Bobby Rush. Submitted.
Three days of Blues, Roots, & Hoots at the DCA
by Cari Lewis, director, Door County Auditorium
What a weekend of music and experiences Door Community Auditorium (DCA) presented during the three-day Blues, Roots, & Hoots Festival, made possible by a grant from Destination Door County’s new Community Investment Fund Grant Program, a program managed by the Door County Community Foundation.
The incomparable Joey Alexander Trio kicked off the weekend with a student matinee and evening show on Friday. The trio’s level of precision, skill, non-verbal communication and intensity approached musical mysticism. Members of the crowd – including seasoned musicians and avid concertgoers – left slack-jawed and stunned by what we heard and saw. Attendees remarked that this 20-year-old was the greatest jazz pianist of our time; others posited he might be the greatest of all time.
Two collaborative initiatives preceded the festival including three pop-up community concerts featuring four local artists – Cathy Grier, John Rood Lewis, Dennis Johnson, and Paul Taylor – at Healthy Way Market in Sturgeon Bay, Main Street Market in Egg Harbor, and Piggly Wiggly in Sister Bay. The pop-ups were aimed at giving county residents and visitors an unexpected treat and celebrating our region’s vibrant music scene and the upcoming festival.
Festival event attendees were greeted by a new exhibit in The Link Gallery of Children’s Art called Feel the Music, showcasing the artwork of 116 Gibraltar students. Students in second and sixth grades were asked to draw or paint what they heard or felt when listening to music connected to the series. Seventh graders selected their own songs to portray in images. Gibraltar art teachers, Karla Donohue and Laura Meikle, and Friends of Gibraltar coordinator, Vinni Chomeau organized the project and Chris Opper created a video. High school art students – in preparation for the Nov. 9-10 residency of Bizhiki, a multi-media, multi-dimensional production exploring Ojibwe culture through traditional dance and drumming, film and modern compositions – participated in a dream catcher workshop with Coleen Bins of Chief Oshkosh.
On Saturday night, a last-minute personnel change-up resulted in Chippewa Falls native, North Carolina-based Phil Cook playing a solo guitar set to open for Bobby Rush. Bobby Rush is an 89-year and 51-week-old, Grammy-Award-Winning, Blues Hall-of-Fame-inductee, and he was in fine form – sharing his personal stories that were poignant at times, irreverent and bawdy at others. The throughline was a deep connection to blues lineage and blues culture going back to the 20s and 30s.
Rush offered hard-driving, moaning, groaning, bellowing songs, peppered with stories of his enslaved great-grandmother and the racism he encountered as a touring blues musician. He once was made to perform behind a venue’s curtain because the white audience wanted to hear his band, but not see them. He acknowledged his struggles, but he proudly shared his story, his songs and his triumphs.
A favorite moment of the weekend came when Phil Cook talked about Sunday night’s featured screening of Stay Prayed Up. Cook conceived, performed in, and produced the music documentary, which chronicles the recording of a gospel album with Lena Mae Perry, aka Mother Perry of The Branchettes. Cook shared during his 2018 visit to DCA – when he and Mother Perry performed for our Gibraltar student-audience – it had provided his spark of inspiration for the documentary project.
Cook described watching the students file in, sit down and listen to the first number. He said he thought, “This isn’t going to work. There’s no way this is going to work.” But when Mother Perry took the DCA stage, he watched the middle school boy in the front row he’d been eyeing as a sort of audience barometer go from “arms folded and uninterested” to “toe-tapping and chair dancing.” He was struck by how magical and inexplicable that transformation was. Her voice and presence and the joyful music, deeply rooted in her faith and the social, cultural, and musical traditions of the black church, transcended the major gaps of time and space separating the 80-year-old North Carolinian and this pre-teen white boy from northern Wisconsin.
Cook shared how he himself first fell in love with gospel music and made it a major part of his musical and life path because of hearing the harmonies featured in Sister Act 2. He shared how you never know when seemingly small moments in life might inspire a change or alter your course in major ways.
The weekend concluded with the screening of the music documentary, Stay Prayed Up, followed by a Spiritual Helpline Gospel Revue Performance with Phil Cook and The Union, a much sought-after power-gospel duo of Leslie Gardner and Simone Appleby. A joyous singalong was the perfect ending to the weekend.
Each event was distinctly different, offering gifts to the soul and spirit in indescribable ways. Attendees were appreciative and remarked on how unique the programs were. Each performance was rooted in our country’s history and resonated with hope and resolve for the future – just like the blues.
Plans are underway for the 2024 Festival, Oct. 24-27.
Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, which contributes Culture Club, is a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.