By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
The fourth annual Big Blues Bender took place on September 7-10, 2017, at the Plaza Hotel & Casino in downtown Las Vegas. The niche festival that’s totally focused on blues music featured world-class talent – both old school and new. The sold-out weekend drew about 2,500 diehard blues lovers with many traveling great distances to attend the event, with the crowd loving the idea of going on a “Bender” of blues with “everything, an elevator ride away” (the whole festival was held inside the hotel).
Promoter AJ Gross has found the sweet spot for blues music devotees with his Big Blues Bender. Although Gross got squeezed out of the music club and concert promotion business in Vegas several years ago by the big corporate players, he has created something special with Big Blues Bender. As a lifelong festivalgoer, he decided to develop an event that is focused on comfort and draws a dedicated audience.
He nailed it – placing the event inside the Plaza Hotel & Casino means there are no porta-potties, with easy access to the five stages via elevators and – a key element to a desert festival – air conditioning everywhere except the rooftop pool deck. That rooftop venue, with scintillating live performances, comfortable seating, misters and shade, was actually the hot spot, both on stage and off, all weekend. Think of a cruise ship music-themed adventure, without having to go to sea, and you’ve got the Big Blues Bender.
The convenience, creature comforts and amazing array of blues talent attracted an affluent, older audience than typically found at most music festivals. That demographic offers a mixed blessing. With deep pockets, the attendees readily spent their hard-earned money on the event, buying tickets, hotel-room packages, food and booze in addition to the casino games. The downside is a much more sedate audience than bands playing at festivals are used to entertaining. Also, without younger people attending, whether due to the music genre or the cost of entry, the long-term viability of the event is questionable.
But for the moment, the music was unquestionably the biggest selling point of the event and the talented lineup really delivered. This year’s headliners were Mavis Staples, Dr. John, Tab Benoit and Walter Trout. All are award-winning, top-notch blues performers. And they were the tip of the iceberg of stellar musicians playing all weekend.
Walter Trout and his band were the Thursday night headliners in the Bender Theater. Trout’s soaring guitar solos captivated the crowd. Several of the younger artists’ performance schedule also had him sit in during their sets over the course of the weekend.
Mavis Staples capped off Friday’s shows with a moving performance. The two-time Grammy winner and Kennedy Center Honoree mesmerized the audience with her still powerful voice and lighthearted stage presence. Trout played again later that night on the Pool Stage – his show went into the wee hours of the morning.
Saturday’s lineup featured many stellar blues gunslingers. Eric Gales put on a blistering show on the Pool Stage under a blazing, late afternoon sun. Monkey Junk, a talented group from Canada played for an appreciative audience in the intimate Juke Joint. Young guns known as Southern Hospitality entertained a full house in the Bender Showroom. They brought out a few guests including artists at large, guitarist Monster Mike Welch and harmonica master Jason Ricci.
The Saturday nighttime lineup in the Bender Theater was loaded. Mike Zito and his band played a set of smoking Texas blues. Doyle Bramhall II, Eric Clapton’s longtime second guitarist, followed. Tab Benoit practically burned the place down with his closing set, the guitar virtuoso whom AJ Gross dubbed “Mr. Big Blues Bender.”
Benoit played a fiery set of Louisiana blues and invited a few old friends to join him. Johnny Sansone played some passionate harmonica solos and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux wore his traditional, extravagant Native American outfit made of feathers and beads while leading some chants and playing tambourine.
Sunday’s lineup was stacked as well. Mike Zito did another set – this one on the Pool Stage. He brought out saxophone master Jimmy Carpenter, who blasted away on his horn. Carpenter was all over the Bender, both by himself and as leader of the Bender Brass quintet, a superb group of musicians that sat in with bands all weekend. Zito also traded licks with guitarists Albert Castiglia and Monster Mike Welch.
New Orleans’ blues-rock dynamo Anders Osborne followed the Zito set. Osborne and second guitarist Eric McFadden took turns jamming and exploring psychedelic sounds while keeping the vibe rooted in the blues. Back in the Bender Showroom, the highly anticipated tribute to the Allman Brothers was coming together, led by Southern Hospitality.
The group includes Victor Wainwright on keys, JP Soars and Damon Fowler on guitar; they were joined by several guests. They played incredibly accurate, yet passionate versions of the classic ABB tunes while mourning the recent passing of Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks. Guitarists Pat Harrington, Monster Mike Welch, Albert Castiglia and Mike Zito all contributed to the impressive set of masterpieces. Jimmy Hall and Michael Ledbetter sat in on vocals as well.
Dr. John closed the Bender Theater Sunday night. The legendary pianist, vocalist, songwriter and voodoo shaman played songs from his lengthy catalog. His tight band of fine musicians offered outstanding support while Dr. John’s unique, gravelly vocal style and piano sorcery captivated the crowd.
The weekend finale was Tab Benoit’s Bender Ramble, a wild jam session at the Pool Stage. Benoit played his up-tempo tunes and was joined by Jimmy Carpenter, Walter Trout and several of the other artists that had performed over the weekend. The jam went on into early Monday morning and left the faithful fans exhilarated and exhausted.
Big Blues Bender 2017 was an obvious success for everyone, as the mostly Baby Boomer-generation attendees enjoyed world-class performances in a relaxed, comfortable setting. The artists played for those faithful, dedicated fans and the organizers produced a well-run, pleasurable event. The next Big Blues Bender is already scheduled for September 6-9, 2018, at the Plaza Hotel and Casino. Pre-book deposits are already being accepted and many of this year’s attendees plan to return. We hope that some younger, newer fans catch on to this amazing event. Blues music as well as the Big Blues Bender both deserve a long life into the future.