Nobody can feel you up like a blind bluesman.
Bryan Lee, the larger-than-life New Orleans legend headlining Lansing BluesFest and self-styled “Braille Blues Daddy,” makes no bones about his dis-, er, superabilities.
“I’m your Braille blues daddy, I can really cop a feel,” Lee sings in the rollicking tune that gave him his nickname.
Of course, he means the “feel” of the blues — I think. “Blues brings people together, and we need more of that,” Lee said. “I make people happy with what I do.”
While playing a high-energy tune, Lee stands his ground like a huge boulder under a hat, rocking the house without moving a muscle. On a heart-twisting slow blues like “The Sky is Crying,” he builds up a slow-rolling, oceanic swell only the great blues guitarists can muster.
Journeyman Lansing musician Mike Skory has followed Lee for decades. In the 1970s, they both played at Lizard’s Underground in East Lansing, now the site of Rick’s American Café.
“His solos are very melodic and striking,” Skory said of Lee. “The guitar won’t burst into flames, but he just rings ‘em true, and you can follow each note.”
Lee hasn’t been to Lansing in 10 years, but he has a lot of history here. In the 1970s, he worked many nights at Lizard’s.
“They kept my rent paid,” Lee said.
“Those were great years.”
When Lee, 67, was starting out, it was tough to break into the insular Chicago blues scene, so he sidled east into Michigan. At first he took the ferry from his hometown of Two Rivers, Wis., across Lake Michigan to Ludington.
Later, when he moved to Milwaukee, he would drive through frosty Chicago to Lansing, in the welcoming palm of lower Michigan.
“Lizard’s led me to other gigs in lower Michigan — Ann Arbor, the Soup Kitchen in Detroit,” he said.
“It’s where I began growing as a bluesman,” he said. “I owe a lot to lower Michigan.”
Lee really blossomed when he moved to New Orleans in 1982. He has practically owned Bourbon Street ever since, playing five nights a week at clubs like the Old Absinthe House.
Recently, sporadic Midwest tours brought him to small Michigan towns like St. Louis and Grand Haven, but he felt a special pang when he saw Lansing Bluesfest on his calendar this fall.
“Now you’re hitting me between the ribs,” he said. “This is home territory.”
Lee fondly recalls the epic football wars between Ohio State and Michigan State in the days of MSU coach Duffy Daugherty and his rival Woody Hayes.
“I’d hear the roar from the stadium all the way from Lizard’s,” he said. “I’ve got so many terrific memories anywhere around Lansing. It’s been way too many years. I hope some of the old cats are still around.”
Paul Miles: Crossroads
You know a bluesman is getting serious when he talks about a crossroads. The most spine-tingling legend in blues lore has Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads at midnight.
In 1995, bluesman Paul Miles, soulful master of acoustic guitar, hit a crossroads of his own.
Miles was performing with fellow bluesman Kevin Moore (now known as Keb’ Mo’) in “Lost Highway,” the story of country music legend Hank Williams, at San Diego’s Globe Theater.
One night, when Moore had to miss a show, Miles took over as headliner.
Up to then, Miles played in a straightup blues style. To fill in for Moore, he had to stretch. “That’s when I started playing guitar with different tunings, slide, all these different things,” he said.
Moore got wind of Miles’ bravura performance.
“I don’t know what you plan to do later,” he told Miles, “but if you can do this, you will always work.”
That got Miles to thinking. He took a hiatus from his regular band to work out a subtle and complex finger style guitar technique, part blues, part country, part folk, practicing four hours a day for eight months.
“It was almost like my own crossroads,” Miles said.
When he was ready, he played demo tapes for his friends. The reaction went like this:
It wasn’t a total break with the past
for Miles. He was predisposed to explore and mix musical styles. Born in
rural Paulding, Ohio, he grew up on country music. The first live
performer he heard, at 6 years of age, was Tex Ritter. He hung out in
diners where Patsy Cline, George Jones and Porter Wagoner were always on
“I remember Willie Nelson when he didn’t have a beard,” Miles said.
As a teen, Miles was stunned by Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” The Beatles and Motown also hit hard.
He went to Bowling Green State University on a football scholarship with a guitar in hand, a gift from his father.
missed Woodstock in 1969, but made it to Michigan’s Goose Lake Festival
the next summer, along with 300,000 other fans. At Michigan’s three-day
Woodstock, Miles dug artists like Chicago, John Sebastian, the Stooges,
Rod Stewart, Jethro Tull and others.
“I started writing songs with my personal thoughts,” Miles said. “I’ve been writing since 1970.”
Some songs were inspired by the peace movement or the idealism of the times; others are simply portraits of people or moods.
“I call it the people’s music, because it’s not just blues music,” Miles said. “It’s a little deeper than that.”
Since then, Miles’ world has expanded. He
played the Lucerne Blues Festival in Switzerland from 1996 to 2001 and
spent a lot of time in Louisiana, including New Orleans.
he moved to Detroit in 2000, he started at the bottom, busking on the
streets in Royal Oak, Birmingham, and downtown Detroit, especially after
Tigers and Lions games.
downtown jam sessions, he got to know key Michigan bluesmen like R. J.
Spangler. When Spangler and others recognized his talent, his fortunes
and his CDs have won several Detroit awards, including Detroit Blues
Society’s first Solo Performer of the Year award in 2002. At the 2005
Detroit Music Awards, he beat out Anita Baker and Eminem as Best
an apostle of peace, love and understanding, Miles keeps some of the
tunes he wrote at Bowling Green in his growing book of hundreds of
He’s even written a tune expressly for Lansing Bluesfest, “Old Town Blues.”
He’s confident the tune will hit home.
“You’ll say, ‘Yeah, he got the accent!’” Miles promised. “He knows.”