Blues brothers — and sisters

By Rich Tupica

BluesFest rolls through Old Town this weekend, highlighting a unique Lansing sound

In Lansing, there are two key fixtures that support the area’s vibrant blues scene, keeping that 12-bar chord progression within two degrees of separation at any time: The Green Door, which has become a hallowed institution for the blues, attracting national and international acts with its electric atmosphere, and the annual Old Town BluesFest, which rolls into town like a storm once a year, shaking north Lansing to the quick. Wait a second — was that thunder rumbling? Nope, just a stampede.

“I like to tell people it’s like the Super Bowl for local blues guys,” said vocalist/guitarist Will Rideoutt, who plays BluesFest with his band Big Willy this weekend. “It’s the weekend we get to walk around and be recognized all together. It’s nice to catch up with your friends, hang out in the green room, and play on a big stage in front of a lot of people.”

This year’s two-day festival features diverse touring blues performers like Lady Champagne & the Motor City Blues Crew, Eric Culberson and one of the state’s most prominent bluesmen, John Latini. The Queens, N.Y.-native has made southeast Michigan his home, and his upbeat, radio-ready style has racked up awards for playing and songwriting since he set up shop. The wailing guitar of Culberson, meanwhile, is perfectly suited to reverberate off Turner Street’s storefronts like a thunderclap. The sultry Lady Champagne will keep the testosterone in check, balancing out the men’s growling with her crisp, clear voice.

Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art is coordinating the festivities, with board member Mike Skory helping oversee the 200 volunteers. He says he knows where to keep the focus.

“I push the local bands a lot,” Skory said. “As far as the headliners, I kind of stay away from that and let others decide. I just make sure there is a good representation of local bands and they’re all getting paid.”

As for the difference between local blues and the traveling troubadours skipping through town, Skory has his own theory.

“It’s a long story, identifying the Lansing blues sound,” Skory said. “People have been trying to figure it out for years. It’s a very soulful blues sound, but it’s a bit different. Maybe it’s because we’re only an hour and a half away from Detroit. We heard the best of the best, like the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Bob Seger. Musicians around here were like, ‘Let’s absorb it, let’s figure it out.’ Lansing has a long history of putting a little soul into it, but still keeping it blues.”

Rideoutt, meanwhile, is just happy to see the faces of all the fair-weather blues fans.

“It’s the biggest gig of the year,” Rideoutt said. “We can get all the people who won’t come out to see us late at night at a bar. This is something during the day you can bring your family and your dog to and make a day of it.”

So what can festivalgoers expect to hear from the local performers at this year event? It’s hard to decipher. Rideoutt agrees that the sound is varied.

“We’re just really diverse and inclusive because we all play with each other in so many different bands, we play different styles, but we’ll sit in with each other’s bands,” he said. “Around here, you have Those Delta Rhythm Kings who do that swinging jump blues with a lot of horns. You have Frog & the Beeftones — that Frog is a blues guy who likes to rock. Then Lansing has Steppin’ In It, who cover a lot of ground, but with Andy Wilson in the group they play a lot of blues.”

As much of an honor as it is to be the home to a unique style of blues, Lansing really isn’t all that big. Is there a possibility of there being a case of too many guitarists and not enough stages?”

“We’re not a cutthroat, backstabbing sort of scene that larger cities have,” said Rideoutt. “I think I can speak for everyone when I say we need to support each other. Because we’re the biggest musical audience at this point — really, it’s other musicians. The good thing about Lansing is there are so many people who want you to succeed.”

But the blues is tough — real tough. Rideoutt said in today’s scene he has to play in five or six bands to make ends meet.

“It’s kind of like any other industry in a downturn economy, you have to diversify and you have to be willing to think outside the box,” he said. “And I hate using that phrase. It’s like any other small business startup: you have to be willing to take chances and make sacrifices.

While Lansing has some choice spots for live, original music venues — Uli’s Haus of Rock, Mac’s Bar, The Loft — East Lansing is another story. The bars there often opt for DJs or solo acoustic-type acts than multi-piece outfits.

“When I see a guy at a bar with a laptop, playing guitar over backing tracks, I think, ‘This isn’t exciting me,’” Rideoutt said. “I don’t know how everyone else feels. I tend to look around the room and I don’t see many people who are into it.”

If it rained all the time, though, would we appreciate it as much? No, the blues is something special, something that makes you want to seek it out. So that’s why we only get BluesFest once a year. But if you want more, you know where to find it.