lovers Do," a song that still rings in my mind. I had to go out and find a juke box that had it to listen to again, as it is now one of my favorite songs of all times. Beginning a little like a Jimmy Buffet steel drum island tune, it quickly gets rolling and freaks out with dueling guitar riffs that ring.

Rooster & the Chicken Hawks are the New Orleans band that Bubba jammed with when he first went down to the Big Easy, so having them here to lead the After Party jam session will be fun, and could go on all night.

In New Orleans bands don't have fan clubs, they have KREWES, like the Krewe of Mystic Orphans and Misfits, the Rad's New Orleans Krewe who hold formal/informal charity balls once a year. So we're going to have to form an Atlantic City Krewe - to make sure this all happens again, but we'll have to come up with a good name.

When the sun comes up over the boardwalk on Sunday morning, the sons and daughers of the blues will begin tuning up over at Bernie Robbins Blues Stadium.

Local blues vocalist Terri Showers, who started out singing in the church choir in Ocean City, will get her chance to showcase some talent before the next generation of blues comes on.

We're quite familiar with Muddy Water's son Big Bill Morganfield, who played the Point Shack a number of times, and John Lee Hooker, Jr.'s dad, who opened for the Stones' Steel Wheels at Convention Hall, and got the hook for playing the same note too long.

But the blues is in the blood, and the kids have it, including Bernared Alison, son of the legendary Luther Allison, Shemekia Copeland, daugher of Texas blues guitar great Johnny Copeland, Ronnie Baker Brooks, son of Lonnie, and Kenny Neil, son of Raful Neil, who will close out the show.

If the torch has been passed to a new generation, as Big Bill Morganfield said, "My guitar is my torch, my soul is the flame."

Now that the lineup has been set, all they have to do is go out and play, and entertain the Atlantic City KREWE.
Bubba Mac Blues Fest - After Action Report

In a word - fantastic.

The inagural Mid-Atlantic Blues Fest, while not an unmitigated success, was a really good time, and featured the best music I've heard in a long time.

On the way to the fest, driving in to Atlantic City I was thinking how hard it is for me to go to Atlantic City, even in the best of times, and there's no good way to approach it.

Atlantic City looks good from a distance, especially from Somers Point, even at night, where the lights of the barrier islands stretch out like a string of pearls and Atlantic City is lit up like an Emerald City gem.

It's just harder to look at as you get closer. You have to drive down the Pike, the Black Horse Pike to get to Bernie Robbins Stadium (BRS), through Pleasantville, past the old Packard building and vacant lot where the Sandcastle (Betty Hutton estate) once recently stood. Past the new million dollar visitor's center off the Parkway, which doesn't have public restrooms, the most frequent reason tourists bother to stop there, and past the new multi-million dollar Atlantic City high school, built on the marshes like a prison, which you can't get to by walking or riding a bike.

And MGM Grand wants to make a multi-billion dollar announcement that they want to build a new casino, but the mayor is AWOL and can't be found. SNAFU.

But we're having a blues fest and all's right in the world. I pull off to the right and park on the street behind the Homerun Tavern, across the Pike from BRS, to beat the $5 parking, and stop in to check the Phillies score, but they only have college football on the TVs. "What is this the Touchdown Tavern?" I ask.

I mosey on over to the stadium and am glad to see there's some old friends from the now defunct and sitting empty Somers Point Bubba Mac Shack, still working for Herb "Bubba" Birch and pitching in for the fest.

Arriving late I missed the West Side Chicago bluesman Lil Ed and the Blues Imerials, Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang, who I had previously seen at the Somers Point beach, and Who Dat, a new local blues jam band that includes exceptional guitarist Fred Augello, who used to jam with the bands at the Point Shack in its heyday.

Since we're going to hear some more from Who Dat (- shouldn't there be a question mark there - Who Dat?), I'll mention that Fred's guitar is backed by Eddie Helms on keys, Dan Slamme Haines on bass, Mike Smith on guitar and Jammie Mitchell on drums. And we can't wait to hear from these guys again.

Who Dat was the set up band for Bubba Mac Blues Band, which has had some changes in the lineup but still plays the same songs, though they play they really well. Lead by Herb "Bubba" Birch, the BMBB is set solid with Lew London on guitar and violin, Chris Sooy on keys, Jim McConnell on drums, Mike Conti on bass, Terri Showers on vocals, and Richie Baker on rhythm guitar and vocals.

The new additions, at least since I last saw the band at the Shack, are Danny Eyre on lead guitar and additional vocals and Sarkis "Sark" Damirjan, both of whom add a new and exciting dimension to what was becoming a tired band. We are very familiar with Sark on harp from the Cape May Jazz Fest, where he always sits in with the blues band on the agenda, and before that when Sark lived upstairs of the legandary Shire Tavern, when all the jazz and blues bands played Cape May.

With a new song by Richie Baker, Danny's guitar fitting in nicely alongside the guitars of Lew, Richie and Bubba, they played mostly original tunes from their four CDs "Happy Blues," "Bubba Mac Attack," "Just Life," and "Road Kill."

Just as Who Dat? set up the BMBB, they set up the main act - the Legends of Chicago Blues - guitarists Hubert Sumlin (of Howlin' Wolf's band) and Bob Margolin and drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, George "Mojo" Buford on harp and Calvin Jones, all of whom played with Muddy Waters for years.

Now these guys are great, and now they're used to playing the festivals as well as the nightclubs, but they're also used to playing two or three sets a show, and since this fest limited each act to one, one hour set, you feel like you lost the warm ups and they had to squeeze their best set into the sixty minutes they had to work with. But they did it good.

The program lists the bands on the Main Stage, so I guess they had planned on having a small stage for acts to play between acts on the main stage, like the Good Old Days Picnics, but there was a short delay between acts without any entertainment, which was okay and gave you time to wander around and get something to eat.

The minor league baseball stadium has thousands of great seats, but the stage was set up deep in center field and practically everybody brought their own beach chairs and blankets, like they were at a beach concert, and few people actually sat in the stands, though I did for awhile.

Walking around I ran into a lot of old friends - Dorey, Rich McNally, who got pix, Carl Collins, Dancin' Joe from the Shack and Tim, the Spirit airline pilot who used to live at the Point but is now in Florida, and flew in with a dozen members of their Florida Blues Society.

Then there was Carmen and Nancy Marotta, set up in their usual location next to the soundboard, and Carol and Woody from the Cape May Jazz Fest, checking out the acts for possible booking at their twice annual festival, which I will soon preview.

After that serious dose of the Chicago Blues, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band gave the fest fans a great example of traditional New Orleans Dixieland jazz, heavy on the horns, and keeping up the Chicago verses New Orleans dicotomy of this fest.

New Orleans certainly won out over Chicago when Tab Benoit took the stage. A real cajun blues guitarist out of Baton Rouge, he took took the advice of Tabby Thomas, of Tabby's Blues Box and Heritage Hall, "If you play the blues, you'll always have a job." Benoit's job is to blend the blues with the cajun sauce, rock & roll and jazz and it comes out like a unique gumbo that you want more of. While Benoit's hour didn't seem long enough, we weren't done with him and he wasn't done with us, yet, as the night was young.

The final act of the first day of the fest was a huge disapointmet, at least for me. Carmen said Bobby Rush was great, and his resume puts him in the same leagues as the late blues greats, so my anticipation was squelched by his announcer, who introduced "Bobby Rush" a hundred times, with no exageration. How many times can you say, or hear "Bobby Rush, Bobby Rush..."

Well, when Bobby Rush finally came out, with his suposidly hot band and some big ass dancers, he went into this monologue about his dancers' rear ends, that seemed to never end. When Springsteen tells a story like that, there's a message and an end to it before he lets into a song, but Rush's story was just a bad off color joke that might go over in a nightclub, but really cut into half of his sixty minutes, so I just didn't get it. And I missed what should of been a hour long set of great blues songs. But if that was the worst of if, the rest was really great.

From Bernie Robbins, it was uptown to the Showboat for a jam at the House of Blues and the Radiators.

I jumped back in the car and drove down Albany Ave for a quick steak at the White House Subs, which Carmen Marotta's mother's family started decades ago, and is one of the few (Baltimore Grill, Dock's Oyster House, Knife & Fork) remaining Old Atlantic City landmarks left.

Then I glanced quickly down Kentucky Avenue, where as recently as the 80s, there was the Club Harlem, Grace's Little Belmont, the Wonders Gardens and the all night jazz and blues clubs of Old Atlantic City. Now there's nothing but vacant lots.

In line to park in the garage at the Showboat, I remembered why I don't like Atlantic City anymore, but parked and got in more lines and at the House of Blues (HOB) I run into Fred, the guitarist from Who Dat?, guitar in hand, invited to jam with the band.

Behind the baracade, where they search patrons before allowing them in, I saw Mickey Sill, an entertainment operations manager who was directing traffic outside the hall. Mickey wanted to talk about Springsteen's new CD "Magic," but I changed the subject and introduced him to Fred and asked Mickey to get Fred's new band in the HOBs. "I can't even get my brother's band in here," he complained, "and he's signed with a major label."

Apparently the HOB has been purchased by a major concert company out of LA and Issac Tegritt, Dan Ackroid, Jim Belushi and Company have cashed in their chips and are out of HOB and off the Boardwalk. The Showboat has retaken the theater and the new, hot bands have been replaced with the type of acts that the senior citizen bus people want to see. (More on this later).

In any case, we went in to the "Club Harlem Room," which really makes me sick having been to the real Club Harlem, and I meet Curtis L. Wheeler, aka Rooster of Rooster & the Chicken Hawks. Rooster is a mainstay of New Orlean's Bourbon Street, and the guy Bubba first met and jammed with when he went to New Orleans. So now, Bubba brought Rooster up to jam with his band, and open the second day of the fest.

At the HOB jam Rooster joined the BMBB on stage, and gave one of the best shows I've seen or heard in a long time. I started keeping a song list, but after awhile gave up and just listened, and sometimes got up and walked around the stage.

The Rooster is really the Man, and his selection of songs was terrific and the band hit it on every note. The Bubba Mac Blues Band is really one of the best bands around, man for man on every instrument, and jammin' with the Rooster really brought that out. The first set began without many people in the room, but as they made their way to the HOB from BRS it began to fill up and by the end of the first of two sets they were jammin' to a very appreciative audience.

The Club Harlem Room is next door to the main stage, which has a huge first floor and great seats in a theater upstairs, but that was closed, so everybody filtered around the sprawing room, which had bars at either end, but few seats for people to relax. But that's alright, the Rads are in the house and nobody's going to be sitting for long anyway.

An original New Orleans garage band, the Radiators are one of the best live acts around, taking the title from the Nighthawks years ago. With a repertoire of over three hundred original songs, they never even got around to playing my favorite, which they closed with at the Somers Point Day At the Bay concert at Kennedy Park two years ago - "Like Lovers Do." But it didn't matter, every song was great.

And then, after you thought it couldn't get any better, Bob Margolin walked on stage and began playing guitar, and later on Tab Benoit showed up and he too was invited up, and then with the Rad's two lead guitars, Margolin and Benoit made it four screaming guitars and a floor full of screaming, clapping fest fans.

Benoit then came down and stood next to me in the back of the crowd and I shook his hand and said, "You The Man." I know I'm going to see that guy again somewhere, even if I have to go to Baton Rouge.

Sitting with his crew next to the soundboard, I continued a conversation I had with Carmen Marotta earlier in the day, when Benoit was playing solo at the stadium. As Carmen, who owned a New Orleans nightclub for a few years in the 90s knew, the Radidators have fan clubs around the country called Krewes, taking their name from the New Orleans Marti Gras Krewes, or neighborhood clubs who sponsor balls and floats and throw parties whenever the Rads play.

I suggested to Carmen that we form our own "Krewe" and when I ran into Rich Spurlock at the HOB, he too liked the idea. Richard's father ran Ray's Barber shop on Bay Avenue, across the street from the Somers Point Beach, and he's now the main man in the kitchen at JD's Pub at Smithville.

With the Rads on stage, we threw around some possible names for our Krewe - Boardwalk Krewe, Point Krewe, but we knew we had a name when Richard's wife said, "Bayrat Krewe," which nailed it.

Well not all the Bayrat Krewe made it to the opening of the MABF Day Two, when Rooster and the Chicken Hawks opened up, Terri Showers of the BMBB made her solo debute and the sons and daughters of the Legends - Big Bill Morganfield, John Lee Hooker, Jr., Bernanrd Allison, Shemekia Copeland, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Kenny Neal performed.

I had seen Big Bill at the Shack a few times, and Richard really likes Shemekia Copeland, and the sons of the legends did just fine, carrying the blues to a new generation, in their own unique ways.

But as the second day came to a close, there were some thoughts on the next Mid-Atlantic Blues Fest, if there is to be another one, and I certainly hope there is.

First, we have to get the Bayrat Krewe more involved, and Herb has to get at least one big headliner that can draw some mainstream fans, other than blues fanatics, like Taj Mahal or even the Blues Brothers, whose band is always compose of the best studio musicians available.

Second, I'm not sure that Bernie Robbins Stadium is the proper venue, or even Atlantic City, as the Mid Atlantic is a big area and its possible to move around without moving out of the Mid Atlantic region. If the stage is closer to the stadium seating, it would work a lot better, but other venues should be explored.

Overall, it was a great experience, and for the producers, I'm sure a learning one, that will make the next fest even better.

Congradulations to Herb "Bubba" Birch and his whole Bubba Mac Shack Krewe, as they did a fine job, and I look forward to helping them do it again.

Bill Kelly - of the Bayrat Krewe.

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