DEEP blues or FUN blues? Edmonton Blues Festival has plenty of both

In yesterday’s lecture on The Neuroscience of the Blues, we touched on the distinction between DEEP blues and FUN blues, though they sound very similar. Put simply, DEEP blues is about real suffering: from oppression, racism, poverty, addiction, disease, mental illness, heartbreak, desperation or despair – or all of the above.

FUN blues is, well, fun.

One is not necessarily better or more musically upbeat than the other, but knowing the difference can only enrich the righteous blues chemicals in your brain when experiencing good blues of any type. So here’s a measure of the bluesmen and blueswoman performing at the annual Edmonton Blues Festival, Friday through Sunday in beautiful Hawrelak Park:


Charlie Musselwhite

Moreland and Arbuckle – Hill country blues stompers who started acoustic and went electric, these two young country boys take their blues mighty seriously. Some of it is slide guitar distorted enough that the sound alone might get you dancing. But if you listen to the lyrics and consider the number of slow Mississippi blues numbers they play, the verdict is….. DEEP BLUES. Take one set and call the doctor, or maybe the undertaker.

Duke Robillard – Master blues guitar stylist, his over-effected vocals will really piss off the Blues Nazis. But the people who just love a good-time juke-joint stomp-up and want to sweat in the dance pit, he can’t be beat. The verdict is …… FUN BLUES, all the way, baby.

Charlie Musselwhite – You can sure dance and party to his music but he can get real heavy with the best of them. Memphis Charlie’s routine has always – even after he quit drinking – depended upon the mood in which you catch him. He’ll play uptempo blues, but when he plays something deep and dark, that’s when he shines. DEEP BLUES


Steve Kozak’s West Coast All-Stars – A big-band/Roomful of Blues-style swinging outfit, headed by Kozak’s jangly Philip Walker and T-Bone Walker influenced riffing. Definitely, definitely….FUN BLUES.

Terry Hanck – Elvin Bishop’s former lead horn player has fronted his own outfit for a while now and you don’t get too many horn playing triple threats any more, guys who can riff wild, sing with the best and arrange a great band. In the old days, King Curtis or A.C. Reed would’ve played his kind of stuff. Expect some soulful grooves, but for the most part this is … FUN BLUES.

Lionel Young – He dresses like he’s headed for the Playa Hater’s Ball, or some other hip thing I know nothing about, aside from vague, 10-year-old Chappelle Show references; but he approaches American roots like the great Clarence “Gatemouth Brown,” belting out everything from country swing to dirges to hard blues rock on an amped up fiddle. No, really. There are some heavy, heavy lyrics. It’s danceable, but it’s definitely DEEP BLUES.

Lil’ Ed

Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials – Ed’s deep tenor and tiny stature couple with freakish energy levels and an ultra-tight band for one of the best juke-joint blues dance experiences you’ll have, so this is, in short, FUN BLUES. He can play the sad stuff, just like his uncle, the late great J.B. Hutto, whose Hawks (usually a three-piece) blasted the doors of bars all over Chicago – but Lil’ Ed is simply one of the best live performers you’ll ever see. Pity anyone having to follow him.

The Blues Broads, featuring Angela Strehli, Tracy Nelson, Dorothy Morrison and Annie Sampson – All three have belting voices, although Tracy Nelson and Angela Strehli tend towards the whiskey-soaked Texas blues . Expect a lot of estrogen-infused tributes to the likes of Etta James and Bessie Smith. This probably isn’t either FUN Blues or DEEP Blues, but more THEATRE blues, which has a little of both.


Ben Prestage – Expect foot bass and a diddly bow. He wasn’t born black and poor, but he plays country blues both fast and slow like a man whose spirit is on fire. He’ll cook the place. Seriously. Like Garrett Mason’s awe-inspiring set a few years ago, Prestage is the one guy this weekend most likely to make you go…. “WOW.” Definitely fun, but also definitely DEEP BLUES. You’ll dance yourself into a trance with this stuff, like Junior Kimbrough on steroids with a Jack Daniels chaser. Would seem more suited to an evening set.

Tim Williams and the Electro Fires with Big Dave MacLean – There’ll be plenty of allusions to the enormous scope of blues styles when Williams takes the stage. He plays some Delta, some rag-time, even the occasional be-bop. It’s all a bit studious if you think about it in those terms. Can definitely be fun but is mostly about the DEEP BLUES.

Victor Wainwright and the WildRoots – If anyone’s going to set the ivories on fire by channeling his best Pinetop Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis this weekend it’ll be Wainwright.  He’s straight up boogie woogie with a lockstep band behind him. FUN BLUES.

Rick Estrin and the Nightcats – Estrin’s vocals are seriously overly laced with affectation, but this band is as good now as they were when Little Charly was leading the way. Since Charly’s retirement, they’ve also been playing with Swedish sideman Kid Andersen, who is a truly excellent, jangly guitarist in the Junior Watson mold. Together, they all make FUN BLUES.

Tommy Castro and the Painkillers – You most definitely can’t keep a good man down. When I last interviewed Castro, he said he was exhausted by road work and trying to pay his growing family’s bills in San Francisco. But he’s a whirlwind on stage and his loyal following proves it. Often verging into hard blues rock, his music often touches on the serious, but also pays tribute to the fun side of electric blues artists like Albert Collins and Buddy Guy. FUN BLUES


Lots of FUN at this year’s Bluesfest, with just enough DEEP to give meaning to those anxiety-reducing brain chemicals that studies have shown are triggered by the mantra-like repeated eight- and 12-bar patterns heard in the blues of all kinds – but not too much DEEP blues that you just want to curl up into a fetal position and die. Beer helps avoid that.