Blues & Brews

Back in the late ’90s, the management of the Colorado Belle hosted a series of blues jam sessions in what was then the Showboat Lounge—a huge staging area where the current Pints brew pub sits. One of the jammers at one of those sessions was John Earl Williams and his band out of Las Vegas. Williams’ music piqued the interest of the Belle’s management, and when they found out he hosted blues events in Vegas, the thinking soon went, “why not get him to help host a blues festival in Laughlin on a regular basis?” Thus the “Blues & Brews” festival was born.
The event has morphed into a springtime event, offered this year Friday-Sunday, April 14-16, and moved to the Riverwalk area of the Loading Dock Stage, but it has become one of the most popular events of the year because of the “go big or go home” philosophy instilled in the menu of players from the very beginning.
Over the years, many people who have wandered over to the festival simply because they were thinking “what the hell, I’m outdoors and I’ve got nothing better to do—and besides they’ll have beer,” have had a bit of a revelation. After they listen—really listen to these guys—they discover they aren’t just playing a few guitar licks, but rather are digging deep into the heart of Mississippi Delta mud and Memphis alleys for music steeped in story and history. Some of these guys are part of that history. That discovery leads to another blues festival convert.
And for more than 19 years, John Earl and his wife Shirlee Williams have been part of things, not only as producers of the event, bringing in quality blues bands with some really big names in the blues world, but with John Earl and his BoogieMan Band in the role of host band. In addition to Williams, featuring guitarist Chris Tofield, this year’s lineup includes the Chris Hiatt Band, Preston Shannon, and the Bill Magee Band.
Festival hours are Fri-Sat, April 14-15 (noon-midnight); Sun, April 16 (noon-8 p.m.) The bands will play a rotating schedule each day.

In addition to the music of four blues bands, the festival site will offer food—and of course, brews—from booths set up on the Riverwalk adjacent to the Loading Dock stage.
The Loading Dock Bar & Grille patio will be a hot spot to claim a table to listen to the music and watch the crowds. However, you must check in with the podium inside the restaurant to get a table on the patio. The food and drinks served here are not the same as the items available at the booths on the Riverwalk (regular Loading Dock menu only on patio).

More about the bands…

Preston Shannon and his band is the one group on the line-up at the “Blues & Brews Festival” that stretches things beyond the blues borders. That has something to do with Shannon’s base of operations—Beale Street in Memphis. In fact, his nickname is “The King of Beale Street.” Sure, he has the B.B. King and T-Bone Walker Delta blues guitar sound, but he also has some of the Memphis Stax Records sound at his disposal.
With a voice that can wind around the tones of Otis Redding and Bobby Womack, Shannon has his own “Soul Blues” thing going on. His 1996 release, “Midnight in Memphis” was ranked #8 on Blues Critic’s “Greatest 100 Soul Blues & Southern Soul Albums, 1980-2005” and was considered for a Grammy nomination.
Preston Shannon has been a part of the “Blues & Brews Festival” for the past few years and has developed his own local fan base. One of the “must plays” at his sets is his emotional and soulful take on Prince’s “Purple Rain.” This isn’t a song you’re likely to hear at any other blues festival, but it works on many levels under Shannon’s direction.
“It has become my signature song,” he says. “I incorporate the blues feeling into it, especially in the solo part. People always ask me to do that song—and some think I do the song better than Prince. I think they’re saying quite a bit, but one lady said to me, ‘The difference between Prince’s version and yours—Prince does it with charisma…you do it with soul.’ I’ll take it. I won’t argue.”
Shannon’s latest CD is Dust My Broom, an honest, from-the-heart tribute to Elmore James.

Chris Hiatt has become as much a staple of the Belle’s blues festivals as John Earl. While Hiatt’s hook is his take on Stevie Ray Vaughan, he has expanded his repertoire to include other blues/rock material, including his originals.
What songs he plays at any given show has everything to do with what the crowd wants to hear.
“There isn’t one song that impacts every crowd the same,” he states. “A lot of the time I scan the crowd to see how much black leather there is—the general age—and I’m making lists of how people are looking at me when we play that first tune. I know when they’re not gonna jive. I wing it every night. When someone asks me, ‘What are you gonna play,’ I tell them I’ll figure it out when I’m standing up there on the stage.”
But when you wear a flat brimmed black hat with spangled band and have a stage look that screams Stevie Ray Vaughan, you have to realize that many of those in the audience expect to hear some “Pride and Joy.” Hiatt definitely realizes that, and delivers.
Night after night, in front of a crowd, is where Hiatt draws inspiration as well as a feeling of well-being, which often determines the musical projects he records. Most recently he released his fifth studio album, New Directions, in January 2016. The CD contains 13 originals, written or co-written by Hiatt.

John Earl Williams is a Texas roadhouse man who gravitated to Europe in the early ’70s. He formed a blues band that met with a considerable following in the Netherlands, England, Belgium and Germany.
Eventually, home was calling and Earl made his way to Las Vegas in 1988 to form his John Earl’s BoogieMan Band with which he has entrenched himself totally into the Vegas’ blues scene. He has performed at the House of Blues and other Vegas venues as opening act for such bands as John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker.
The Boogieman Band features guitarist Chris Tofield this trip.
Tofield is a musician who has dedicated his life to sharpening his skill to a razor’s edge and who truly enjoys his trade. He has maintained a strong work ethic that has kept him in business for over 25 years and built his solid reputation as a down to earth, no-nonsense performer and person to deal with.
Tofield, a seasoned journeyman musician, has performed with some of the top artists of the blues and rock world. Most recently, he was the guitarist and musical director for legendary soul/blues singer “Mighty” Sam McClain, a multiple Grammy Award and W.C. Handy Award nominee and an inductee in the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame.
Since relocating to Las Vegas, Tofield has been carving a niche for himself in “the entertainment capital of the world” by working with some of the city’s top performers and musicians.
One thing for sure, when Chris Tofield plays, everyone has a good time.

Veteran bluesman Bill Magee played with a group back in 1963, called Jimmy James and the Flames. Jimmy would one day change his name to Jimi Hendrix and change the world with his electric blues in the process. Magee didn’t accompany Hendrix to England on that fateful trip in ’67, when Hendrix career exploded. He put his own group together, called the Kansas City Playboys, and made a little musical history of his own, that included a tour around Europe in addition to playing the Chitlin Circuit, of the south.
During his career, he played with some of the greats—B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Otis Redding, John Lee Hooker, Bobby Blue Bland, Wilson Pickett, Bo Diddley and others in places like Regal and McCormick Place in Chicago, the Royal in D.C., and Madison Square Garden in New York. He spent several years on the road opening for James Brown, which included gigs at the Apollo Theater, something he promised his little brother he would do one day.
Magee stopped the relentless touring and all-nighters when he retired his guitar to become a family man for several years. But the call of the blues couldn’t be denied, so he has become one of San Diego’s busiest working musicians. He was voted the Best Blues Band by the San Diego Music Association and Reader Magazine.
When he makes his first appearance at the Belle’s Blues & Brews Festival, all of that experience and passion for music will no doubt pour out of every note and guitar lick. He’s already warning people to bring their dancing shoes and be prepared to smile a lot.
We talked with Bill Magee via a phone interview last week about his career, his music and the show he brings to town. Here’s his take…

On playing with Jimi Hendrix…
Magee: I met Jimi about three or four years before he became world famous. I met him back in 1963, and of course, he became world famous in 1967. I met him in New York, he was just another guitar player and no one had any idea he would go on to become the greatest guitar player of all time. I tell people all the time that if Jimmy never went to New York and never went to England, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The type of music he’s famous for he couldn’t play in New York. New York wasn’t ready for it—he had to play something people could dance to and of course, you can’t dance to Jimi’s music. So he goes to England and completely changes his style of playing and he comes back over here and takes the world by storm.

Describe your style of blues.
Magee: The best way to describe my music is high-energy Chicago style blues.
It’s driving guitar and soulful vocals.

Biggest influences?
Magee: B.B. King, Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and of course, Muddy Waters.

You have recorded a few albums too.
Magee: I have two completed CDs out, and I’m working on a new one. The last one I had out was Good Morning Mississippi (Thank You For Being My Home), and the one before that is Low Down Dirty Blues. My very first CD was called Steppin’ Out. This latest one should be out on June 24. It won’t be ready by Laughlin.

What was the most important thing you took away from playing with all of those guys?
Magee: Well, I think I learned the most from James Brown, to be honest with you. I learned how to be a professional. I was at a very young age, 22 or 23 years old and at that time, as far as black entertainers were concerned, James Brown was the man. He was considered “soul brother No. 1, the hardest working man in show business, and he was a total performer. He wasn’t the greatest singer in the world, but when you put the whole show together with the dancing and his excitement, he was the No. 1 black entertainer out there. When you went to a James Brown concert, you were on the edge of your seat. You wouldn’t want to blink your eyes because you were afraid you might miss something. That’s how intense it was. When the concert was over, you were sweating and your clothes were drenched, just like you were up there entertaining. You’d get caught up in the moment, in the excitement of it—that’s how dynamic of an entertainer he was.

Describe playing at the Apollo.
Magee: Let me tell you about the Apollo. The Apollo was like the testing ground. Every entertainer wanted to play the Apollo, even white entertainers like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. If you could get accepted at the Apollo, you were good enough to be accepted anywhere in the world. You got three notes at the Apollo. If you ain’t cooking by the fourth note, they gonna run you off the stage. They had no pity, no mercy for you. You were gone, man.

Talk about the show you’re bringing to Laughlin.
Magee: It’s the first time I’ve been there to do this show, and I’m excited and looking forward to it. I’ve heard a lot about it from other musicians that played there and they tell me how much fun it is. I’m bringing five musicians with me—my horn player and tenor saxophone player. His name is James Tobin; I’m bringing my keyboard player. His name is Larry Logan; and of course, my bass player Tom Milett; and I’m bringing my drummer and his name is Michael Minor.

Best compliment ever…
Magee: One of my greatest compliments came when I was playing a concert. A lady was out of the hospital two days after hip surgery and she came to my concert. She got up and danced. Afterwards, she came up to me and said, “Mr. Magee, my doctor’s gonna kill me, I just got out of the hospital for hip surgery, and I’m definitely not supposed to be on the floor dancing, but I sat there and could only take two songs. But after the third song, I couldn’t take it no more. I had to get up on the floor and dance. To hell with the hip, you’re music just does something to me.” So I thought that was one of the greatest compliments that I ever got.