Cincinnati to Denver and the Mile High Blues Festival by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

Posted on 8/31/2009 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

Part 2: Playing the Blues on the Road or How I Spent my Summer Vacation

(Memphis, Tennessee) In our last installment, I recounted my adventures playing the splendid Cincinnati Blues Festival with the Reba Russel Band which is based out of Memphis. I have been the piano/organ /harmonica player in this band for the past 19 years. In today's episode we revisit the Cincinnati Blues Festival before getting on our 8 pm flight to Denver, Colorado, home of the Mile High Blues Festival.

More cool art deco at the Hilton Netherland Plaza, Cincinnati, Ohio

After playing our show on Friday night, we arose late Saturday thanks to the most civilized, musician-friendly check out time of 3 PM(Thanks, Hilton).

Josh Roberts guards the rentalmobile

We eased back into the well-packed rentalmobile and pushed off for the festival grounds once more. We were greeted by:

Midge Fatheree, President of the Cincinnati Blues Society, the awesome folks who sponsor this elaborate enterprise each year. Midge told us that the volunteers of the society make all the food and staff all the jobs that make this musical extravaganza run so smoothly. Nobody gets paid. These kind folks do all this because of their love of the blues and a sincere desire to preserve our indigenous American music. I take my Borsalino off to you all, thank you so very kindly. Midge herself made 10 gallons of very tasty jambalaya for the event this year and it was so good I doubt that there was a morsel left.

Wayne Russell polishes off two desserts as Josh Roberts looks on in awe of our bass-playing trencherman

After a soothing beverage, we checked out a few acts before our return to the airport. The festival grounds were filled with families and music lovers who wandered back and forth between the four big stages.

We heard Cincinnati Blues Society IBC contestant Cheryl Renée and Them Bones(pictured above), a cool local act that puts on what is said to be the best jam in town in a renovated mansion, the Mansion Hill Tavern in Newport, KY, right across the river. She also plays extensively in Torino, Italy. You can check her out at:

We then traipsed down to another stage set against the backdrop of the Ohio River to watch Cincinnati's Bluebirds, not to be confused with our friend, Buddy Flett's fine band of the same name. They are comprised of founder, Marcos Sastre, Chris Arduser, Randy Villars, Steve Coghill, Steve Schmidt, Adam Scovanner. Check them out here:


View from the stage

The Cincinnati Blues Festival is much beloved by young and old

After wishing our friends a fond farewell we hastened for the airport to make our flight to Denver. At airport security Josh Roberts was treated to a trip through the puffer machine. Likewise Reba Russell was extended the same courtesy and not to be outdone, Wayne Russell actually walked into the machine to experience it himself although he had not been invited to do so. Nonetheless, they blasted all three of them with air and did a quick gas chromatograph which revealed nothing more than guitar plectra molecules and the crumbs from the six or seven desserts Wayne had eaten already that day. The man's metabolism is a blast furnace, he eats and never gains an ounce. The food must somehow burn to ash instantaneously.

For those interested in such things, here's more on the puff-job from our friends at Discover magazine:

After falling asleep in the airplane seat/knee numbifier/contortion device I could not decide if I were having a heart attack or a back spasm. Either way, it was a little tough on the aged carcass and I was glad to see our big bus arrive from the limo service to take us to our hotel in Denver and the prospect of food and libation.

Along the way, our driver stopped to pick up some other blues artists who had just finished their gig and I was delighted to see our old friend, Bernard Allison, entourage and band, climb in the bus, greeting everyone and shaking hands. He remembered a downright awesome jam we had at our gig at the Black Diamond on Beale Street during its heyday. It was the most fun club in Memphis, bar none. I think it was around 1998 and Bernard's father, the great Luther Allison, had passed away in August of 1997. Bernard indubitably inherited some formidable guitar skills.

Bernard is a very talented, very friendly guy who we always love to see. He was making his way down to Blues on Blake, a cool new Denver supper club where our friend, Mississippian Eden Brent (IBC award winner) was playing. The street was so jammed with people that it took a long time to negotiate the traffic though our hotel was only a couple of blocks away. We wished Bernard well and shortly arrived at the Oxford Hotel.

Our friend, Bernard Allison (photo by Jeff Heinz)

Oxford Hotel lobby, Denver, Colorado

The Oxford Hotel is a classy little place built in 1891 which also features a spa and some damn fine rooms service victuals. Although I did not avail myself of the spa coupon for regular, French or Brazilian wax, I did eat everything that was left in room service after our Sunday night gig and out of fear of reprisal I purposely did not mention to Wayne Russell that I got the last piece of chocolate truffle pie.

Oxford Hotel

After we arrived at the hotel on Saturday night, we went next door to McCormick's Fish House and Bar to avail ourselves of fish tacos, mussels, seafood cakes and a parade of Stellas. We then lumbered off to our comfortable rooms and into the arms or Morpheus for a long snooze.

On Sunday we rolled out to the festival at the new Mile High Marketplace Event Center. It is indeed an impressive facility and we arrived early enough for me to scarf down a couple of ribs and some water before hitting the stage. Thanks to Gina for all the kindness and a great festival. Check them out here:;

It was good to see our old friend, John Catt, who has kindly booked us at many events in Colorado for several years, including some great times at Smokin' Moe's and events in Winter Park. As a harp player, I must confess it's damn hard for a sea-level dweller like me to catch my breath after playing a couple of songs on the old G harp.

John Catt, bluesman's friend

Reba Russel Band plays at the Mile High Blues Festival, Henderson, Colorado

Thanks to the fine folks at Category 5 boutique amps for providing me with that cool hand-made Ivan amp to play harp through at the festival. It was sweet and I can see why my buddies Jimmy Thackery and Tab Benoit are using them now. Check them out at:

Before we went on I got to watch the performance of one of my favorite blues players, John Hammond, who plays harp on a rack as well as anybody I have ever seen. His guitar playing is equally stellar and he was strumming an old National steel guitar con mucho gusto.

John Hammond attacks guitar and harp

John Hammond shares a cookie

After a barn-burning performance, John walked back into the VIP area and busied himself changing a string on his guitar as an adorable little girl watched him, totally enthralled. You could tell he is a very kind and sensitive soul as the little girl finally approached him and offered him a bite of her cookie. John thanked her and took the tiniest bite of the cookie and handed it back to the child. They became instant best friends and he spoke with her for some time as he finished changing his strings. It was a very touching moment and I am glad I got to see this kind gentle blues giant both on the stage and in a more personal, quiet setting.

Son of record producer and talent scout, John H. Hammond, Jr., John P. Hammond began a recording career in 1962 and has recorded over 30 albums. John is the only person who ever had both Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix in his band at the same time(for 5 days during the 1960's). John narrated the 1992 documentary called The Search for Robert Johnson and has always remained true to his blues roots throughout the decades.

Kai Turner of Strictly Blues addresses the big crowd at The Mile High Blues Festival

We rode back on the bus to the hotel with John and his sweet wife, Marla. They live in Jersey City, New Jersey, and we talked about blues venues and some of the gigs he was playing these days. He does a lot of dates on both the east and west coasts of the USA. We spoke of our mutual friend, Charlie Musselwhite and John told me that he had recorded with Charlie and really loved his harp playing. I told him that Charlie had shown me how to play 3rd position harp after I met him after a show at the New Daisy Theater on Beale many years ago.

During John's show he played 1st position, 2nd(crossharp) and 3rd position. I said, "Man, third position is like a poor man's chromatic, what a crazy scale!" He replied, "Yeah, it is, but all the notes are there... you just have to find them."

Our visit on the bus just seemed to rush by and I cannot thank John enough for his kindness and the great time I had that day. I hope I run across him and his wonderful wife again soon.

After a nap at the hotel, we arose again and took the hotel's town car over to Blues on Blake, where we played at the after-party and hosted a jam for a short time. The gig went really well and the crowd was a cool bunch of blues lovers who actually knew our material and made requests for a bunch of songs which Reba played for them, one after the other.

My old friend, Al Chesis of the Delta Sonics, came up and played a few numbers with us and we really had a great time. He is a really fine harp player and a great guy to hang out with as well.

Check out Al and the boys here:

Blues on Blake at 1925 Blake Street is a superb blues supper club and although we had a great time we were unable to run up a $700 bar tab like the band did the night before. Earlier in the day we met the owner, Keith E. Webb, and his three fine sons. After the jam I sat at the bar and had some great times and good laughs with my pal, blues aficionado, Jack Spencer, who I will see soon at the next big blues festival in Springfield, Missouri. My partner in crime, editor Terry "Gatorman" Lape, will also be there so almost anything could happen including some possible snake handling and gator wrestling. Thanks also to my lovely friend and classy bartender, Lesley. If you are in the area, call at (303)292-5837 and definitely check out:

So after a long fun day of blues, my pal Wayne called the Oxford Hotel and summoned the town car which delivered us back to our rooms where I ordered the last slice of pie before Wayne could call them on the phone to do so. Sorry, bro, but you got to dial fast, man.

Author waddles back to his room for late night room service and a nap.

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©2009, photos and text, by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

Mon: Memphis Correspondent - Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms
Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

Tues: New York Correspondent - J. Blake
Blake is the American Blues News review and interview guru. You may catch him out and about in NY playing the blues.

Wed: National Correspondent - Monica Yasher
Monica is our executive director and artist interview specialist. You can catch Monica singing the blues around Pittsburgh or working on some country music songs in Nashville.

Thurs: Washington, DC Correspondent - Virginiabluesman
Geraldo offers inteviews and reviews. You may have seen him at an Ana Popovic concert or conversed with him on her websites, as he offers administrative support with her music.

Fri: Northeast Photographer - Nelson Onofre
Nelson offers a Friday column of blues photography and pictorial support for the interviews covered by the team.

Jim Stick in Colorado
Jim will be focusing on the Blues Festivals in the beautiful state of Colorado, and the artists that live and visit there.

Maureen Elizabeth, our resident art correspondent, will be focusing on blues art as she explores the creation of CD covers, or speaking with artists who also have a love of creating pictorial art in addition to their music! She may also feature some of her good friends in the Pittsburgh area. In her love of art, you may find Maureen's photography accompanying writer's articles on our pages. Maureen is also our marketing director.

Pittsburgh correspondent and photographer, CR Bennett, will share the Pittsburgh scene with all of you. You may also see CR's pictures accompanying other writer's articles.

We head to the big state of Texas! Abby Owen, our Texas correspondent.

Another big area to cover, the West Coast with Casey Reagan, Casey will feature many artists and events on this ocean's shores.

Lastly, we have our roving blues entertainment writer,
Chef Jimi.

And of course, we will surprise you sometimes!

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