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Despite Obstacles, Festival Still Boogies

Of the Oakland Press

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Forgive Ron Harwood and his Farmington Hills-based American Music Research Foundation if they feel like they can't win.

Last October, as the non-profit historic association was expanding its signature annual event, the Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival, to two nights and a new location, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney scheduled his two shows at the Palace of Auburn Hills right against it, stealing some publicity thunder.

This year the festival's second night falls on Game 1 of the World Series, when Detroiters will be focusing more on Polanco than pianos.

Regardless, the show will go on, and Harwood and company are hoping that their assemblage of musical all-stars will get its due amidst the other weekend festivities.

"They're two shows that are so clearly different but are all about the music of Detroit," says Harwood, who launched the festival eight years ago and formed AMRF in 2001. "I grew up in Detroit, going to show bars and night clubs in downtown Detroit hearing what I thought was the best music in the world.

"Detroit is still a great music city, obviously. (The festival) is about providing some context for that and a sense of where that music came from."

This weekend marks the second year AMRF is presenting a Friday night blues show. But while last year's festival brought in players from out of town, this year's focuses on homegrown artists, including pioneers Alberta Adams, Sir Mack Rice and Johnnie Bassett and sacred steel legend Calvin Cooke.

The surprise is the headliner -- the Howling Diablos, a long-lived Detroit band associated mostly with the rock world. But Harwood thinks there's something more there.

"They use substantial blues influences by specific blues artists," Harwood explains. "On virtually ever song they use substantial blues influences by specific blues artists...and they weren't hiding the. It's kind of a celebration of where I think this sort of 'old folks' blues can go in a contemporary setting."

Diablos frontman Martin "Tino" Gross says he thinks the band is a good fit for Friday's show. "The blues is my life in a lot of ways," he explains. "It's one of the things I've always had one foot in, no matter what else I'm doing." That includes playing with John Lee Hooker when Gross was a teenager and going on to work with blues artists such as Bo Diddley, Eddie Taylor and Hubert Sumlin and producing an album for the late R.L. Burnside.

"The blues has to stay current and get a little contemporary every now and then," Gross notes, "which helps it survive and reach a new audience."

That's certainly part of Harwood's thinking, too.

"We wanted to widen our audience for Friday night," he says. "And we wanted people who are Diablos fans to hear where the music came from. They might come and think, 'Next time I'm gonna listen to Johnnie Bassett. I didn't realize how influential these performers can be."

If the Diablos give a new twist to the festival's Friday, Saturday's show has a more historical bent. With a big band -- the Paul Keller Orchestra -- hosting legendary pianists from Michigan (Bob Seeley, Mark "Mr. B" Braun, Charles Boles) and elsewhere (Germany's Axel Zwingenberger, California's Red Holloway), the AMRF is paying tribute to the "From Spirituals to Swing" concerts held at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1938 and 1939. Putting together performers such as Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Sonny Terry, Big Joe Turner, Big Bill Broonzy and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, those shows broke color lines and, for the first time in a mainstream setting, exposed white audiences to Southern blues and gospel.

"It was so difficult to do they couldn't get funding from traditional concert sponsors to put (the shows) on," Harwood says. "They went to a socialist group to get the funding to make this happen. But it changed the face of music."

Like previous events, this weekend's festival will be filmed for national broadcast on PBS. The 2004 edition premiered earlier this month around the country, and the 2005 show is scheduled to be shown in the spring of 2007.

"People keep asking me what's the story here" with the festival, Harwood says. "Part of the story is bigger than the music. It's about a non-profit corporation regularly producing TV shows to air nationally -- sort of like Michigan reaching out and teaching the rest of the world a little bit about music. That's a very important thing to do."

The 8th Annual Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival takes place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (October 20th and 21st) at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak. Tonight's show features the Howling Diablos, Calvin Cooke, Alberta Adams, Johnnie Bassett, Sir Mack Rice and RJ's Rhythm Rockers. Sunday's bill includes the Paul Keller Orchestra with Bob Seeley, Axel Zwingenberger, Mark "Mr. B" Braun, Charles Boles and Red Holloway. Tickets each night are $25 general admission, $20 for students. Call (248) 399-2980 or visit

Web Site: www.royaloakmusictheatre.com

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