Famous Dave brings the blues downtown


Every spring and summer, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting somebody or other’s blues festival. This year’s Fourth Annual Famous Dave’s BBQ & Blues Festival, though, promises to be a cut above: not only does iconic singer-guitarist Ellen McIlwaine perform, she will do two sets. On top of that, there will be a complement of prominent Twin Cities artists, and ringers from around the country.

Interview: Ellen McIlwaine

If Ellen McIlwaine doesn’t qualify as a living legend, there’s never been any such thing. Since her debut in the late 60s, McIlwaine has left crowd after crowd of slack-jawed admirers trying to figure how to describe just how gifted she is. A dozen albums later, she has released her newest, Mystic Bridge, on which the splendid vocalist and slide guitarist reaches a new peak with Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” firing up a rendition tastily funked to a driving turn. She’s at the Famous Dave’s BBQ & Blues Festival on the Hormel Juke Joint Stage, performing a set from 5:30–6:00 p.m. and then coming back for another set from 7:00–7:30 p.m.

Playing 12-string guitar is enough of a challenge—let alone playing with a slide. What prompted you to do that?
I don’t play a 12-string. Y’ know, Paul Butterfield, his whole life, thought that I play 12-string. It’s because of that song, “We The People”, that I used to do, that’s tuned and kind of sounds like a sitar. He was convinced. But I’ve always played the same little six-string. I think it’s because of the tuning. It’s in octaves of C; that gives it that sound like a 12-string.

Who are your strongest guitar influences?
It would have to be Johnny Winter on slide. And Jimi Hendrix. Not particularly his style, but we hung out a little before he went to England, and he had no rules. He didn’t think there was only one way to do anything, or [that you had to do it a certain way because] so-and-so did it this way. He was a person who encouraged you to just go for it. And Richie Havens. I asked Richie to show me tunings. He said, “Make up your own.” James Blood Ulmer was a big influence.

Vocal influences?
I grew up in Japan, listening to Ray Charles. [Later] I discovered people like Irma Thomas, Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, Etta James. I remember thinking about Tina Turner, if I had as much feeling in my singing as she does in her little finger, I’d be really successful at what I was tryin’ to do. It goes also to Ustad Busrat Fateh Ali Khan, the great Pakistani singer. He did for singing what Jimi Hendrix did for guitar.

You’re no stranger to scatting.
The syllables are Japanese. It just sounds better to me than to sing “scooby-dooby.” It’s much more rhythmic.

I just thought you had trouble speakin’ English. Seriously, though, when I first heard you I couldn’t tell what you were saying, but I knew you were sayin’ the hell out of it.
The scatting we’re used to is based on English. A lot of people think I’m speaking some African language.

Steve Winwood, Hendrix, Green and more. How do you choose what to cover?
I [perform] those [artists’] tunes because I love those tunes. And I feel I do them totally differently. I feel like I add something [and] take it to a different place.

You’re your own manager.
I manage my whole career. If you’re with a big company, you’re competing with their roster. Or you’re with a person who means well, but doesn’t have the contacts, the experience. There’s nothing they can really do that you can’t do yourself. And I have my own label now. Mystic Bridge is the first release.

As one of the summer’s earliest outdoor concerts, the first three Famous Dave’s BBQ & Blues Festivals brought in revelers by the thousands; it shouldn’t be any different this year. Get there early if you want to get a decent view of what’s going on. It all happens Saturday, June 7, from noon to 10:30 p.m. at Peavey Plaza in Downtown Minneapolis (at 11th St. and Nicollet Mall) on two stages: the Peavey Plaza Main Stage and the Hormel Juke Joint Stage. Detailed information, including a full roster of performers, is available at the festival Web site. By the way, admission’s free. Food and drink ain’t.

A few highlights:

Tom Hunter (Peavey Plaza Main Stage, 1:00–1:30 p.m.) is going to put you in mind of Huey Lewis and the News with that same hard, polished edge. There is no arguing with Hunter’s technique as a singer-songwriting keyboardist, and he owns that performer’s pedigree of being in constant demand. Hunter hit Minneapolis in 1997, signing on with Big John Dickerson’s Blue Chamber; since then, he has earned a steadfast following. His albums Big Thunder (1999) and Live at the Narrows, recorded in 2004 with the Blue Frenzy, are out of print (Big Thunder is slated for reissue). For now, stores are managing to keep his newest, Here I Go Again (on St. Paul’s FS Music label) in stock. Don’t count on that being the case for long.

Twin Cities-based trio The Brass Kings (2:30-3:00 p.m., Hormel Juke Joint Stage) are bonafide spirit-lifters: if their original, acoustic blues, which fuses a contemporary sensibility with old-timey Americana—plus some world music thrown in—can’t perk you up, try therapy. Steve Kaul (guitar, vocals) Brad Ptacek (washtub bass), and Mikkel Beckmen (washboard percussion) constantly have a full dance card (they are booked throughout June), but managed to make time and record the recently released, roundly acclaimed album Washboard Rope Guitar.

It’s hard to argue with the credentials of blues duo Paul Metsa & Sonny Earl (Hormel Juke Joint Stage, 8:30–9:00 p.m.). Metsa (guitar, vocals) is an eight-time Minnesota Music Award winner. Sonny Earl (harp, vocals) cut his teeth on the music of Chicago legend Paul Butterfield. The duo’s album White Boys Lost in the Blues (don’t let the title fool you, there’s nothing lost about these guys) has picked up airplay everywhere around the world—from the BBC to New Zealand and back. Inspired by the historic team of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, they give a tip of the hat to tradition while putting their own signature on the bottom line.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.