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LIVE REVIEW -- Blues Blast Music Awards 2009

Blues Blast Music Awards

October 29, 2009

Buddy Guy’s Legends

Chicago, IL

Billy Branch

Billy Branch (photo: C. Kenny)

By Linda Cain

Photos by: Michael Kurgansky, Constance Kenny, Jennifer Wheeler

The blues comes in many shades and hues. It is an art form that stands as a testament to life’s joys and sorrows; triumphs and tragedies. On a rainy night in October at Chicago’s most famous blues club, the music’s many facets revealed themselves to an international audience gathered for the Second Annual Blues Blast Music Awards, 2009.

It was a night that featured many musical highlights by 22 nominated artists, including Billy Boy Arnold, Billy Branch, Kenny Neal, Lurrie Bell, John Primer, Curtis Salgado, Carlos Johnson, Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ Malcom, Shirley Johnson, Nick Moss & the Fliptops, Matthew Skoller, Robin Rogers, Eden Brent, the Kilborn Alley Blues Band, Dave Gross, The Insomniacs, Albert Castiglia, Dave Herrero, Guy King and Chris James & Patrick Rynn with Bob Corritore. Each artist or group was allowed a ten-minute set, for an average of two to three songs. For the audience, it was the equivalent of a blues tapas menu -- tasty, small bites that left you craving for more.

Lurrie Bell
Lurrie Bell (photo: M. Kurgansky)

Highlights included not just the riveting live performances, but some of the awards presentations themselves were touching, tear-inducing moments. Marie Dixon (widow of Willie Dixon and whose family runs the Blues Heaven Foundation and preserved Chess Studios as a blues landmark) presented the Lifetime Achievement Award for the late Koko Taylor to her daughter Joyce “Cookie” Threatt. Cookie spoke fondly of her mother, the Queen of the Blues, with tears in her eyes as she accepted the award. Blues Blast Awards Founder Bob Kieser presented Cookie with a previous award for Best Female Blues Artist from 2008. Due to health problems, Koko was unable to attend last year’s ceremony.  Kieser, choked with emotion, spoke of his efforts to follow up and meet Koko to present the award personally.

These were touching presentations and performances that left fans in awe and delight.

Mud Morganfield, Marie Dixon, Cookie Mud Morganfield (Muddy Waters' son) Marie Dixon (center) and Cookie Threatt display  Koko Taylor's posthumous awards.
(photo:  J. Wheeler)

Then it was Cookie’s turn to present the award for 2009’s Best Female Blues Artist. The award went to a very surprised Robin Rogers who became overwhelmed with tears and emotions as she accepted the award. Cookie spoke of how proud her mom would have been of all of the blues ladies who were nominated: Eden Brent, Shirley Johnson, Shemekia Copeland, Janiva Magness and Diunna Greenleaf.

Robin Rogers
Robin Rogers (photo: M. Kurgansky)

Another bittersweet moment came when the Sean Costello Rising Star Award was presented by the late blues artist’s parents, Debbie Costello Smith and Glenn Smith, who flew in from Atlanta for the occasion. Their son died tragically of an overdose at age 28 last year. They spoke of keeping their talented son’s music alive and helping others, with the foundation they started in his memory, the Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research. The Smiths smiled and maintained a happy composure as they presented the award to the Kilborn Alley Blues Band, from downstate Illinois. The five-piece ensemble returned for a smokin’ after midnight set of hard drivin’ electric Chicago blues.

Emotions ran high for Kenny Neal’s appearance.  After having left the music scene for several years, due to a serious illness and the deaths of his father, sister and brother, the Louisiana native came back strong with his critically-acclaimed CD, Let Life Flow.  The title track garnered a nomination for Best Blues Song.  Koko Taylor’s band, The Blues Machine, backed Neal for an uplifting, triumphant performance of “Blues, Leave Me Alone” and “Let Life Flow” which had the whole joint rockin’.  It was also a celebratory time for guitarist Vino Louden, drummer Ricky Nelson and keyboardist Stanley Banks, who all suffered serious injuries in a van crash as they drove to a Koko Taylor show in 2008. The air was electric with life-affirming joy as Neal and band slam-dunked their set to an ecstatic crowd of devotees.

Kenny Neal
Kenny Neal (photo: M. Kurgansky)

Miracle man Curtis Salgado had much to celebrate, that night, too.  Two years ago, the soul blues singer was near death from liver cancer, but was saved by a final hour organ transplant.  His excellent comeback CD Clean Getaway earned a Best Blues Song nomination for “20 Years of B.B. King.”  The soulful harp player took the stage to accompany longtime friends Nick Moss & the Fliptops who, in turn, backed Salgado for his set. The versatile Fliptops demonstrated why they won the Best Blues Band award that night with a driving set of solid contemporary Chicago blues.

Chicago’s finest took center stage for the night’s lengthiest set by a veritable blues supergroup – the Chicago Blues: A Living History ensemble featured Billy Boy Arnold, Billy Branch, Matthew Skoller, John Primer, Lurrie Bell and Carlos Johnson, backed by noted sidemen --  guitarist Billy Flynn, drummer Willie Hayes, and bassist Felton Crews. The various players rotated in and out of the ensemble for some tasty traditional Chicago style jams including songs from the Living History double CD and Primer’s solo CD All Original, both nominees for Best Traditional Blues Recording.

John Primer
John Primer (photo: M. Kurgansky)

Wearing a sexy black dress, which she made the most of, North Carolina’s Robin Rogers kicked things off by going up first. Backed by her adept trio, the vivacious singer/songwriter prowled the stage and commanded everyone’s attention with her skilled vocal chops on originals “Don’t Leave Poor Me” and “Ain’t No Use.”

Eden BrentMississippi artist Eden Brent performed as a solo pianist, while she engaged the crowd to moan and clap along to her vibrant, rhythmic stylings. For the standard “Trouble in Mind,” the long-locked lass breezed through multiple tempos and techniques.  She played a buoyant cover of Eric Bibb’s sunny “Just Look Up” and for the finale, the spunky songstress pounded out a rousing boogie woogie instrumental. It’s no wonder Brent earned three nominations this year.

 Chicago’s Shirley Johnson, dressed to the nines in a stunning outfit, could have gone to a Halloween party as Patti LaBelle.  The veteran blues singer was joined by her dashing five-piece band for “You’re Reckless” from her heralded Blues Attack CD.  Shirley poured out her heart and “told it” from the female point of view on “Unchain My Heart,” as she did on the main stage of Chicago’s Blues Fest earlier this year.

Shirley Johnson
Shirley Johnson (photo: M. Kurgansky)

Bringing their youthful energy and enthusiasm to the blues, Miami’s Albert Castiglia and Chicago’s Dave Herrero hit the ground running to get the most out of their respective ten minute sets. Both handsome dudes are Strat wielding guitar shredders who put it out there with passionate, sweaty showmanship and string-bending solos that made jaws drop. But more than that, these guitar heroes know how to sing and write meaty, memorable material. Herrero’s Austin to Chicago was nominated for Best New Artist Debut Recording.  Castiglia won Best Blues Song for his “Bad Year Blues”.

Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcom, a.k.a. the 2 Man Wrecking Crew, lived up to their  CD’s name with a set of pulsating, North Mississippi trance blues in the tradition of R.L. Burnside, the drummer’s granddad. They were nominated for Best New Artist Debut Recording.

Best New Artist Debut Recording winners Chris James and Patrick Rynn, with help from harp master Bob Corritore and drummer Willie Hayes, represented traditional Chicago blues served up freshly brewed and percolating, as in their nominated song “Mr. Coffee.” 

Chris James & Patrick Rynn
Chris James & Patrick Rynn (photo: Kurgansky)

The retro blues of the big band, swing and jump eras was also well-represented by hot young players. Chicago’s suave Guy King, who played lead guitar in the late Willie Kent’s band, packed the stage with his dynamic eight-piece band that blew the roof off the joint with smooth, swinging, horn-driven, T-Bone Walker style numbers. King, a versatile guitarist/singer/songwriter, earned a Best New Artist Debut nod.

Singer/songwriter Dave Gross, nominated for the Rising Young Star Award, expertly played his guitar in a similar swing style.  With the jumpin’ jivin’ Insomniacs to back him up, it was a perfect match. The Insomniacs returned in the wee hours to close the night with their exciting 21st century jump blues originals and to pick up the award for Best Contemporary Blues Recording for At Least I’m Not With You.

Insomniacs & Curtis Salgado
The Insomniacs' Vyasa Dodson & Curtis Salgado
 (photo: Kurgansky)


It was a night to celebrate the blues and its many incarnations as delivered by soul survivors, vibrant veterans and energetic next-generation blues heroes.


Blue Blast Music Awards winners were chosen by 3,500 blues fans who voted in the Blues Blast Magazine’s online competition. The free weekly webzine is available from and is e-mailed to 14,000 fans worldwide.

Best Contemporary Blues Recording:  The Insomniacs / At Least I'm Not With You

Best Traditional Blues Recording:  Various Artists / Chicago Blues: A Living History

Best Blues Song:  Albert Castiglia / "Bad Year Blues"

Best Blues Band:  Nick Moss & The Flip Tops

Best Male Artist:  Elvin Bishop

Best Female Artist:  Robin Rogers

Best New Artist Debut Recording: Chris James & Patrick Rynn / Stop And Think About It

Sean Costello Rising Star Award:  Kilborn Alley Blues Band

Lifetime Achievement Award:  Koko Taylor

Copyright 2009: Chicago Blues Guide

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