Connor bringing eclectic slide to Czech Village Blues
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Czech Village will be singing the blues Saturday evening, and organizers are just fine with that.
The outdoor area along 16th Avenue SW is a good fit for bringing back the Linn County Blues Society’s annual summer celebration, said entertainment chairman Greg West of Mount Vernon.
“It’s got its own history,” he noted. “There’s so many new places in town that are popping up, with NewBo across the river, and Czech Village and certainly, with the downtown Cedar Rapids area coming back — it just seemed like with opening up of the green space” behind the row of businesses, Czech Village would be a good place to re-establish the festival.
This year’s event will take to the streets and feature two bands instead of three, “with the idea of getting back to three bands next year,” West said. “We didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew — take baby steps to get going, and go from there.”
The LCBS All-Stars will take the stage at 6 p.m., featuring Dan Johnson, Tony Brown, Eric Douglas, Dennis “Daddy O” McMurrin, Bryce Janey, Craig Erickson, Ron DeWitte and Bob Dorr, followed by Chicago singer, songwriter and slide guitar queen Joanna Connor.
“She’s one of the best female slide guitarists in the world,” West said. “She’s phenomenal. I’ve seen her several times over the past 15 years in Chicago.”
Young musicians will perform in the Kozek Bandstand in Czech Village, building on the host group’s Blues in the Schools program. Food and beverage trucks will be stationed on the 16th Avenue bridge, which will be closed to traffic. Czech Village businesses will be open.
The new festival has roots reaching back to Bluesmore, held on the front lawn at Brucemore mansion for two decades, beginning in 1994. That tradition ended in 2013, and was resurrected at the McGrath Amphitheatre in 2015, but the blues society was disappointed by the small turnout, and again went looking for a new site. That’s when the Friends of Czech Village reached out, wanting to join forces to create an event that would benefit both organizations.
The festival will cost about $12,000 to produce, with support in part from the local community and sponsorships. Proceeds will be split 50-50. The Friends group will funnel its share into rebuilding the Riverside Roundhouse, a Czech Village staple lost to the Floods of 2008. The Blues Society will continue to support such groups as the H.D. Youth Center and the Community Free Medical Clinic of Cedar Rapids.
The goal is to attract 2,000 people to the open-air site, a tradition the Blues Society wants to rock on. “We need to keep it outdoors,” West said. “That’s part of the allure. We’ve been blessed with fantastic weather most every year.”
The Blues Society also has been blessed with attracting such heavy-hitters as Lucky Peterson, Joe Bonamassa, Janiva Magness, Guitar Shorty, The Kinsey Report, Kenny Neal and Lonnie Brooks. Southern blues-rocker Tinsley Ellis of Atlanta, Ga., played the 2015 event at the riverside amphitheater.
Connor, 54, is known for her high-energy shows that can last until 5 a.m. on the Chicago club scene. On those nights, she has to pace herself. On a one-set show like the Cedar Rapids festival, she can unleash the full force of her power, she said by phone from her home.
She’ll base her song choices on the energy she feels from the crowd.
“It’ll be all over the place,” she said. “I never have a set set-list. I really go with the moment of the crowd and what I’m feeling. There’s a few things I kinda know I’m going to play, but the rest is really spur of the moment, and I do that all the time.”
Her latest collection, “Six String Stories,” is eclectic, as well. “It’s stylistically going from pretty jazzy to a little bit of heavy metal, to classic Chicago blues from the ’50s to Afro beat. We kept blues in there, but it’s all over the place musically, which is usually the way my records go,” she said.
She wears a metal slide on her pinkie finger, to leave the other three free to “do other things” as she slides over the strings on her electric guitars. “You don’t press on the strings like you would normally do,” she said. “You’re kind of gliding on the top. You’re not limited by the fret.”
Doing so, she has created her own hybrid style of slide. “There’s lots of things you can do with it,” she said. “I give it sometimes more staccato, other times I play more like a traditional slide player so it would sound more mournful. It transforms the guitar to almost another instrument.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Worchester, Mass., her mother gave her a guitar at age 7, and at 10, took her to see the legendary Buddy Guy in nearby Boston. Connor was hooked. Even the rock she listened to in her youth had blues influences, including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.
“I’d follow all the blues that came to Boston,” she said, but gravitated toward the Chicago sound.
In 1984, she decided the best way to immerse herself in that scene and learn from the masters was to move there. “And I ended up staying.”
A single mom, touring took a back seat in the years she was ushering her athletic son and daughter to their events. But they’re grown now, so she’s branching out more when “it makes sense,” while still keeping her regular gigs at Kingston Mines and the House of Blues in Chicago. She’s also starting to swirl around ideas for another album.
Whatever the venue, she credits a good show to “all magic and mirrors.”
“I just like to create good energy, as corny as that sounds,” she said. “That’s what hooked me in music — the feeling I got from the audience, whether big or small. When you’d hit that place where the people loved what you did, it’s like a circular give-and-take of energy. That’s what I look for. I just like to see people have joy and just let go of daily life and just go on a ride with music.”
WHAT: Czech Village Blues
WHEN: 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday (8/12); doors open at 5 p.m.
WHERE: Czech Village streets and Kozek Bandstand, 16th Avenue SW, Cedar Rapids
LINEUP: Linn County Blues Society All Stars, 6 p.m., followed by headliner Joanna Connor; local young musicians in Kozek Bandstand
TICKETS: $15 advance, $20 door, Czechvillagefriends.org
PROCEEDS: Split between Friends of Czech Village, toward rebuilding the Riverside Roundhouse and Linn County Blues Society