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2013 Blues Fest – “If I Don’t Sing, I Die”: Mighty Sam McClain (Friday, July 5, 11 p.m., Bandshell) PDF Print E-mail
Mississippi Valley Blues Festival
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 27 June 2013 05:58

“Anyway, that’s just some of the stuff,” the soul-blues singer Mighty Sam McClain said to me in a recent phone interview. “You’re a good listener.”

He’d been talking, nonstop, for 31 minutes, responding to the simplest of opening questions: “What have you been up to?” After the compliment he paid me, he chattered for another 39 minutes, with just a few questions to prompt him.

Admittedly, the man has a lot to talk about.

He left his home in Louisiana at age 13 to escape an abusive stepfather. “He hit me a couple times,” McClain said. “He hit me in the head with a hammer. Once. Then he hit me with a walking stick. So I was getting ready to kill him. I really was. He was a hunter. And there were guns all over the house. ... I thought about doing it.”

Instead, he said, “I crawled out the window, and I didn’t look back.”

He then hooked up with Little Melvin Underwood, initially as a roadie and by age 15 – in the late 1950s – as a singer.

 
2013 Blues Fest – The King of La La: C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band (Saturday, July 6, 10 p.m., Tent) PDF Print E-mail
Mississippi Valley Blues Festival
Written by Mike Schulz   
Thursday, 27 June 2013 05:57

As he’s the son of the late Clifton Chenier – the Grammy Award-winning accordion legend commonly known as “The King of Zydeco” – it makes sense that C.J. Chenier would have a parent to thank for his initial entry into the world of professional music. And he does: his mom.

“I was, like, 20 years old,” says the native of Port Arthur, Texas, “and I was playing piano in this funk band I put up in my hometown, and one day we were playing a bazaar at a Catholic Church. And my mother sent one of my friends to tell me I needed to come home, because my daddy called and said he wanted me to go on the road with him. And I was hesitant, because I had never been to too many places, and I knew that everybody in my daddy’s band was way older than I was.

“But I got home and my mother told me, ‘I tell you what: You’re not working. You don’t have nothin’ to do. You’d better pack your bags and get on out of here!’” Laughing, Chenier adds, “And I just said, ‘Yes, ma’am!’ I mean, I was hesitant, but I was happy.”

Mom’s directive, as it turns out, has made a lot of people happy, because 25 years after taking over his late father’s Red Hot Louisiana Band, C.J. Chenier performances continue to thrill zydeco and blues fans worldwide. Called “the heir to the zydeco throne” by Billboard magazine and “the crown prince of zydeco” by the Boston Globe, the singer/songwriter/accordionist is an undeniable master of his genre – though the man readily admits that, in the early stages of his career, he didn’t fully understand what that genre was.

 
2013 Blues Fest – The Road to World Domination, Via Minnesota: Davina & the Vagabonds (Thursday, July 4, 8 p.m., Tent) PDF Print E-mail
Mississippi Valley Blues Festival
Written by Mike Schulz   
Thursday, 27 June 2013 05:56

Toward the end of our recent phone interview, I ask Davina Sowers – the lead vocalist, pianist, and bandleader for her five-person outfit Davina & the Vagabonds – what her plans for the future are, say, five or 10 years down the road.

She answers with her own question: “You mean, aside from world domination?”

I’m fairly certain she’s kidding. But considering Sowers’ rise to professional and popular acclaim over the past eight years, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.

A Pennsylvania native now residing in St. Paul, Minnesota, Sowers’ career in music, as she tells it, began rather inconspicuously, when the singer/songwriter was performing as a street musician in Key West, Florida. Yet since relocating north in 2005, Sowers has not-so-slowly and surely emerged as one of Minnesota’s – and the country’s – most exciting and accomplished blues artists, touring extensively with her ensemble of Vagabonds and earning much critical praise in the process.

 
2013 Blues Fest – The Business Behind the Luck: Selwyn Birchwood Band (Thursday, July 4, 3 p.m., Bandshell) PDF Print E-mail
Mississippi Valley Blues Festival
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 27 June 2013 05:55

Selwyn Birchwood’s e-mail signature doesn’t note that his band took the top prize in the 2013 International Blues Challenge. It doesn’t say that he won the Albert King award as the Memphis event’s top guitarist. Instead, it says: “Selwyn Birchwood, MBA.”

And, yes, that is a Master of Business Administration degree. Suffice to say that Birchwood – also a singer and songwriter – is not your father’s (or grandfather’s) bluesman.

“That’s always been a big part of my life is the scholastic part of it,” he said in a recent phone interview. “My family has always pushed me to do schoolwork and do well in school. ... A lot of people say that you don’t need school because you’re playing music. I looked at it the other way: I think if you’re playing music, you need it even more, because if, Lord forbid, gigs dried up and you have to get a job in a pinch, it’s a lot easier to get a job if you’ve got a degree or a graduate degree ... . I always saw it as a challenge as well. I always wanted to see if I could do it.”

So he got his undergraduate degree in business marketing, and in December earned his MBA. “I was ... kind of seeing how it can apply to my music,” he said.

 
2013 Blues Fest – In That Same Line: John Primer (Friday, July 5, 10 p.m., Tent) PDF Print E-mail
Mississippi Valley Blues Festival
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 27 June 2013 05:54

John Primer grew up loving the guitar, but it took a while for him to have his own.

An uncle made one on the side of the house in Mississippi with nails and wire when Primer was two or three years old, in the late 1940s. “I liked the sound,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I loved it.” He’d lie on the floor, looking at guitars in catalogs.

By the time he was five, he said, he was playing the side-of-the-home guitar, “when they go to the field or something.”

At about that time, he said, he ordered one for $7 or so, but “I never did get it.” It was at the post office, cash on delivery, and “I didn’t have no money. My mom, she was out of town, working ... . She didn’t come back in time to get it, so they sent it back. That broke my heart.”

 
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