Blues Between the Bridges featuring Ronnie Baker Brooks
Time was when Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial though widely accepted starting line to summer, offered one of Lexington’s largest seasonal parties.
The event was Memorial Stakes Day, a day-long live music gathering at the Red Mile. It transformed the track’s infield into a miniature version of what Churchill Downs resembled on Derby Day. The performances would begin with local bar band favorites in the early afternoon and work their way up to a national headliner in the evening. During its Red Mile rein, Memorial Stakes Day hosted Cheap Trick, John Hiatt, The Smithereens and many others.
In local music lore, though, the event has long been history. It wasn’t until the Red Mile Blues Festival began in 2009 that Memorial Day became even remotely that electric again at the track.
But the Red Mile Blues Festival had little in common with Memorial Stakes Day. Organized by local blues enthusiast Greg Thomerson, the event left the infield alone and presented an afternoon/evening roster of blues performances from around the region and around the country in the track’s paddock area. Chicago’s Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials was the fest’s inaugural headliner.
Thomerson was itching to try something new with the festival for year two. In doing so, he bid adieu to the Red Mile, moved the event to the Clays Ferry Bridge by an eatery then known as Riptide on the River and renamed the soiree Blues Between the Bridges. It has remained there ever since, even as Riptides changed hands and became Proud Mary BBQ.
This weekend, Thomerson gives us the 10th outing for Blues Between the Bridges with a formula that has remained essentially unchanged since the event’s beginnings at the Red Mile. There are acts he proudly terms “local cats” (Clay Gilliam and the No Pressure Blues Band; Sean, Shaun and Not Shawn) as well as diverse out-of-town guests (Mississippi Soul stylist Johnny Rawls and Chicago soul-blues disciples Biscuit Miller and the Mix.)
This year’s headliner, Ronnie Baker Brooks, is something of a returnee as Lexington audiences have practically seen the artist grow up onstage though the decades.
During the early ‘80s, his father, the acclaimed Texas/Chicago guitarist Lonnie Brooks, was part of a blues music brigade with Koko Taylor and Son Seals that began making regular performance stops at the long-defunct Breeding’s on New Circle Road. By the latter half of the decade, the elder Brooks was featuring his son as a band member. The sounds the two generations of guitarists favored were comparable. Both possessed the jovial, soul-savvy warmth of Texas blues and the electric instrumental immediacy of Chicago blues.
One of the final recording sessions the two shared was for the 2017 Ronnie Baker Brooks album “Things Have Changed.” They merrily duked things out on a cover of the 1964 Alvin Cash instrumental “Twine Time.” The elder Brooks died in April 2017, less than three months after the release of “Things Have Changed.”
The album was split between sessions at the famed Royal Studios in Memphis (where Al Green fashioned his groundbreaking 1970s albums for Hi Records) and Nashville’s Blackbird Studios (which also allowed Brooks to record with such esteemed veterans as Booker T and the MGs guitarist Steve Crooper, Rascals keyboardist/vocalist Felix Cavaliere and veteran Texas guitarist Lee Roy Parnell.)
“Things Have Changed” also offered an additional high-profile parting shot by inviting vocalist Bobby Blue Bland on board for an update the 1989 Eric Clapton/Robert Cray duet “Old Love.” Bland died in 2013, indicating just how far back recording sessions “Things Have Changed” reached. The resulting work is Brooks’ first full studio album in a decade.
Admission for Blues Between the Bridges will be $10. For those keeping score at home, that price hasn’t increased since that first Memorial Day weekend at the Red Mile a decade ago. The blues, in this case, won’t extend to your budget.
Richard Lloyd/Letters of Acceptance
Out of a mid ‘70s New York scene that triggered a national awakening for garage rock, punk and New Wave, came a tidal wave of legendary bands in quick succession – The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, The Patti Smith Group and perhaps the artiest and most instrumentally daring of them all, Television.
On May 27, co-founding Television guitarist Richard Lloyd looks back on 40-plus years of renegade music and ahead with songs from his newest album “The Countdown” by way of a performance at The Burl.