Singing with Soul

The Colorado Belle’s “Blues & Brews” Festival has enjoyed a long and storied history of more than 20 years as one of the most popular musical events in the area. Top bluesmen and women have graced the stage, engaging with music lovers from all walks of life. Sometimes the music seems powerful enough to keep threatening storm clouds at bay, while taking those listening to every lyric and guitar riff to the streets of Memphis and New Orleans.
It all started back in the late ’90s, when 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 those sessions was John Earl Williams and his Boogieman 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, they thought, “why not get him to help host a blues festival in Laughlin on a regular basis?” Thus the “Blues & Brews” festival was born.
The spring event has morphed into a three-day affair and moved from the front parking lot to the Riverwalk area of the Loading Dock Stage, located behind the Belle with more seating to sit, enjoy and stay a while. This year’s 21st annual festival is Friday-Sunday, April 19-21 — Fri & Sat (noon–midnight), Sun (noon-8 p.m.).
The bands will play a rotating schedule each day. There is no charge to listen to the music; food and beverages are sold separately.
People may have started checking the festival out because they thought, “what the hell, I’m outdoors and I just want to find a cool spot and have a beer.” But then they realize, these musicians aren’t just playing a few guitar licks, but rather digging deep into the heart of Mississippi Delta mud and Memphis alleys for music steeped in blues and its origin. Some of these guys are part of that history and one more person becomes a blues music convert.
John Earl and his wife Shirley Williams have been part of things for more than 20 years, 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, the “BoogieMen” feature guitarist Chris Tofield and keyboardist Junior Brantley, with this year’s lineup to include “Mississippi” Bill Magee & his San Diego Blues Band, the Chris Hiatt Band, and the PS Band featuring Jonathan Ellison.
The “PS” stands for Preston Shannon, who passed away in January 2018. He was not only a popular musician in Laughlin, but the world lost a musical great. Known as the “King of Beale Street,” he is most likely playing in heaven’s blues band with the likes of T-Bone Walker and B.B. King, along with another gentle musical giant who also was a favorite in these parts, Michael Burks, who passed away in 2012.
“Preston hand picked Jonathan Ellison as his replacement last year,” Williams said. “Evidently he knew he wasn’t going to make it, and we were all praying for him, but it was his time. We lost quite a good artist and he was a nice guy.
“Michael Burks was a great musician, too. Michael was his own and and a young man. All of us old rough objects are still around. They’ll be watching and jammin’ along with us I’m sure,” he laughs. “We’ve got some of the usual suspects, too, Chris Hiatt, us and this year’s headliner is ‘Mississippi’ Bill Magee & the San Diego Blues Band.'”
Here’s more about the lineup…

PS Band with Jonathan Ellison
Shannon’s family requested his name remain a part of the Blues & Blues lineup so his band lives on. Helping to make that happen, is Ellison, one of the dynamic new breed of bluesmen making a name for himself.
Born in Brownsville, Tennessee, Ellison has deep roots in a variety of musical genres including gospel, soul, blues and classic rock. By the age of five, he was already playing drums and performing regularly around the South with his family’s gospel group, The Ellison Family.
By age 10 he had also picked up the bass and piano, while setting his sights on learning to play the guitar, which would later become his instrument of choice.
After graduating high school and moving to Memphis, Tennessee, to attend the University of Memphis, Ellison began playing for community choirs and solo artists, quickly becoming a sought-after guitarist for workshops and gospel recording sessions. His break came when he was given the opportunity to play lead guitar at B.B. King’s Blues Club. He soon became a mainstay at nightspots throughout Memphis and began touring the country with a variety of artists.
After several years on the road, he returned to Beale Street as the guitarist/band leader for B.B. King’s Blues Club house band, The BB King All-Stars. Shortly thereafter, he became the band’s lead singer and one of the club’s featured artists, often opening for B.B. King, himself.

Chris Hiatt
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 a 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 2016. The CD contains 13 originals, written or co-written by Hiatt.

John Earl & The Boogieman Band
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 Williams 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, opening for such bands as John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker.
The Boogieman Band features guitarist Chris Tofield and keyboardist Junior Brantley.
“Chris has been playing with us since 2005. Junior Brantley and I have been playing together since ’96,” Williams said.
“Junior is the modest, very talented, laid-back guy in the band. He never says anything about himself, it’s always ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and he deserves to be acknowledged for what he brings to the group. It’s just taken me this long to get around to it, but better late than never,” he laughed.
“Junior won the Blues Heritage Award and Chris and I were both inducted into the Las Vegas Hall of Fame, and we were named honorary lifetime members of the Las Vegas Blues Society.”

“Mississippi” Bill Magee
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 it the Kansas City Playboys, and made a little musical history of his own — which included a tour around Europe in addition to playing the Chitlin Circuit, of the American 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 the Regal Theater 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 a return 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. Last time he warned people to bring their dancing shoes and be prepared to smile a lot. Here’s his take…

On playing with Jimi Hendrix…
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.
The best way to describe my music is high-energy Chicago-style blues. It’s driving guitar and soulful vocals.

What was the most important thing you took away from playing with all of the blues greats?
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 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.

Your thoughts on being named the “Best Blues Band” in San Diego?
They have a competition where they vote on the best music in different categories and I’m nominated every year — I’ve been nominated 16 times I think and I’ve won it twice. That’s a great accomplishment. To the Laughlin fans, I can say, come out and support the blues — they’re gonna get a hell of a show from the Bill Magee Band and if you like blues and you like dancing, we’re gonna get you up on your feet and you’re gonna dance. Tell people to put their dancing shoes on and get ready to have some fun, ’cause we’re gonna bring it.

Brews and Bites
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.
Of course, nothing goes better with dirty blues than barbecue. Menu items include — BBQ brisket sandwich $8, St. Louis BBQ ribs (quarter rack) $8, pork char sui $6, coleslaw $3, BBQ baked beans $4, ice cream cups or brownies $3. Bottled water and/or soft drinks $4, and Gatorade $5.
The beverage tent offers Budweiser/Bud Light/Bud Light Lime $6, wine $6, call drinks $7, premium drinks $10, Blues Hawaiian $6, Souvenir leg/boat $30, refill souvenir leg and boats $20. Also a choice of draft beers from Pints including Rehab Red Ale, Golden Ale, Wild Card Ale, What the Puck IPA, and Bodacious Blueberry $6 each.
Prices, food and beverages offered are subject to change.
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 (regular Loading Dock menu only on patio).