Living Blues vol. 041 – Nov-Dec 1978, pg. 10

Bluesistas En Mexico

By Amy O’Neal

Mexico’s first blues festival, much to everyone’s delighted surprise, was a roaring and completely sold-out success. Sponsored by C.R.E.A. (National Council of Living Blues vol. 041 – Nov-Dec 1978, croppedResources for the Attention of Youth — a government agency), the prototype event, entitled simply “1er Festival de Blues en Mexico,” had been budgeted to lose money. Festival coordinators Raul De la Rosa, Gaston Martinez, and Marta De Cea brought the Jimmy Rogers-Walter Horton Band, Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars, and John Lee Hooker with his Coast-to-Coast Blues Band to Mexico City for concerts Oct. 12-15. The only previous major blues performance in Mexico was by B.B. King last May, but his series of concerts reportedly was not particularly successful, drawing only small crowds.

Undoubtedly, pre-show publicity did help some: De la Rosa’s blues radio program had been plugging the festival, and the Wednesday before the big event the entire Rogers-Horton aggregation (including bassist Jim Wydra, guitarist Left Hand Frank Craig, and drummer S.P. Leary) were interviewed, live, on another radio program, with phoned-in questions from the listening audience to the “bluesistas.” Posters announcing the blues festival had gone up only a week before. But none of the organizers (or the musicians, for that matter) anticipated the almost overwhelming support the festival was to receive from both the public and the Mexican press.

Four out of the five concerts took place in the beautiful new Sala Nezahualcoyotl on the university campus at the far south end of the city. There is no public transportation to this hall, and it was surprising to see so many people walking the long distance to the show. (One other concert was held at the Teatro Ferrocarrilero, an older theater in another part of town.) Most of the audience seemed to be students, enthusiastic but not riotous. Their cassette tape recorders blatantly lined the edge of the stage (some plugged into the outlets) until a fuse blew mid-concert and they were ordered removed.

Musically, Rogers and Horton played their solid Chicago blues well, though there were occasional sound balance and pacing problems. Horton’s expected tribute to the event, “La Cucuracha,” meandered and confused the band, and though all tried hard, the song never quite jelled. Nonetheless, the crowds loved every attempt.

The Chicago Blues All Stars (Billy Branch, harmonica; Sunnyland Slim, piano; Bom-Bay Carter, guitar; Freddie Dixon, bass; Clifton James, drums) ran through their paces, doing a strong, if predictable, warm-up before Willie Dixon appeared. Dixon, as the father-figure of the festival, rapped philosophically about his music between tunes. The audience, like others the world over, boisterously joined in to sing along with the group’s finale “Wang Dang Doodle.”

Sunnyland Slim, substituting for Dixon’s regular pianist Lafayette Leake, also got to demonstrate his barrelhouse technique in a solo set.Living Blues 001

John Lee Hooker and the Coast-to-Coast Blues Band worked the crowds to their highest levels of excitement. John Garcia, the lead guitarist, showed off his flashy technique, while Hooker sat, sang, and occasionally played a little guitar. Ex-Canned Heat bassist Tony De La Barreda sat in on a few numbers. During Hooker’s last set (the capper of the fest), S.P. Leary boldly strolled on stage, usurped the drummer’s seat and sat in briefly with “Mr. Boom Boom.” Hooker looked a little peeved. Later, Hooker invited harp player Billy Branch to join in. Hooker climaxed his shows by I pacing the stage screaming “Boogie with Dr. I Hook!” — effective as a crowd-pleaser, but : strikingly wasteful of his true talent. The afternoon and evening concerts on the last day * of the festival were broadcast live nationwide \on Mexican educational television.

Except for the final day, there was only one concert per evening, so the musicians had plenty of time to absorb Mexico City’s Latin ambience. C.R.E.A. was outstandingly helpful to the artists, providing minibuses for transportation around the city and excellent translators, who even helped out with the inevitable bargaining while souvenir-shopping. We were also treated to a long bus ride to the ancient Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacan and Branch, Freddie Dixon, Left Hand Frank, Clifton James and Bom-Bay Carter scaled the monumental Pyramid of the Sun. Billy blew his harmonica on the way down (a considerable feat considering the high altitude — around 8000 feet) and it was bizarre and wonderful to -hear Chicago blues echoing over the Mexican countryside.

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