Blues Between the Bridges
2:45 p.m. May 24 at Proud Mary BBQ, 9079 Old Richmond Rd. $10.
Normally, the annual Blues Between the Bridges festival is a relaxed outdoor component of Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer. It has also served as an interlude of sorts for what in recent years has become the season's quietest holiday stretch in Lexington.
But the Sunday mini-festival takes on added but unexpected importance this year as it comes a mere 10 days after the passing of B.B. King. To mainstream audiences, King was the voice and face of the blues. To the artists that carry on the music's tradition through recordings and live performances, he was a true father figure — a symbol of the blues' artistic integrity as well as its commercial potential.
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This is an assumption, mind you, but it's a good bet that each of the six acts on the Blues Between the Bridges bill this weekend will have King's monumental legacy on their minds as they hit the stage at Proud Mary BBQ (the former location of Riptides on Old Richmond Road). Certainly the two headlining artists, both champion guitar slingers, have benefited from the stylistic advancements King brought to the blues.
Chicago born Lil' Ed Williams, frontman for Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials, possesses an electric rocking sound that balances jump blues, swing, rock 'n' roll, soul and a hefty dose of steadfast traditional blues.
On 2012's Jump Start, his band's eighth album in a nearly three-decade association with the famed Alligator label, Williams races though the roadhouse charge of If You Were Mine and the swing-style rumble of Musical Mechanical Electrical Man before cooling for the slow and sobering grind of Kick Me to the Curb. That pace runs through the 13 tunes Williams wrote or co-wrote for the album — rugged, modernized songs reflective of the great Hound Dog Taylor interspersed with more tempered glimpses of blues tradition. The latter lot includes My Chains Are Gone, a tune that thematically recalls King's career-defining hit The Thrill is Gone.
The record's lone cover is J.B. Hutto's solemn slow blues burner If You Change Your Mind. Hutto was uncle and mentor to Williams and half brother to James "Pookie" Young, who has served as bassist for the Blues Imperials since the band's inception in 1975. But If You Change Your Mind is ultimately as much a testament to Williams' potent blues wail, as a guitarist as well as vocalist, as it is a tribute to the inspiration of Hutto (or King, for that matter).
Williams is also a key player in the formation of Blues Between the Bridges. Festival founder Greg Thomerson (who also performs the event every year as G. Busy) enlisted the Blues Imperials to play when the gathering began as a summer inauguration at the Red Mile. The festival moved to its current digs in 2010.
Co-headlining will be James Armstrong, a performer whose own life story is heavier than any fictionalized blues saga.
A native of Los Angeles, Armstrong had fellow guitarist Albert Collins as an inspiration and mentoring presence. But injuries sustained in a home invasion just before he was set to tour behind his debut album Sleeping with a Stranger left Armstrong with permanent nerve damage that hindered the use of his left arm and hand.
Since then, the healed guitarist has played internationally, shared stages with such blues luminaries as Buddy Guy and Charlie Musselwhite and recorded a series of critically lauded albums, the most recent of which is Guitar Angels.
Here's the full performance lineup for this year's Blues Between the Bridges: David McLean (2:45 p.m.), The Blues Drifters (3:45 p.m.), Robbie Bartlett Blues Band (4:45 p.m.), G. Busy Souls Blues Revue (6 p.m.), James Armstrong (7:15 p.m.) and Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials (8:30 p.m.).