NORTH LIBERTY– Funky and soulful, jazzy and upbeat, or down-home and root-bound; however you take your music, North Liberty Blues & BBQ will be serving it up for you this weekend.
Saturday, May 25, marks the seventh annual North Liberty Blues & BBQ festival, this year presented by South Slope Cooperative Communications. The free, family-friendly event has become a Memorial Day weekend tradition in its own right, gaining in attendance from about 1,000 the first year to an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people in 2012. Tasty barbecue and other foods, specialty beers in the beverage garden and free children’s activities, as well as a fireworks display, are all part of the draw.
But it’s the music that takes center stage.
Kicking things off again this year are young musicians from the North Central Junior High band. Students from Music4Life music studio in North Liberty appear about midway through the day. Both sets give area youth the chance to highlight the work they have been doing throughout the year to hone their musical skills.
Encouraging young people in their musical pursuits is right in tune with guest Hal Reed, who appears at 8 p.m. Reed is not only a born-in-the-delta, true blue Mississippi blues man, but he also owns Quad Cities blues club Muddy Waters– a gig he describes as a wonderful opportunity to keep the blues alive.
“The most gratifying thing you can do, besides teach, is having great players come through and be able to serve our community some of the best music they can find,” Reed said. The teaching he refers to is the time he spends educating others on the cultural and historical roots of American music.
He draws upon his own experiences growing up in the Mississippi delta. Reed said he started carrying around drumsticks when he was just 4 years old. Reed’s grandfather, Lucious Smith, was a blues musician who eventually appeared on recordings in the 1940s that are now part of the Allen Lomax collection in the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. Reed’s grandmother was a devout Christian and church-goer.
“They were quite the opposite of each other,” said Reed, “but they grew me up right in the middle. I could play the drums and banjo on Friday and Saturday night, but I had to get up and go to church on Sunday.”
Primarily a vocalist raised on southern gospel, Reed said he started a band when he came to the Quad Cities in the 1990s because he missed singing the blues. That’s when he began playing harmonica as well.
“I had a few guitar slingers in the band who would do five minute solos, so I had to find something to do other than stand on the stage looking like a dummy, so I picked up the harp,” he said. Now, the self-taught musician has become an educator himself, conducting presentations and workshops for others, from preschoolers to adults.
Reed said it is important for young people to understand that all of American-born music genres actually evolved from the drumbeats of Africa’s west coast.
“When we were captured as slaves, we weren’t able to bring the beat with us in anything but our hearts. The beat was the means of communication and festivities in the homeland, and when we were brought here, we used it in our communication from plantation to plantation.”
From blues, Negro spirituals and gospel to contemporary rock, jazz, and country, “it all goes right back to the west coast of Africa,” Reed said. He emphasizes it because today’s young people don’t understand the country’s musical history.
“That’s why we start our education programs in preschool, so hopefully we can grow these kids through love and respect of our roots,” Reed said.
Reed always has someone accompanying him during his programs; notable musicians like Daniel Burnside, Ellis Kell– who played Blues & BBQ in 2012– and Iowa City-based bluesman Kevin “BF” Burt, for example.
Burt has become a Blues & BBQ staple, the only musician to appear at all six of the past festivals. He will once again take the stage this Saturday.
“Kevin and I grew up in totally different environments, but when we came together, we gelled from the beginning. It’s all in the heart,” said Reed.
Another musician who will return to the Blues & BBQ stage this year is Craig Erikson, though in a different incarnation than last year. Erikson plays guitar for well-known area band, the FunkDaddies, who will begin their set at 2:45 p.m. Saturday.
The power-funk five-piece has been around since 2003, co-founded by percussionist and singer Ken Duncan and the late Larry Weldon. Their inspirations came from Motown and the great funk and soul artists of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s; bands like Earth Wind & Fire, the Commodores, the Isley Brothers and Tower of Power.
“When we started this band, virtually nobody in this area was playing our type of funk and R&B. We try to do it in a way that is signature to us,” said Duncan.
Therefore, the band’s sound and set list reflect the five accomplished musicians who come from different backgrounds.
“We’ve always tried to keep a nice variety in our music, because our love of music covers a lot of variety, too,” Duncan said. “All audiences of all ages like it, because we are a clean band, we’re well-rehearsed. And we love to have kids come out and see us so hopefully we will inspire them to want to follow their musical aspirations, too.”
Though most of their material consists of covers, they play a couple of original tunes penned by Erikson, who Duncan said is a “fantastic, internationally-known songwriter.” The band is currently working collaboratively on more original material, in hopes of putting out a new CD soon.
For this weekend, though, count on FunkDaddies to share some of your favorites– Stevie Wonder, Wild Cherry, Booker T., Santana and so many more– in a style all their own.
“We like to bring a high-energy, first-class stage show. We are blessed we have put together what I believe is one of the best combinations of musicians in the Midwest,” Duncan said. “We try to put out a lot of happy music; after all, music is feel-good. We just want to have everyone to have a good time.”
The musical lineup on the University of Iowa Community Credit Union stage:
12:00 Northwest Junior High Jazz Band
12:45 Kevin Burt & Big Medicine
2:45 The FunkDaddies
5:45 The Curtis Hawkins Band
8:00 Hal Reed
9:45 North Liberty Centennial Fireworks