The Amazing Birthday Do-Over

Every year, on my birthday, I try to take extreme precautions. I’m superstitious about that day as I believe it can set the tone for the entire coming year (my own personal “New Year”).

Most years, I plan something for myself… a trip, something interesting, even if that means going away by myself.

Last year I was in Amsterdam on my birthday … solo. It was an interesting birthday (I was serenaded by a band in a blues club in Amsterdam – I was the only one in the bar), but I also found myself feeling lonely many thousands of miles away from home on my own.

So this year, I decided I was not going to go on a trip on my birthday. Instead I was going to stay close to home so I could be around people that care about me.

And in fact, I had a few offers to go out on my birthday. Unfortunately, the choice I made for that particular night was a very bad one. I won’t say anything more about it. Those who know what happened know why it was such a bad night. I’ll leave it there.

However, my very dear friend Michelle, who is so sweet and wonderful offered me a birthday do-over. And this year, I wholeheartedly accepted.

Tonight, Michelle took me to Dirt Candy, a reservation-only vegetarian restaurant in the East Village. People wait months to score a table there, and Michelle had planned well in advance (because she is such an awesome friend!) We had a fantastic meal, it was inventive and tasty.

Afterwards, we had some “time” before her next surprise, so we stopped at a charming bar called Booker and Dax, also in the East Village. We sat and chatted for a while, before heading off to 55 Bar, our final stop.

At Booker and Dax, for part of the birthday do-over!

At Booker and Dax, for part of the birthday do-over!

And what a stop it was! Playing tonight at 55 Bar was the Chris Bergson Band — an amazingly talented blues band.

 

Chris Bergson and his very talented band

Chris Bergson and his very talented band

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Chris Bergson ... and Craig the highly talented sax and keyboard player in the background

Chris Bergson … and Craig the highly talented sax and keyboard player in the background

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This is a YouTube video of Chris Bergson playing at the Jazz Standard, it’s worth watching.

I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday this year. Tonight was so incredible, from dinner to a charming stop along the way, and winding up at 55 Bar to watch live blues…truly an amazing night.

And so it is that I can now officially declare my birthday this year to have been phenomenal. (And how lucky am I to have such an amazing friend?!) I’m ready for the rest of the year to come. 🙂

 

 

Buddy Guy Live at the Wellmont!

Last night I got the chance to see one of my all time favorite blues musicians play live. At 77, Buddy Guy is a dynamo.  He still has more energy of a musician half his age, with three times the talent.

He has an immense stage presence and is an amazing showman. He knows how to play – an audience.

Buddy Guy on stage at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ. 6-6-2014

Buddy Guy on stage at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ. 6-6-2014

Buddy started out playing Damn Right I Got the Blues, which is a signature song for him. The crowd roared its approval, in the small Wellmont theater venue.

Buddy Guy singing passionately to the audience

Buddy Guy singing passionately to the audience

Buddy’s band put out a HUGE sound considering he only has four other guys on stage with him. Aside from the drummer and base player, he had another guitarist and a piano/organ player. They all did a great job and brought their own energy to the performance.

Buddy and his other guitar player do an acoustic tune together.

Buddy and his other guitar player do an acoustic tune together.

One of the most thrilling moments of the performance was when he came down off the stage and walked through the entire theater, playing his guitar amidst the thronging fans. I got SO excited to see him and of course everyone raced to get photos of him playing. I was only able to shoot a few from the back…

Buddy Guy comes off the stage and walks into the audience for a THRILLING performance moment!

Buddy Guy comes off the stage and walks into the audience for a THRILLING performance moment!

Another shot of Buddy, with a great view of his guitar!

Another shot of Buddy, with a great view of his guitar!

Towards the end of his hour and a half performance, Buddy did a kind of medley of other guitar players he likes, and did partial tunes by Albert King, Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton and a few others. He does these riffs so effortlessly, and his talent as a guitarist is unquestionable, it was truly an honor to be able to watch this master of his craft do his thing.

The biggest disappointment I had last night, was in the audience. At the end of the performance, a lot of people got up and left (!!) instead of staying and screaming/shouting/hooting and hollering for an encore – as I did! I’m SURE we would have gotten an encore if the audience had been more appreciative, but with those that stayed we were unable to make enough noise to make it happen… and so we got no encore. 😦

But I am more than thrilled to have been able to sit and watch Buddy Guy perform live, and I’m sorry I waited so long to see him. I would easily buy tickets to see him again, and hopefully next time I’ll also see an encore!

That's me, yes, in POLKA DOTS, excited to see Buddy Guy live for the first time!

That’s me, yes, in POLKA DOTS, excited to see Buddy Guy live for the first time!

Big Joe Turner, Slim and Slam, and Jump Boogie

While I was in the car recently, I flipped through my dials … and all of a sudden the wonderful sound of a bluesy jazzy piano filled my car. A man was singing:

I’ve got a pocket full of pencils, can’t even write a doggone line;

I’ve got a pocket full of pencils, can’t even write a doggone line;

I’ve got a mouthful of gold; and I don’t have a lousy dime.

The man singing was Big Joe Turner, and the song was A Pocket Full of Pencils, a track on Texas Style.  I highly recommend the album.

Joe Turner - Texas Style

Joe Turner – Texas Style

What I loved about the Joe Turner song, and Turner’s style, is that it’s both Blues AND Jazz. I’m not an expert on this era, but I know enough about it to know it was an interim period when Blues and Jazz intermingled more freely.

Check this out… Big Joe Turner singing Shake, Rattle and Roll, from 1954.

What’s especially interesting to me, as a huge BB King fan, is that now… years later, listening to Joe Turner for the first time, I can clearly see BB King’s lineage as a musician. It comes directly from Turner, who had hits Ain’t Nobody’s Business, which BB King made a central staple in his own repetoire throughout his career.

You should also notice the name of the base player in the center of the Texas Style album cover: Slam Stewart.

Slam was, at one time, part of a duo called Slim and Slam. Slim Galliard, another musician I’ve been turned onto through a drummer friend of mine recently, is an AMAZING talent. Slim is a very funny guy, and in all of his live recordings, the audience laughs as much as they clap with joy.

Galliard songs like Flat Footed Floozy with the Floy Floy are classics in the “Jump Boogie Style.”

Just like Turner. Which is why Slam, Slim’s partner, would be playing his base on the Turner album.

Which is a strange way of me saying… hmm, when I listen to music I start seeing these connections between the musicians. I don’t consider myself knowledgeable about the Jump Boogie era, but I know what I love and I love Swing Jazz, and I love the Blues, so it makes sense that I would also love Jump Boogie.

But PLEASE don’t take my word for it.

Watch this clip, from Hellzapoppin which features Slim Galliard on piano/guitar and Slam Stewart on base, and an amazing set of musicians and dancers. What a gem!

Jazz musicians today don’t achieve the same level of “entertainer” status as they did in the 1940’s.

For instance, watch Slim Galliard play Cement Mixer on piano with his hands UPSIDE DOWN. He’s got amazing piano player hands.

This music is exciting for me to “discover” as I expand my jazz education. Jazz is leading me back into the Blues roots I love, and now finding extraordinary Jump Boogie musical talents like Big Joe Turner, Slim Galliard, and Slam Stewart make it fun to connect all the dots.

Big Joe Turner - Greatest Hits

Big Joe Turner – Greatest Hits

Cultural Gluttony: BB King, The Armory Show and more

This week I’ve binged on culture and this post covers my wanderings.

I saw BB King and Robert Cray live, went to the 100 year retrospective on the Armory Show at the NY Historical Society, and saw blues artist Joe Nemeth for his one night NYC performance.

I've got a golden ticket!

I’ve got a golden ticket!

Read on for details!

BB King and Robert Cray – live at the State Theater

BB King is now 88 years old, and I’d never seen him play live, so it was a treat to see him this week.

His eight piece back-up band, consisting of 4 horns, a keyboardist, drummer, base player and guitarist were great, and from their ages I’d say they’ve been playing with BB a long, long time.

BB with the band - 8 pieces!

BB with the band – 8 pieces!

The State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ is an intimate setting, and for my $100 (USD) ticket I got a seat in the “front balcony” of the theater, above the main hall and overlooking the stage. I could see what was happening on stage clearly, but I wasn’t close enough to get good cell phone photos. Still, you can see some of the stage set-up… :-}

Lovely view of the State Theater stage before the show

Lovely view of the State Theater stage before the show

Robert Cray and his band opened the show with a one hour performance of some of his classic popular blues hits like Strong Persuader, but I’m sorry to say he never played Smoking Gun, probably his biggest hit. Still, Cray’s voice and guitar playing are top notch.

The Robert Cray Band

The Robert Cray Band

It occured to me, during Cray’s set, there’s a reason why he made it as a professional. His stage presence is strong but easy going; he’s so obviously a talented and capable musician.

After Cray’s band finished, the re-set up process created about a 45 minute intermission before BB King’s band came on.

Once BB’s band came on, they played two numbers without him as a warm-up, and then he joined his band and played perhaps five or six songs total to finish the evening.

BB likes to patter with the audience and joke around, which fans know if you’ve seen videos of his performances or listened to his live albums. This performance was no exception, and BB delighted in leading the audience in a sing-a-long of “You Are My Sunshine” and then kidded around with some of the folks down in front near the stage.

It was extremely charming that as his band was playing When the Saints Come Marching In to end the show, BB didn’t really want to leave the stage. People rushed to the front of the auditorium to shake his hand, take his photo and get his autograph… while they still can.

BB King is rushed by adoring fans at the end of the show!

BB King is rushed by adoring fans at the end of the show!

I can’t blame them – BB King is a living Blues legend.

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The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution – new show at the NY Historical Society Museum

Original 1913 Armory Show set up

Original 1913 Armory Show set up

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Cutout of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase in front of the NY Historical Society

Cutout of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase in front of the NY Historical Society

I’d been greatly anticipating seeing this show at the NY Historical Society and finally got the chance to go yesterday. The show will be up until early 2014, so there’s plenty of time to see it.

Duchamp - Nude Descending a Staircase

Duchamp – Nude Descending a Staircase

Travel Tip: Since it’s only the second weekend since the show opened, I’m happy to report it was crowded. Still, tickets are readily available at the museum, you may not need to reserve them online. (I called the museum to check on ticket availability and was told to come in.)

Matisse - Blue Nude - 1907

Matisse – Blue Nude – 1907

This retrospective show is very small compared to the original Armory show, which had hundreds of artworks. In fact, the entire NY Historical Society coverage consisted of two galleries, while a third gallery covered pieces shown “soon after” the Armory show but not from the show itself.

Still, the curators of this show have gone to lengths to explain the original placement of the artworks and the cultural context for the showing of these works. One thing that fascinated me was the curator’s emphasis on how the artists were found for the show. Half of the works at the original show were American, the other half European. There is a lot of good reading material in the show too, and if you’re interested, there is a catalogue for sale.

What surprised me most about the show was that many of the works shown were not only “not shocking” they were traditional landscapes and portraits. It turns out that the organizers of the original Armory show were trying to show viewers an art trajectory, from the classical European, to the American point of view, and then the big divergence with Cubism and Fauvism and so the traditional works were a purposeful lead in, to help the viewer acclimate to what they saw in the final gallery.

Van Gogh - Mountains at St. Remy - 1889

Van Gogh – Mountains at St. Remy – 1889

This final gallery was the only section of the original Armory show which showcased the “new” works, and the public was shocked by them due to their bold colors, multi-varied perspectives, non-traditional forms and in some cases content.

One of my favorite “put-down’s” of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was that it looked like a “splinter salad.” The reaction was clear: critics of this art were severely challenged to understand the new forms.

Although today’s viewers will likely not be shocked by the Matisse, Duchamp, Gauguin and other paintings and sculptures they see, it’s good to be reminded how new art forms CAN shake viewers up, and CAN challenge them to think about art in new ways.

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Joe Nemeth at Terra Blues, Thurs, Oct 17th

What can you say about Terra Blues on Bleeker Street in NYC except that it’s a Blues Institution. This venue attracts top talent from all over the world to come and play blues, and yes, sometimes the acts are only in town one night – as was the case with Joe Nemeth, a blues harmonica player and five time Grammy nominated musician.

Joe Nemeth - Blues harmonica and lead singer

Joe Nemeth – Blues harmonica and lead singer

Nemeth and his band played a funky blues first set, and then… the electrical power went out for the amps in the back of the stage.

Nemeth was undaunted by the set-back, and sent his band offstage to take a break, while he decided to sing solo, just a boy and his harmonica, and he brought down the house.

Joe Nemeth at Terra Blues in NYC (bad lighting!)

Joe Nemeth and his base player too at Terra Blues (bad lighting!)

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However, after his one solo song, the power had not come back on, and so he too took a break. Unfortunately, many in the audience didn’t wait for the electrical repair and got up and left. Since it was only Thursday night, and I knew I had a busy few days ahead (to see BB King the next night, and then off to the Armory show too) I also decided to call it a night.

Young drummer for the Joe Nemeth band

Young drummer for the Joe Nemeth band

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The very talented lead guitarist for the Joe Nemeth band

The very talented lead guitarist for the Joe Nemeth band

Does it look like I was sitting right next to the stage? Because I was at the very first table next to the stage. I could have almost reached out and touched the lead guitarist’s cowboy boot!

Enjoy!

Still More Dutch treats: Bourbon St. Blues and Jazz, Amsterdam

The stage set up at Bourbon Street Blues & Jazz Club in Amsterdam

The stage set up at Bourbon Street Blues & Jazz Club in Amsterdam

If you’re looking at the photo (above) of the Bourbon Street Blues & Jazz Club in Amsterdam and you’ve noticed a disco ball hanging over the center of the dance floor and wondering, do they really use that thing? The answer is Yes, They Do.

On my last Saturday night in Amsterdam, my wish to hear the blues was finally fulfilled by Reuben and the Jets. That is not a real band name by the way, but those cats played some phenomenal blues anyway. It was a group of four musicians who happened to be available to play together that night and they totally rocked the house.

Reuben (Klebbers) played lead guitar, and the drummer and bass player I had seen play before on a previous night I had stopped in to check out Bourbon St. They also had a French harmonica player, which Reuben admitted to the crowd he just met. But when the four of them put it all together: WOW, they put out a very original set of blues interpretations for the four or so sets I stayed for during that final Saturday night. (I listened to them until the wee hours… 2am!)

During one of the breaks between sets Reuben came down off the stage and I requested “Got My Mojo Workin'” which they played during the next set. He did a call back with the audience that was so much fun, the entire crowd kept singing “got my mojo workin'” calling back to Reuben as he sung his heart out, and then the harp player blew a mean streak on his harmonica. The guy made it sound like a freight train. I was really knocked out by their performance!

Bourbon Street Jazz and Blues Club (Amsterdam) has a “reputation” as being the place where people go late into the night, after they get drunk somewhere else. I can tell you that the crowds at Bourbon St. are larger than those at Alto or Maloe Melo because the place is bigger, and just in front of the stage it’s not uncommon to have a dozen people dancing (oddly, they are usually dancing by themselves… especially the guys.)

But even if the place does get a little rowdy, which it can, it’s still an extremely fun venue. If you show up before 11pm you don’t have to pay a door fee. I don’t know the door fee because I always showed up before 11… before things really got started.

A funny thing about clubs in Amsterdam is that they bill themselves as jazz or blues or whatnot, but they don’t always PLAY jazz or blues – but offer the whatnot (see my post about Maloe Melo). The exception for me was Alto, because they only played jazz when I went, but I was only there twice. (I’m sure it would have been the same if I had made it to Bim Haus, which is the Amsterdam equivalent of Jazz at Lincoln Center and seats 200+. Bim Haus is located behind Central Station, which is sketchy late at night … one reason I decided not to go on my own.)

Anyway, another thing I loved about Bourbon Street was the bartending staff. They were so friendly, bopped along to the music, clapped and sang along and participated in creating a fun vibe. There was one particular bartender, a black guy who wore a bow tie… I wish I had gotten his name, he was so nice to me every time I came in he made me feel particularly welcome.

Bourbon Street Jazz and Blues is located beside a canal, and just around the corner from Alto Jazz Cafe, near the Leidseplein. They are open 7 days a week. I highly recommend this venue, it’s got a large space to spread out, an ample dance floor, rocking bands, and a super friendly staff that adds up to a guaranteed night of musical fun!

More Dutch Treats: Maloe Melo Blues Club, Amsterdam

Maloe Melo is a club famous for showcasing Blues acts in Amsterdam. In fact, it’s known as a hard core Blues joint for blues fans, and regular readers of my blog know how much I love the blues. So there was no way for me to miss Maloe Melo while I was in town!

Finding the club was a challenge. It is tucked in a residential neighborhood, alongside a canal called “Lijnbaans gracht” – the word “gracht” means canal in Dutch. This area gets kinda spooky at night. It’s not a bustling neighborhood; the streets are empty after midnight. It might not be a great idea to go alone, or if you do, have a transportation plan mapped out beforehand.

But, I was so excited to hear blues, and having learned my lesson at Alto Jazz Cafe (where I showed up at 9pm and sat for an hour before the music started…) I found my way to the front door of Maloe Melo at 10pm.

In front of the door, or should I say, blocking the doorway, was a bruiser of a Dutch guy, with mini-mutton chop sideburns, chomping an unlit black cigar. (It turns out this bruiser is a sweetheart…and…the bartender. His name is Patrick. Still, I wouldn’t want to piss him off. 😉 )

“Are you open?” I said.

He looked at me and stepped aside, letting me see that the bar behind him was empty.

“Oh! What time does the music start?” I asked.

“Eleven o’clock,” he said in a thick Dutch accent.

“Damn it!” I slipped, I was so surprised. He laughed at that.

I just couldn’t believe I’d been stumped again by showing up an hour early – and on a Tuesday night no less. Amsterdamers must be party animals to start that late during the week, I thought.

“Well, I guess I’m here to keep you company,” I said and flashed him my most charming American tourist smile. He smiled back.

We went inside together.

“Tonight’s my birthday…” I added, “and I really want to hear some blues!” I said, feeling happy at the thought.

“Happy Birthday,” he said, and stepped behind the bar.

I ordered a “Coca Light” (Euro-speak for Diet Coke) and he produced a tiny bottle with about six ounces of soda, like the ones I’d been given at all the cafes.

(Travel Tip: These midget bottles cost between $2-3 euros, typically… somewhere between $2.50-4 US dollars. In all the music clubs I went to there was no drink minimum. No one will bother you if you want to hang out and listen to the music while you nurse a drink.)

I took a moment to look around the bar, which I noticed smelled kind of smoky. Posters for European and American blues festivals and guitar legends plastered the walls and ceiling. An Aunt Jemima bust sat perched behind the teensy “stage” where barely two people could stand, with nowhere to put a drum kit.

The postage stamp sized "stage" in the front bar at Maloe Melo

The postage stamp sized “stage” in the front bar at Maloe Melo

Hmm, I thought.

“What kind of blues will they play tonight?” I asked the bartender. “Chicago style, country style, something else?”

“The band tonight is really good,” he said, “but they don’t play blues.”

“What?!” I said. “Oh no!”

“They are really good, you’ll like them,” he said.

I nodded, but sighed heavily. No blues at the blues club. I put on the best face I could, and said quietly, “I guess it’s too much to want to hear some Buddy Guy on my birthday…”

He gave me a Cheshire cat smile, a big wide grin, and popped a tape into the bar’s audio system. Buddy Guy belted out “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” over the loudspeakers.

I laughed and thanked him; I figured recorded blues on my birthday is better than no blues at all.

And then… the guitar player showed up. He was a petite fellow, very thin, with the worn lines of a rocker who has seen a lot in his years etched on his face. He introduced himself as “Kevin, but I prefer Kev…” with a pronounced British accent, although he told me he’d been living in Amsterdam for decades.

We began to chat, and the bartender mentioned to Kev that it was my birthday… and that I had come to hear blues. Kev told me that he and his two band-mates were going to do some low-key original stuff, no microphones, no drums.

Soon the other two band mates showed up, looking similarly well-worn from the lives they’ve led as experienced musicians. The second guitarist (who was the lead vocalist) was a Dutch guy, who reminded me a lot of Ronny Wood; he wore a black vest with white skulls all over it and beat up sneakers. Then the bassist showed up, and he reminded me of Gene Simmons, with dyed jet black hair in a ponytail, thick lips and olive colored skin. Kev was something of a Mick Jagger type, I’d say.

Unfortunately, as the band began their set-up for the evening, “Ronny Wood” and “Gene Simmons” decided to roll their own cigarettes (big, fat ones) and to smoke (tobacco).

When I asked about it, Kev told me that yes, it’s technically not legal to smoke in bars in Amsterdam, but that some bars have a lenient policy towards smoking (of both cigarettes and pot) and that in Maloe Melo, smoking was tolerated. I wasn’t happy about this development, because I knew my clothes and hair would reek after a few minutes of being in that cloud, but I was there to listen to the band… so I stayed.

At about 11:15pm, the trio began their first set… even though it was still just me and the bartender in the place. They played a personal performance for me for about a half hour. Kev kept saying it was fate that brought me there to hear them on my birthday. Maybe so.

I clapped appreciatively after each song and chatted with the band in between, mostly with Kev, who I think took a liking to me. I say that because when Kev went to the bathroom during one of the breaks, “Ronny Wood” came over to tell me, ‘Kev may look like crap, but he’s a really nice guy.’ That made me laugh, but I knew I wasn’t there to be a groupie for the evening! In any case, all three guys were amiable, but I could tell “Gene Simmons” wasn’t too happy about having an audience of one. I can’t blame him.

I didn’t know any of the tunes they played because they were all originals. The lead singer (“Ronny”), who was also the lyricist, liked to sing about love and romance, chasing girls, good friends, and hanging out with the boys in Amsterdam. All the songs were variations on those themes. “Ronny” and Kev did decent two-part harmonies; it was enjoyable but a bit mellow for me, especially considering I was looking for foot stomping blues.

Eventually other people came in, several who were good friends of the band, and they sat at the table nearest the ‘stage.’ A highlight for me was when one of their friends took out a pair of drum sticks, got up and stood next to me and used the vinyl covered bar stool as a drum and played along with the band on one of their songs. It was a fantastic impromtu performance.

The bar didn’t wind up with more than 20 people in it, but the heavy cloud of smoke hovering below the low ceiling was starting to get to me from both the band and many of the patrons, so I decided to leave after two sets (I heard one song twice, not sure if that was an accident)… around 12:40. I figured I would have to walk back to my hotel because of the time.

I did the proper thing and waited until the end of the set to go, and Kev came over and gave me a big hug and kissed my hand. He wished me a happy birthday again. “Ronny” also shook my hand, as did “Gene.” I was starting to feel like family in there, but it was time to go.

When I got out to the street, I ran into a couple on bicycles chatting under a street light. They were the only people around.

“Which way do I have to walk to get back to Central Station,” I asked them, dreading the long walk back in the dark and too-quiet neighborhood.

“That way,” the guy said, pointing.

The girl looked at me, “But if you hurry, you can probably catch the last tram. It doesn’t leave until 12:45…”

“I thought the last tram was midnight?” I said.

“Yes, the last trams leave Central Station at midnight,” she said, “but they get out here later before they circle back.”

Amsterdam: full of its own mysterious ways.

I quickly thanked them and started running toward the corner. I kept running, hoping that if the tram came down the track, that I would be on it.

When I was three quarters of the way toward the corner, the tram pulled up. I pushed myself to run faster before the tram doors slammed shut.

I flew into the open front door of the tram, breathing hard, but in just enough time to swipe my card, and take a comfy seat back to Central Station.

Blues Play List

It’s about time I posted some links to YouTube videos for some truly fantastic, amazing, mind blowing LIVE BLUES by some of the greats.

Enjoy at your own risk… once you listen to these, you will be addicted to the Blues!

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King – Pride and Joy

Joe Bonamassa, Derek Trucks, Dusty Hill & Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) – Going Down

BB King, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Jim Vaughn – Rock Me Baby

John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones – Boogie Chillin’

Susan Tedeschi – Back to the River

The Original Blues Master – Robert Johnson – Sweet Home Chicago

Blues Jam Session – Sweet Home Chicago (see if you can name all the musicians!)

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band – Deja VooDoo

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All comments welcome!