Anti-Freeze, if you please

Jan 3, 2001 at 12:00 am

This weekend marks the seventh consecutive year that Ferndale’s Magic Bag will host the Anti-Freeze Blues Festival. Formerly known as the Deep Freeze Blues Festival, this event has established a strong track record in a relatively short time. Each and every show has featured a potent combination of both local and national blues talent that has attracted large crowds. And this year’s lineup promises to deliver the goods once again.

On Friday night, guitarist Lonnie Brooks and his band come back to play the Anti-Freeze for the second time as a headlining act. Brooks’ flashy stage appearance and equally flashy guitar licks combined with a great blues voice have made him a favorite of electric blues lovers for years. Born Lee Baker Jr. in Louisiana, Brooks has been on the scene for nearly a half-century and has become known largely for his “voodoo blues.” The style mixes the swamp blues sound of his native Louisiana with the harder edge of Chicago’s blues, a sound that he absorbed early in his career when he lived for a while with famed vocalist Sam Cooke’s mother and brother in the Windy City.

As for the local talent, there’ll be some powerful forces at work as well, including Jeff Grand and Jimmy McCarty (who’ll perform as a duo), Bugs Beddow, Randy Volin’s Sonic Blues, and R.J. Spangler’s Detroit Rhythm & Blues Revue, featuring a cast of heavyweights that includes Joe Weaver, Kenny Martin and Stanley Mitchell.

On Saturday, the headliner will be “the father of rock and roll piano,” Johnnie Johnson, a West Virginia native and Grammy Award nominee who was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Johnson, who’ll be backed up by George Bedard and the Kingpins, is widely known as Chuck Berry’s longtime sideman who wrote or co-wrote many of Berry’s most famous songs. In a sad and all-too-typical development, Johnson sued Berry in November, charging that Berry registered the copyrights to all the songs in Berry’s name alone, therefore giving him all the royalties while writing Johnson out of the picture.

From the local scene, one of Detroit’s finest blues vocalists of the newer generation, Thornetta Davis, will perform on Saturday night, as will the Millionaires, Lazy Lester and the Blue Suit Band, and the Alligators.

Anyone who’s ever put on a music festival of any kind will tell you that the work involved is enough to make even the most committed wonder whether it was all worth it. Anyone who’s ever tried to put on a blues music festival in the winter in a place like Michigan will tell you that such an effort either requires a massive amount of commitment, or indicates a certain amount of irreparable brain damage.

“Every year the hardest thing is to find national acts,” said Jeremy Haberman, the Bag’s current owner. “It’s hard, because we have to find performers who can fit into our budget. This isn’t a big-budget gig.”

Additionally, trying to find acts who can be counted on to draw big crowds and who will be available to perform in Detroit during the coldest time of the year makes the whole thing that much more of a challenge — and sometimes a headache. Harmonica player and living legend James Cotton was supposed to be on the bill this year. A brief tour of additional dates had even been arranged for Cotton built around the Anti-Freeze date to make the trip more profitable for him — but then the tour fell apart. So much for James Cotton, at least for this year’s show.

But despite the recurring difficulties, the annual festival has yet to register a disappointment, except for those few times when the weather has stepped in as spoilsport. For the three who more or less co-founded the festival — drummer R.J. Spangler, guitarist Jeff Grand and former Magic Bag owner Steve Milgrom — it has to be a good feeling to see their efforts and aspirations still bearing fruit.

“It was Steve’s idea,” said Spangler, who added that the plan was to create an annual benefit concert for the Detroit Blues Society.

Great idea.

Keith A. Owens writes "Free Your Mind …," a biweekly column for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]