Laughlin Blues and Brews Festival
April 2nd-4th 2010
words/photos by God Frank
Exactly one month ago this weekend I made the trek to lovely Laughlin, Nevada for the someteenth annual Blues and Brews Festival. Okay, so Laughlin may not actually qualify as lovely, but there are definitely worse ways to spend an Easter weekend than playing poker, drinking free casino drinks and listening to some of the best blues music this side of Memphis free of charge. While the festival was a full month ago, I moved the week after and have been without my main computer since then. With our main Concert Confessions hero climbing volcanoes in Hawaii, I figured this was as good a time as any for a belated review of the yearly festival that rocks Laughlin each Easter.
Taking place in the Center Circle Event Center at the Colorado Belle (which is actually just their fancy way of saying, under a tent in the parking lot), the festival is a 3-day celebration of blues music with 5 acts rotating playing the entire weekend. What the festival lacks by not having an actual venue it more than makes up for in great music and a great atmosphere and like I said, it was free.
There is also a full bar set up outside (this is Nevada afterall), a separate beer tent, an outdoor BBQ area selling food and various vendor tents selling a variety of items that you would expect to see at a music festival (cheap knock-off sunglasses and toe rings anyone?). But while the food kinda sucked and the vendors were totally pointless, I was there for the music (and the poker inside) and I definitely wasn’t disappointed (although I did lose at the poker). Rather than try to recount each individual set, which would take forever, I will just review each individual performer.
First up was John Earl and the Boogieman Band. John Earl is actually the father of the festival. He puts it together and runs the festival each year. John Earl and his band are all about the honky-tonk blues and definitely know how to perform. The Boogieman Band was the largest of the bands to play this weekend with guitars, drums, a keyboard and horns. In addition to singing lead vocals, John Earl also breaks out the harmonica on a regular basis and does it well. Pretty much every song I heard them play the entire weekend was uptempo and they really know how to get the crowd dancing. John Earl played the first set each day, which was more than likely a result of it being his festival and he needed to be there early anyway, but I can’t think of a better performer to get things jump started. Each set they played was fun and entertaining and they always had the dancefloor full. I found out during the weekend that The Boogieman Band plays regular shows in Vegas and next time I am there I will definitely be looking them up.
While John Earl is the host of the festival, make no doubts, the headliner for the weekend was Michael Burks. I discovered Michael at last year’s Blues and Brews festival and have been tracking him ever since, even getting the opportunity to see him play in LA once last year. Michael Burks has the nickname of “Iron Man” because he is known for his long and energetic sets. Putting him in a festival where he is restricted to an hour each set really doesn’t do him justice. Right when he is getting warmed up he has to stop. That doesn’t prevent him from putting on an awesome show during that hour though, plus his sets closed each night which gave him the opportunity to play an extra song or two, which the crowd demanded each night when he tried to stop on time. With his long time keyboardist Wayne Sharp and Chuck “Popcorn” Louden banging on the drums Michael was right at home as he belted out tracks from his latest CD including “Salty Tears” and one of the highlights from the weekend “Empty Promises”. With his strong power vocals that are reminisent of BB King and a guitar mastery that is rarely seen in a free music festival, you can honestly feel the emotion in his playing. In short, this guy is way too good to be playing a parking lot in Laughlin, but I was very grateful that he did.
One of the things you can’t help but notice about Michael Burks is how personable and unassuming he is. Whether it be standing aside and allowing “Popcorn” to go off on a 4 minute drum solo, or jumping off stage to wirelessly roam amongst the crowd and pose for pictures while still playing guitar, Michael is one of the friendliest guys you will ever meet. And I did meet him as he hung out with the crowd after each performance, talking, shaking hands and signing autographs for everyone who was interested. Wayne and Popcorn were just as friendly and you really can’t help but wish them much more success in the future.
The one downside to Michael’s performances is he was breaking in a new bass player named Oscar. I’m not sure how long he has been with the band, but while talking to Wayne I found out that there were a lot of songs that they couldn’t play because Oscar didn’t know them yet, so he must be brand new. He did mess up a song or two during the weekend, but overall he did a good job and I think once he gets more practice time in he will be good. This did result in Michael repeating songs more frequently in his performances than he did in the previous year, but he mixed up the order well and does enough different things during his guitar solos that I really didn’t mind when he repeated a song.
Next up was Preston Shannon. Four of the five performers played the festival last year. Preston was the new blood and he was a very welcome addition. A very small man in stature he was probably 5’9″ and 160 pounds, he definitely defies the stereotype that blues performers have to be big and overweight. Despite his size, he boast a strong powerful voice that really surprised me when heard his first song. A very personable performer on stage, Preston knows how to work the crowd and cracks jokes on stage. One of the highlights of his performance was when he made Tiger Woods and Jesse James jokes before playing his original song “I Might Be Your Husband, (but I’m another woman’s man),” which was a great song that I really enjoyed. The other highlight was during a solo for another song and he played his guitar with his mouth, without missing a note! It was quite impressive and a feat that Michael Burks attempted to duplicate during one of his sets to comical effect. After his mouth solo Preston showed his tongue to the crowd and it would have made Gene Simmons blush. His wife must be a very happy woman!
The one hiccup in his performances was when he attempted to do a cover of the Prince song “Purple Rain.” His guitar playing was spot on, but he voice really didn’t suit the song and it came off as quite laughable to me. I seemed to be alone in that assessment though as the majority of the crowd seemed to enjoy it. Considering it was one of the last sets of the day, the crowd was pretty drunk, so I’m sticking to my opinion that it was a mistake. It was the only mistake in the performances of his that I saw though and I can officially say Preston Shannon impressed me that weekend.
One of the other returning performers was Brad Wilson. I will preface this by saying that Brad is a very good guitarist and singer, that said, he apparently only knows 8 songs. When I saw him last year I saw 3 of his sets and they were all identical. This year, I only saw one set because it was almost exactly the same as the set he kept playing last year and they aren’t even original songs. He was very good playing a cover of The Blues is Alright and a Bo Diddly song the title of which escapes me. He impressed me the first set I saw last year, but hearing the same songs with, and I’m not joking, literally the same banter, really distracts from what could be a good show. It’s actually quite puzzling why he would be so repetative on stage, because at the CD booth they a few different CDs by him. He clearly knows more songs, I just don’t know why he doesn’t play them. I would definitely recommend seeing him once because he is good, but after you’ve seen him once there really is no need to see him again. Especially during a festival like this when the next set is only 4 hours later.
The last of the performers was Chris Hiatt. I really don’t know what to say about Chris. Wearing outfits that make him look like Martin Short’s stunt double from The Three Amigos, he is actually a very good musician and if I had seen him by himself I probably would have liked him more. Unfortunately, playing after Michael Burks, John Earl and Preston Shannon, he is just totally outclassed. Still he is a decent time filler for in between sets from the stronger performers.
Lastly, there is one uncredited performer during the Blues and Brews festival, the crowd. As with most music festivals, people watching is part of the fun. This festival is definitely no exception. With a crowd that literally varied in age between 7 and 70 (seriously, there were little kids and at least two blue hairs with oxygen tanks next to their beers) and varied in lifestyles from office workers, hard core leather bikers, and students, anytime I got even a little bored with the action on stage, there was plenty of action off stage. With so many different types of people in the crowd you might think that a fight or two could break out, but the blues seems to bring everyone together. Between watching the old gray haired grandpa flashing his stomach to the horrified delight of 3 school girls who were sporting their own half shirts, or the young yuppie who was dancing with the old biker chick who I swear had crabs falling out from under her skirt while she was dancing, everyone blended together well and had a good time while giving me many things to laugh at while drinking my beer and basking in the Nevada sun.
The Colorado Belle hosts the Blues and Brews Festival every Easter weekend. This was my second year in a row, and next year I will definitely be making a return trip. If you are looking for a cheap weekend with a good atmosphere, some great music, and a lot of fun people watching, you should definitely join me.