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Milwaukee Blues Festival @ U.S. Cellular Arena

Feb. 18, 2011

Feb. 21, 2011
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At least half of the lyrical content at Friday’s fourth annual Milwaukee Blues Festival was decidedly R-rated and for adult ears. As one of the few multi-act package shows with a primary appeal to “grown folks,” for whom younger-skewing R&B generally holds little appeal, though, what went down at the U.S. Cellular Arena was unique, not only for its adults-only content.

The potty-mouthing began even before the music started, as master of ceremonies Edward "Big Mac" Jones suggested to the about two-thirds full venue what toilet function they should perform on the lawn of Gov. Walker in light of the recent teachers' union protests in Madison. Much of the crowd whooped and clapped at Jones' non-Wisconsinite perspective on the state's labor unrest, but he mined his dirty funny streak deeper still when speaking in tribute of recently deceased singer Marvin Sease. Since the man was catapulted to popularity in wake of a song that allegedly popularized cunniligus among black men, "Candy Licker," Jones regaled the crowd with reminiscences of and recommendations for oral sex.

In contrast, Floyd Taylor kept it clean, sentimental and fairly romantic. The son of late soul and blues singer Johnnie Taylor largely stuck to interpretations of his daddy's catalog of hits. When that catalog includes songs indelible as "Who's Making Love" and the now somewhat ironic "Soul Heaven," that's a fine thing. Being the spitting image of his father works in the junior Taylor's favor as well.

The contrast between Taylor and Bobby Rush couldn't have been much more striking. The 75-year-old veteran has the high-strung, libidinous demeanor of the goofy, pervy uncle who may give you mixed emotions of amusement and unease at a family picnic. Though he has been making records since the 1950s, much of his shtick Friday consisted of riffing on his bedroom prowess, the ample backsides of his three dancers and-go figure-impersonations of Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Joe Tex. Just as that uncle may be able to finesse his sleaziness, Rush had the throng eating from his hand.

Denise Lasalle made for a perfect segue from Rush. The compact nature of the show had the woman who arguably reigns as her scene's queen regretting aloud her inability to sing anything from her current album. But she made up for it with a short, spirited set of her biggies. Lasalle best captured her salacious sauciness with "Smokin' In Bed" (her man isn't puffing cigarettes in this instance) and her cover of Rockin' Sidney's '80s zydeco crossover smash, "My Toot Toot." (Her own toot toot? Same thing Oprah Winfrey calls her va-j-j.)

As if to present a one-two punch of where blues is going and from where it came, Bobbly "Blue" Bland followed Sir Charles Jones. He may be more strictly termed under the slipperier categorization of Southern soul, but Jones is still plenty bluesy. And though his music may be as much about getting his sex on as that of others on the bill, his dress and demeanor seem to rely as much on what he might have learned from R. Kelly as what he's taken from older blues inspirations. Bland certainly numbers among those who have schooled Jones, too. The fest's elder statesman may have needed an escort to get the stage and sat down to sing, but his inimitably mellow grittiness remains largely intact for an 81 year-old. That includes his trademark snort. Fittingly, Bland had the biggest, most jamming band here, too, including real brass players, not merely keyboards imitating the sound.

Strangely more anachronistic than any of the artists preceding them, The Manhattans closed the night with harmonizing and choreography that hasn't seen much urban radio popularity since the last spate of male R&B vocal groups  in the '90s. They may have extended their trademark singles, "Kiss and Say Goodbye" and "Shining star" a bit longer than needed, but it's still a treat to hear smooth-voiced dudes in matching pastel suits sing of love without any accompanying copulatory gyrations. Thanks, guys, for ending the night on a PG note!


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