A jovial crowd of roughly one hundred Hoosiers joined together at Birdy's Bar and Grill on Saturday night for the 4th annual Indy Winter Blues Fest. The festival is the brainchild of Mike Milligan, and it's intended to be a communal celebration of the best blues-indebted live music Indiana has to offer as a reprieve from the unforgiving winter weather.
"This year more than any other, people have a need to get out of the house and go have some fun," Milligan told me. "That's what this night is about. Thanks to the sponsors like World Class Beer Indiana, I'm able get the money - that we evenly split the door four ways - to attract these talented bands that I love, and they're all just really great guys having a good time."
There was a spirit of uninhibited, smiling resiliency, both on stage and in the crowd, for all four 45-minute sets throughout the evening. Matthew Socey of WFYI and host of The Blues House Party (Saturday nights at 8 p.m.) served as the night's enthusiastic emcee, paying fine homage to the laurels of each band while helping to stoke the winsome air.
Craig Brenner, the esteemed Bloomington-based boogie-blues pianist and bandleader, and his band The Crawdads kicked off the music for the night, and there was an immediate sense that we were no longer stuck in a sea of white in the thick of February. Introduced by Socey as "true New Orleans ambassador," Brenner and the Crawdads jumped into a stretch of bayou-heavy odes to Clarence "Pinetop" Smith, Ray Charles, and other luminaries with infectious rhythms, call-and-response vocals and the occasional appearance of congas or washboard. Brenner and his band brought plenty of boogie soul, while Indy hero Gordon Bonham gracefully fleshed out the blues on guitar.
The Paul Holdman Band followed suit with a deft set of top-notch covers (Tony Joe White, Jimmie Vaughn, Mississippi Sheiks, Marty Stuart) and original tunes (his grooving "Jerusalem" from an upcoming album in the works was a showstopper) that admirably hoisted a Stevie Ray Vaughn-indebted torch with rousing leads that brought dozens to their feet for multiple ovations. Praised by Milligan as "without a doubt, one of the best guitarists in Indy," Holdman was a fan favorite on Saturday night, and he played a set that could pin back T Bone Burnett's ears with delight.
After Socey christened them as "The Pride of Kokomo," Mike Milligan & Steam Shovel pulled songs from six full-length albums for a shining set that bridged alt-blues with heavy jam-band grooves. Much of the band's power comes from Milligan's relatable songs with everyman, Midwestern appeal. They are blues-fueled songs dealing with love, family, the passing of friends, the road, and affection for his hometown, and they're brought to life in almost a blues power trio fashion in a live setting with Milligan on guitar, his brother Shaun Milligan on bass, and Robert Cook anchoring the rhythms behind the kit. Watching the trio play in support of their newest album, Lucky Man, it was obvious Milligan is wholly genuine in the title track's appreciation for life's little blessings. It served as a fitting summary for the night on the whole.
Harvey and the Bluetones rounded out the festival with an energetic and charismatic hybrid of delta blues, boogie and electric soul. Cook is a veteran blues gunslinger who grew up in Greenwood, Miss. and is a longtime Indianapolis resident, having spent 32 years working locally for General Motors before retiring a few years back. Harvey and the Bluetones were the elder statesmen of this year's Winter Blues Fest, and they rocked right through the closing slot with the red-blooded vigor and bouncy soul of youngsters half their age. It was a four-piece blast of airtight musicianship and swinging blues-boogie, punctuated by Harvey's howls and smoldering leads, dancing the night right up to the midnight hour.