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Court Avenue gets its mojo working


Blues fest draws downtown crowds

Historians say blues music, the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, country, R&B, jazz and hip-hop, was born in 1903 at a train station in Tutwiler, Miss. That’s where W.C. Handy, who later would be known as “the father of the blues” because he transcribed what he “discovered” that day, first heard an itinerant bluesman playing slide guitar and singing about riding a freight train. Handy, it is reported, called it “the weirdest music I have ever heard.”

But blues music has been around a long time. It was brought to America on slave ships from Africa; planted its roots in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta; expanded into Memphis, where it earned radio play; traveled north to factory towns such as Chicago and Detroit; and has since crossed over every American demographic. One of the most direct art forms known to mankind, fans and critics agree it speaks to the soul and reveals the joys and struggles of men and women everywhere.

Blues legend B.B. King once said “As long as there are men and women, there will be blues.” If that statement is to be believed, the art form dates back to Adam and Eve, and its future, a much-debated topic among fans and critics.

Two weeks ago, Congress proclaimed 2003 as “The Year of the Blues,” an overdue formality recognizing the 100th anniversary of Handy’s encounter with the blues, declaring it a national historic treasure that needs to be preserved, studied and documented for future generations.

An official kickoff event was held last week in New York at Radio City Music Hall with the “Salute To The Blues” concert, where blues legends like King, Buddy Guy and Ruth Brown shared the stage with pop, rock, R&B and hip-hop stars such as Aerosmith, Chuck D and India.Arie, who were on the bill to attract non-blues listeners. Director Martin Scorsese, who was on hand to film the event, also is producing a seven-part series for PBS to air this fall, and the Experience Music Project, a museum in Seattle, is sponsoring an education program and traveling exhibit.

While blues industry leaders are drumming up interest, they are also encouraging blues societies and festival and concert organizers to further promote the genre this year. But it doesn’t take an act of Congress to inform Iowans of the importance of blues music. On Saturday, Feb. 15, all you need to do is look up and down Court Avenue and Fourth Street to measure its worth, as hard-core fans and casual observers alike crowded downtown Des Moines bars for the Court Avenue Winter Blues Fest, sponsored by the Central Iowa Blues Society.

Approximately 1,500 people were expected to converge on downtown to listen to 12 blues bands of local, regional and national acclaim, playing a variety of styles, for the 10th anniversary of the semiannual event, which is also held every Labor Day weekend. Last year, the winter event drew a record crowd of 2,200 blues lovers. The festival benefits downtown business owners, musicians and the CIBS in its effort to preserve and promote blues music.

“When we started this thing 10 years ago, we thought if it was successful we would bring it back every year,” said Jeff Wagner, past president of the CIBS and co-owner of Blues on Grand, Des Moines’ only full-time blues bar. “A big part of we’re about is supporting downtown Des Moines.”

The CIBS offers its support in a variety of ways: from booking and paying for all of the bands; to mobilizing a volunteer force upwards of 300 people, nearly half of the group’s membership, to work at each participating venue, where they sell wristbands that admit fans to all festival events, to providing stagehands, lighting and sound at the Kirkwood Civic Center Hotel, headquarters for the event.

“It’s a lot of work, but it balances out knowing we’re exposing people to the blues,” said Serena James, president of the CIBS. “Des Moines is becoming more of a blues town every day.”

While blue notes filled the air, it was the sound of green cash filling cash registers that rang true with participating restaurant and bar owners. Kirkwood officials estimate they gained more than $10,000 from their participation.

“We’ve been doing this since the beginning, and it has had a huge economic impact for our hotel,” said Steve Mather, director of marketing and sales at the Kirkwood. He said the hotel’s management doubles its staffing to accommodate the extra business. “We usually sell out all of rooms, which are discounted for blues fans because we don’t want people to drink and drive; our coffee shop stays open and is busy all night, so it’s a lucrative piece of business; and we get a lot of repeat customers, including people from as far away as Omaha and the Quad Cities. I would love to see it grow so other hotels could get involved, too. I know we’re honored to be a part of it.”

Mather said he and other Court Avenue business leaders are appreciative of the support the CIBS provides.

“They care very much about the community,” he said. “They’re real stakeholders in the community, and they put their money where their mouth is.”

Lynette Webster, past president of the CIBS, said even though Saturday night typically is busiest night of the week for many of the venues, the pub -crawl that is part of the festival is designed to further improve sales. “A lot of these clubs and restaurants would do well on a Saturday night, but we hope we make it a little better for them,” she said.

“It’s guaranteed to be a busy night,” said Jeff Bruning, co-owner of the Royal Mile, one of the newest additions to the blues fest. “It’s something that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the city that makes downtown a destination spot. You know there is going to be a lot of good people and a lot of good music. What’s more, we get a lot of people we wouldn’t normally get in here.”

Bringing people downtown to listen to the blues is the object of the event, say the organizers. But the bonus is attracting new people to the clubs and to the music.

“The pub crawl definitely brings people out who wouldn’t ordinarily go hear blues. Especially younger people,” said Wagner, who closes his own bar the night of the festival to sell drinks inside the Kirkwood Hotel’s ballroom, the site of the concert by this year’s headliner Wayne Baker Brooks, and of an after-hours blues jam that lasted until 5 a.m. Organizers predicted the majority of those who bought a wristband for admission to all of the clubs would visit the ballroom at one point during the festivities.

“Blues fans come in all shapes, sizes and ages,” said Mather, who attends live shows regularly. “You may see someone who looks like a biker and you think they could be trouble, but they’re not. Even the police that work the Fest know it’s a good group of people. We’ve never had a problem with the crowd here. They’re down here for one thing – the music.”

Rob Lumbard, a stalwart of the Des Moines acoustic blues and folk scene, relishes his participation in the festival because it affords him an opportunity to play for an appreciative audience. Lumbard, who has also participated in the CIBS “Blues in the Schools” program, brought his unique finger-picking style and his 1929 National guitar to The Lift Saturday night.

“It’s a gravy gig because I don’t have to compete with televisions or pool tables,” he said. “I know what to expect when I walk through the door, and that’s hard to come by around here. The audience knows why they are there, and it challenges you to see how good you can get.”

Joe Price, Trailer Records recording artist and perpetuator of the slide guitar tradition established by the likes of Elmore and Homesick James, Hound Dog Taylor and Lightnin’ Hopkins, made his Court Avenue Blues Fest debut Saturday at Java Joes. A respected musician throughout the state who is celebrating his 30th year in the business, Price was eager to perform before a house-rockin’ crowd.

“I’m honored to do it,” Price said from his home in Lansing. “I love being a part of this thing.”

The slide guitarist said finding quality gigs is getting harder these days and he’s happy to be playing an event and a venue that focused on the music, especially in a city in which he rarely performs.

“It’s hard to get a gig in Des Moines,” Price said. “I don’t know if it’s the blues, but it’s hard to find gigs playing blues anywhere. I don’t care what town you’re in. I’m always looking for a place that will allow me to do my thing, to whoop it up pretty good. For me, blues is about getting people off of their butts and on the dance floor and having a good time.”

For many fans and musicians, the pub-crawl is an opportunity to connect with peers, family and friends. Price, for example, said he has family in the area whom he enjoys visiting while he’s in Des Moines.

“When they come down, it’s great,” he said. “I don’t get there that often, but when I do, we have a lot of fun.”

The family tie also binds musicians who may not be kin, but are kindred spirits.

“I enjoy the festival atmosphere of it, the camaraderie,” Lumbard said. “That’s what I like about it.”

Just Bus, a blues-rock band whose members are college students 20 and 21 years of age, already have two Court Avenue Blues Fests under their belt, but they were eager to play the event again. Ben Fust, bassist for the group, said the exposure helps them schedule shows.

“It helps us because there are a lot of club owners that come down to this,” he said. “We’re a little limited as to the places we can play because of the age of our fans, so this is a great opportunity for our fans to hear us. The Central Iowa Blues Society has been very good to us.”

Wagner, who also serves as a board member of the Blues Foundation, a national non-profit group, said bands value the chance to participate in the Fest. “It’s a big deal to them because they want to be part of the party,” he said. “The state of Iowa has a tremendous amount of talent and spots for local bands to play are limited. With the Fest, they get to play in front of packed houses, which is something they don’t normally get to do.”

Don Brown, who returned to his native Des Moines after leaving for New York City 19 years ago to work on Wall Street by day and in the Greenwich Village jazz clubs with his own Latin-jazz band and jazz trio by night, said he was pleasantly surprised by the level of local talent.

“I’ve come back and found a number of such high-caliber musicians that it leaves me with no regrets of leaving New York,” he said.

Brown also worked as a studio musician in New York, logging sessions with the likes of jazz artists Billy Taylor, Art Blakey Jr. and the late tenor saxophonist Harold Vick. He is a member of Chicago Rick and His Blues Band, fronted by Iowa Blues Hall of Fame inductee Rick Lussie and makes his festival debut Saturday with the band at Spaghetti Works. Brown, 49, who has played with local jazz and funk groups, too, said playing the blues is a bit of homecoming for him.

“Blues has its roots in the church and everybody started there, including myself, so it always has a special place in my heart,” he said.

In addition to being a highly expressive art form and a state of mind, the blues is also a way of life for some. Wayne Baker Brooks, son of blues legend Lonnie Brooks, is one of several budding national blues stars who have headlined the festival, including Carl Weathersby and Anthony Gomes. Brooks, who has shared the bill with his father as a headliner at major festivals, was looking forward to headlining the event as a solo artist. He said Des Moines, which has embraced his father and his brother Ronnie Baker Brooks, is supportive of the blues.

“There are some serious blues lovers in Des Moines,” he said from his home in Chicago. “I love playing Des Moines. The Brooks family always gets a great crowd there.”

While Brooks is busy shopping his solo album to record labels, he is also busy talking about the music he loves to anybody who will listen. His goal, he said, is to make people more aware and appreciative of this American music.

“This pub crawl is an ideal opportunity to make people aware of it,” he said. “Willie Dixon once said, ‘The blues are the roots, and everything else are the fruits.’ But if you don’t water your roots, how do you expect to grow? I want to make sure the roots are watered so the tree will stand tall and make other kinds of fruits.”  

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