Despite many planned thrills, a chill passes over season's music festival
Published: January 2, 2013
On Jan. 4-5, the first weekend of 2013 and just days after the New Year's celebrations, the Magic Bag in Ferndale will host the AntiFreeze Blues Festival, an event that celebrates everything from traditional blues to blues rock, and all that lies between.
The first AntiFreeze took place back in January of '97, with Sugar Blue, Larry McCray and AC Reed on the bill. Since then, the festival has featured the likes of the Black Keys, Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, Koko Taylor, Charlie Musselwhite, Johnnie Johnson, John Hammond and Junior Wells.
Sixteen years on and it's still here, though the Magic Bag's Jeremy Haberman says that AntiFreeze has waxed and waned on the public's taste for the blues. "Our challenge is to present a well-balanced show that can not only pique the interest of the converted, but also appeal to the next generation of blues fans," Haberman says. "We saw major gains from the younger segment when we featured the Black Keys a few years ago and Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band last year. It's important to us to present this music and create a fun environment to keep the blues going strong in the hearts of Detroiters."
Sadly, one of this year's planned headliners, Andre Williams, was forced to pull out after suffering a stroke in December. How do the organizers set about filling a gap that big? "First, panic (when you're less than a month out), and then call an old friend," Haberman says. "Larry McCray headlined the very first festival and we're psyched that he was willing and able. The festival this year is heavy on guitar. As a guitar player or fan, you have your choice of a British blues-rock pioneer in Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, Michigan Blues legends Larry McCray and Jim McCarty, and a wealth of who's who locally (Laith Al-Saadi, Jeff Grand, Robert Jones, Mark Pasman). To put players of that caliber in one place over the course of a weekend is exciting."
It certainly is. We spoke to some of the AntiFreeze performers to get a taste for what we can expect.
Have you played the festival before? What makes it great?
Tino Gross: Yes, I have played the AntiFreeze Festival multiple times. I've backed up Hubert Sumlin (Howling Wolf's guitarist) and played with Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry's pianist), as well as Larry McCray, Jim McCarty and more. The AntiFreeze Festival is always great because it's a musician-driven event with an intimate feel to it. The audience is really an important part of it.
RJ Spangler: I've played all but one as I am a co-founder of the event, which started as the Deep Freeze Blues Festival under Steve Milgrom, with Jeff Grand and myself. We did it for two years then Steve sold the Bag to Jeremy, who has been kind enough to keep Jeff and I on board, now along with Willy Wilson [also of the Magic Bag].
Mark Pasman: "I have played and emceed many times over the years. It's a great, intimate theater setting, a chance for blues brothers and sisters to mix and mingle, jam and celebrate the magic that is the blues.
Is that period right after the New Year a good time for a festival?
Jeremy Haberman: It certainly is for this festival. Blues music doesn't always get the coverage as the flavor of the now, especially the guys not named Buddy or BB. We've always found that there's a dearth of live music the weekend after New Year's Eve. It makes it fruitful for publicity and for attracting live music connoisseurs that want to see a top-notch show.
Gross: I think this is usually perceived as a slow entertainment week, but this festival has "claimed it and named it," and always seems to do real well.
Pasman: First quarter is always quiet in the entertainment biz, so we all look forward to the frantic, fabulous AntiFreeze Blues Festival. Folks have all week to recover from New Year's, so the crowd at the bag is always primed for this one!
What is blues music in 2013? How has the music changed?
Gross: Blues music in 2013 has changed, and change is good. Obviously most of the older giants have left us. I did see BB King at the Fox, and Buddy Guy is still rolling. The good news is there's a whole new wave of kids playing a style of punk-blues hybrid that is really exciting. Bands like the Black Keys, Buffalo Killers, Kenny Brown and Left Lane Cruiser are reinterpreting the music. Also the remixes for Fat Possum and other labels took those Mississippi acts like RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough to a whole new audience. Those guys opened tours for the Beastie Boys and Iggy Pop. The live jam band circuit is also having more and more blues acts added as well.
Spangler: I am not certain that I can define what blues music is in 2013 that is drastically different from years past. You ask how has the music changed? Well at its heart, we hope that it hasn't, as blues isn't a genre that is really about growth but rather more about tradition. Blues is the foundation of all modern American music; how can you drastically change the root? We have new names that come along as we lose our heroes of postwar blues. More and more, we hear rock influences, which to me is not really improving where it came from, but may be inevitable. We are a collection of our influences I suppose. So I always encourage younger blues players to dig the roots of their heroes. Who did Clapton or Stevie Ray dig?
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