(Eric Crump/Democrat-News) [Order this photo]
That was the first unusual thing about the 2010 Bear Creek Blues Festival Saturday, June 26, at Slater's football field. The festival the previous two years took place in soggy conditions.
Gene Griffith, long-time volunteer with the festival, said he would be glad to take credit for ordering up near-perfect weather for this year's event.
"Last year we were in a swamp and then we had a storm blow in about 10:30," he said. The heat index, predicted to be at or above 100 degrees, didn't worry him. "A lot of heat -- that'll make 'em buy a lot of beverages."
The second unusual thing about this year's festival was an unusual instrument.
It was an event dominated by impressive guitar work, but in the middle of the sizzling strings was an unusual sound -- the twanging honk and growl of Australian artist Harper's digeridoos.
Though not commonly associated with the blues, several audience members expressed appreciation for Harper's performance.
Bruce Arvizu of Marshall said it gave the event a more international feel.
"The digeridoo is such an exotic instrument. It's not normally found in blues bands," he said. "It's a great sound. I love what he's doing with it."
Harper said he learned the instrument from Australian aborigine musicians.
The festival got under way earlier than usual this year -- about 2:30 p.m. under sunny skies. And after two years of wet, mucky conditions, organizers were glad to catch a break from the weather.
Festival organizer Jill Murray said she thought it was the first time a Saline County act had been on the program.
Lead singer and guitarist Abram Butler described the group as basically a "jam band" that generally does extended version of cover songs. The group has been playing together for almost a year, Butler said.
The band started with a Neal Young song, "Cortez The Killer," played "John The Revalator," "Southbound," "Little Wing" and "Roadhouse Blues," according to the group's website.
The band's half-hour set didn't give it the opportunity to really unwind a good jam, but Butler seemed pleased to have a chance to play. And the exposure from being on the Bear Creek Blues Festival program won't hurt the band's prospects.
Murray said the connection with the band started last year when Riverbend played for a blues fest fundraiser and asked if they could be on the festival program.
Harper gave Riverbend a big thanks for loaning his band some equipment -- "otherwise, we wouldn't be up here now." He said a mishap along the way to Slater forced them to leave some of their equipment behind.
Riverbend was followed by Salty Dawg's Cold Sweat, lead by Murray's brother, former Saline Countian Gary Coble, aka Salty Dawg.
The Sneakers were followed by Harper, and then guitar virtuoso Albert Castiglia took the stage with his intense stage presence and flying fingers.
Mike and Nancy Livermore of Moline, Ill., discovered the festival on the web and made the five-hour drive to Slater for the show. As members of the organizing committee for the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, the couple have been in the business of organizing similar events for more than 25 years.
Their festival, which occurs on the Independence Day weekend each year, will this year include two acts -- Bernard Allison and Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials -- who have been headliners in the past at Bear Creek Blues fest.
Like Allison, this year's headline act is the son of a blues great. Ronnie Baker Brooks at one point offered a song in tribute to his father, bluesman Lonnie Brooks, who he said had recently been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
The elder Brooks, he said, was the man "who taught me everything I know, but not everything he knows."
And he was complemented by the unique stage presence of his bass player, Carlton Armstrong, who with his high-slung guitar stalked the stage with the grace of a scowling panther.
For the band's encore, Brooks invited Castiglia back on stage and handed off the lead guitar duties.
Brooks got back in the act before the song ended, though, joining Castiglia for some fancy three-handed guitar work, two players on one instrument.
Before Brooks took the stage the drawing was held for the Peavey Signature Blues EX guitar, which was autographed by all the performers.
The winner was Arvizu, whose daughter Alexis, coincidentally, won the raffle guitar at the festival two years ago.
"Are you going to have a room with guitars in it or something?" Murray asked.
Arvizu said he plays guitar some, but declined to try out his new instrument on stage.
Murray also conducted a contest, offering a box of CDs by the evening's bands for anyone who could name the headline act for the first six festivals.
No one managed the task, but Greg Knott eventually won for remembering four of the headliners.
"I think it was another successful blues festival. The talent was awesome," Murray said as the concluding fireworks show began. "I have no idea if we had a bigger crowd or not. It was still good -- as long as they are having fun."
Dancing in the mud: Blues fans unhampered by soggy Slater field:
Storm can't stop the blues: Bear Creek Blues Fest headliners play on:
(In order of appearance)
Salty Dawg's Cold Sweat
Editor's note: Due to a scheduling conflict, we were not able to get video footage of Steve Smith and the Sneakers.
Mike Livermore on blues fests
Ronnie Baker Brooks
RBB & AC, encore & fireworks