For Tomas Esparza, blues music is like a virus. It took just one exposure, and he couldn’t get it out of his system.
“About 20 years ago, I got to see (blues harmonica player) William Clarke in downtown Grand Rapids at Blues at the Mall,” he said. “I was very intrigued by the sound of the harmonica. I was so intrigued that I went and bought a harmonica the next day.”Esparza, 53, brings his band to Michigan BluesFest Friday night. The Grand Rapids-based bluesman was a late bloomer, musically speaking, taking up the harmonica in his early 30s. Before that he had dabbled in music, but didn’t get very far.
“When I was in Catholic school I barely passed my music class — we had to learn to play a recorder,” Esparza said. “I always wanted to learn to play the saxophone. My ex-wife gave me a saxophone, but I couldn’t do anything. Back in those days I was very interested in learning to play jazz.”
But something about the harmonica clicked with Esparza. He started taking adult education classes in Grand Rapids and even joined the Grand Rapids Harmonica Club. Several members of the club suggested Esparza go to Chicago to study the blues, but he took a different path.
“I went to Lansing to learn to play blues harmonica,” Esparza said. “Friends there like Ray Aleshire (of Those Delta Rhythm Kings) and Andy Wilson (formerly of Steppin’ In It), they all recommended listening to the old harmonica players, such as Little Walter, Sonny Boy (Williamson) and James Cotton. So I would come home and listen to all those recordings.”
Esparza dedicated himself to harmonica, studying the old records and playing any open mic he could find. He played for a short time in another blues band before striking out on his own.
“Since 2006, I have been fronting my own band,” Esparza said. “It has been very progressive — learning to be a frontman and advance my chops as a harmonica player. It has been a work in progress.”
Guitarist and singer Toronzo Cannon, Saturday’s BluesFest headliner, was exposed to the blues virus early, but it lay dormant in his system for a few decades.
“I kind of came in on the side door of the blues. I grew up around it as a kid, I’d hear my aunts and uncles and grandparents play blues records,” Cannon said. “When I first started playing guitar, I wanted to play reggae. But everywhere I went, there was a blues jam. There was no reggae jams. So when I started going to the blues jams, all my memories from when I was a kid started coming back. So I went towards the blues — something that was already inside me, it just hadn’t come out yet.”
Cannon’s sound is a mix of old and new. He draws inspiration from the “three Kings,” B.B., Freddie and Albert, as well as from Jimi Hendrix, Chaka Khan and Parliament Funkadelic.
“Some of my blues, it pushes the boundaries a little bit,” Cannon said. “It’s not as Chicago traditional as Little Walter or someone like that. But I can do that if I want to. I can lay back on that and gutbucket like every bluesman in Chicago should be able to. That’s part of your ticket to stay in Chicago if you’re going to be a musician. If you’re going to stretch the boundaries and push the envelope, then you better know how to lump and gutbucket and play your shuffles.”
Cannon picked up the guitar at age 22 or 23 and played his first gig with Chicago blues fixture Tommy McCracken a few years later.
“I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is cool,’” Cannon said. “You play a piece of wood with some strings, and people dig it, you know? So it was cool. I couldn’t wait to get home from work to practice more and learn how I can get better. I’m still doing that now.”
Cannon leads a bit of a double life. A bluesman on evenings and weekends, Cannon drives a bus four days a week. He said he gets many of his song ideas from people that he meets on his route.
“I’ve been working for the City of Chicago driving a bus for 22 years,” he said. “I do that during the day Monday through Thursday, and I play my blues at nights and on the weekends. Not too much during the week, because I’m a public servant and I have to be responsible. You don’t want to play a gig and then the next morning you pick up some guy that you saw at the club. They’d think, ‘Wait a minute, this guy just played in the club ‘til 2 in the morning, now it’s 6 in the morning, and he’s driving a bus?’ I don’t do that.”
While it’s not exactly the rock star lifestyle teenagers dream of, the steady job keeps Cannon grounded and gives him financial stability. In a way it gives him more freedom, because he isn’t relying on the blues to keep his family afloat.
“I guess there’s a certain comfortable feeling in knowing that I’ve got some health benefits and things like that — I’ve got a family, and they don’t have to suffer because daddy wants to be a blues star or something like that,” Cannon said. “As far as having a straight job with the blues, it’s something that most musicians should do — especially if you’ve got a family. I don’t want to be a starving artist. I’m too old to be a starving artist.”
As blues music becomes less and less financially viable — industry figures indicate that blues music makes up less than 1 percent of albums sold in the U.S. — it becomes a labor of love for blues musicians. Esparza works as a furniture repair technician for Steelcase to support his blues habit. All four members of the Boa Constrictors, who play just before Cannon Saturday evening, hold down day jobs and play blues on the weekends. Steve Allen, bassist for the Detroit-based outfit, works as an automobile designer.
“I got started because I enjoyed the style of music. It became a passion. You couldn’t make a living at it,” Allen said.
Allen describes the Boa Constrictors’ sound as “Detroit blues,” a sound that reflects Detroit’s automotive history.
“It’s a really gritty, kind of industrial blues,” Allen said. “It’s very different from Chicago blues. Chicago blues is probably a little more polished, and Detroit blues is more gritty and raw.”
While many people associate the blues with dark, dingy clubs, Cannon is excited to bring blues music to the open air stages of Michigan Bluesfest this weekend.
“I love festivals. It’s like, look at all these people! And they’re focused on what you say,” Cannon said. “To hold a crowd, that’s cool and crazy at the same time. All these people are looking at me, at one time? I dig that. There’s no way you can’t dig that.
Sept. 18-19 FREE Old Town, Lansing (517) 371-4600, michiganbluesfest.com
Friday, Sept. 18
Main Stages: 1200 block of Turner Street NS = North Stage MS = MICA (South) Stage
5-5:30 p.m. — Acme Jam (NS) 5:30-6:30 p.m. — Acme Jam with Kathy Engin (NS) 6:30-7:30 p.m. — Donald Kinsey with the DeWaynes (MS) 7:30-8:30 p.m. — Tomás Ezparza (NS) 8:30-10 p.m. —Thornetta Davis (MS) 10 p.m.-midnight — The Rotations (NS)
River Stage (under the tent in Cesar Chavez Plaza/City Lot 56)
5-5:45 p.m. — Acoustic guitar workshop with Joel Mabus 6:15-7 p.m.— Matchette & Frog 7:15-8 p.m. — The 89th KeySaturday, Sept. 19
11–11:30 a.m. — Old Town walking tour (Meet at Message Makers, 1217 Turner St.)
Main Stages 2-2:45 p.m. — Red Herring (MS)
3-4 p.m. — Joel Mabus (MS) 4-5 p.m. — Good Cookies (MS) 5-6 p.m. — Twyla Birdsong (NS) 6-7:15 p.m. — Chris Canas (MS) 7:15-8:30 p.m. — The Boa Constrictors (NS) 8:30-10 p.m. — Toronzo Cannon (MS) 10 p.m.-midnight — Kathleen Murray Band (NS)
River Stage 1-1:30 p.m. — DANCE Lansing - Community Dance Project
2-3 p.m. — Harmonica for kids with Andy Wilson 3:15-3:45 p.m. — Storytelling by Jean Bolley 4-5 p.m. — Slidin’ blues guitar workshop with Jimmie Stagger’s 5:30-6:30 p.m. — Blues songwriting workshop with Toronzo Cannon 7-8 p.m. — Stan Budzynski & Ben Hall
KidzBeat (in Cesar Chavez Plaza/City Lot 56) 1-4 p.m. — Art projects with Broad Art Museum 1-5 p.m. — Bob Wilson, electric guitar mentor 1-5 p.m. — Randy “Bird” Burghdoff, electric bass mentor 1-5 p.m. — Instrument petting zoo with the MSU Community Music School