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Wednesday, March 4, 2009 04:14 am

Blues club birthday bash

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Willie “Big Eyes” Smith
The Flip Tops

Rejoice all you fans of the blues and join in a celebration of the 23rd anniversary of the Illinois Central Blues Club. Our arts community is truly blessed to have a privately formed group that sticks together through thick and thin, good and bad, loud and quiet, hot and cold, and whatever other varying situations, to continually support live blues music in central Illinois in such a vital and active fashion.

The music organization began in 1986 as an outlet for Springfield-area devotees of the blues to coordinate activities around live music events with the specific goal of “keeping the blues alive.” With prodding and encouragement from some of those legendary, rabble-rousing, Sangamon State professors, 13 acquaintances and blues aficionados gathered on Feb. 5, 1986, to start an official club. Vicki Biddle, Dan Bringman, Bob Sipe, Mike Townsend, David Balmer, Mike Beatty, David Benner, John Corbett, Bill Engle, Pat Hickey, Dick Hofman, Fred Johnson and Mike King became charter members of the group. Thirty-three other intrepid spirits joined within a month to create the original membership of the Illinois Central Blues Club.

In an interesting side note, the first group name was the more likely sounding Central Illinois Blues Club, but the switch to connect with the famous railroad line that traveled from Chicago to New Orleans gave the club a unique perspective with a neat turn of a phrase and a sweet connection to all the blues that traveled America from north to south right through Springfield. Local artist Bill Crook designed the classic, cool looking, train of blues and bluesman logos still in use today on letterheads and T-shirts. Soon the ICBC got busy being a social organization, hosting weekly Blue Monday jams and lining up concerts with touring blues acts. All these years later through annual elections, monthly newsletters, weekly performances, constant debates and occasional educational shows, concert promotions, and artist contests, the ICBC somehow survived for another anniversary celebration.

For the 2009 party the featured acts come from our nearby hotbed of blues music, the great city of Chicago. The Flip Tops — Gerry Hundt, Willie Oshawny, and Bob Carter, all great Chicago blues musicians in their own right — headline the bill with help from special guests, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Bob “Bassologist” Stroger. The Flip Tops spend most of their gig time backing famed guitarist Nick Moss, who would be the youngster in this crowd of longtime bluesmen, and Stroger is an in-demand bass player on the blues scene.

Smith played drums for Muddy Waters in the ’60s, and then co-founded the Legendary Blues Band, a group filled with truly legendary, real blues players. The band backed Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, toured with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, and graced the silver screen behind John Lee Hooker in The Blues Brothers and Muddy Waters in The Last Waltz.

Not bad, you say. Well ol’ Big Eyes ain’t done yet. The talented musician landed two nominations for Best Instrumentalist at the 2009 Blues Music awards, one for playing harmonica, his original instrument, and the other for drumming, becoming the first artist to be nominated for two different instruments. In December of 2008 he was performing at the Kennedy Center honoring Morgan Freeman and spent most of the past February touring with fellow legend Roger “Hurricane” Wilson. Now he’s coming to Springfield.

Sounds like a party in the making to me. And while you’re out celebrating the beginnings of the ICBC and enjoying the happening blues sounds, take a moment to join the group and become an official member of the club that has made all this possible.

The Illinois Central Blues Club host their 23rd Anniversary Celebration, Friday, March 6, 2009, at the Capital City Bar and Grill, 3149 S. Dirksen Parkway from 8:30 pm to 12:30 pm. This event, sponsored in part by Recycled Records, is also a fundraiser for the ICBC’s Blues in the Schools program.

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.

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