The annual Indy Rib Fest has always been an excellent time for listing to quality blues entertainment for free, and this
year was, once again, no exception. This year’s final day of the Fest on Labor Day, 2005, brought to the stage that
afternoon in downtown Indianapolis’s Military Park two excellent bands fronted by two excellent guitarists. First
appearing that afternoon was Kokomo’s own Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel, a Central Indiana band that has a most
deserved reputation for blues-rock quality across the U.S. Then following an hour later, and ending with a true bang
this year’s Indy Rib Fest live entertainment, was the redoubtable Buddy Guy, who brought with him not only his own
Chicago blues excellence, but that of his outstanding band as well.
This writer, an active writer on the blues since 1987, has known Mike Milligan personally since he began his active
musical career in the1990s, when I’d hear him at the Slippery Noodle. Now, whenever I’ve heard him play his guitar
these last few years, my mind harkens back those days in the Noodle when I first listened to his playing. For I’ve
become very much aware of how much he has matured as a player over this not-quite-a decade. I mentioned this to
my friend and Rib Fest companion Susan as we both sat there digging this excellent guitar solo that Mike was playing
then, and Susan mentioned to me how much she’d noticed Mike Milligan mature as a guitar artist -- in just the past year!
Now, onstage, “The best damn blues band ever” as named by Indianapolis’s renowned blues bar, the Slippery Noodle
Inn, stood Mike with his band, Steam Shovel, the whole of Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel consisting of only three
people, Mike himself on guitar and vocals, brother Shaun Milligan on bass, and Robert “Tiny” Cook on drums. Mike
stood in front somewhat ahead of the other two, his characteristic gray tweed workman’s cap on his head, and sunburst-
colo 1961 Fender Stratocaster in hand. Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel have this remarkably full sound for a trio,
filling the audio space fully and completely, and never leaving the listener with a feeling that there’s something lacking.
Perhaps it’s that particular way Mike manages to fill the space with his guitar notes, notes he can use one way to sound
the way they would normally come, guitar-like; but Mike can also take the notes he makes on his guitar and give them a
deeper, fuller sound, more like those that would come from an organ.
Further, Mike, as an accomplished blues-rock guitarist whose touring as a musician takes him before some very critical,
very discerning audiences who are used to hearing the top guns play, knows all the ropes, has mastered all the
techniques, that are part of playing the way a top dog should. But, as was so evident in listening to Mike Milligan’s
guitar that whole hour of music, he knows the ropes, has mastered the techniques, because he’s now among those top
dogs himself. Mike Milligan knows how to use all those electronic effects that are now so much de rigueur in blues-rock
and rock performing nowadays, but he showed over and over that whole hour that he knows a lot more than just how to
use those techniques in a strictly technical, now-I’ve- mastered-the-instruction-book way. The same with his carrying
out extended guitar solos. There was, again, such obvious mastery of technique in that formal, technical sense, but,
then again, there was also so much more. There was a palpably artistic understanding that fused all into coherent
wholes that had real feeling, real emotion behind them, and within them as well. Mike played with that undefinable yet
very real thing called soul, that thing about being real that one always knows when it’s there, even when can’t really say
what exactly it is. Mike has that, in his vocals, in his original songs, and, most evidently, in his guitar. For so many of
those guitar solos he played that afternoon of September 5 in Military Park could truly be classified as among those
that are world class, as world class as those done by guitar artists in blues, blues-rock and rock who are widely
acknowledged as being world class players.
The repertoire that afternoon came almost entirely from Mike Milligan’s own prolific composing pen as he’s manifested it
across four CDs now, plus one new song that’s soon to be recorded by the group. This writer is strong admirer of Mike
Milligan’s songs, songs of real human understanding and humane philosophy that are never preachy. Mike, a large
man physically whose appearance comes across as resembling that of a cuddly teddy bear in human form, is a most
likeable, accessible person deeply affirmative of life, and his songs demonstrate that. Demonstrate a satisfaction that
is never self-satisfied, a satisfaction that is also thoroughly understanding of life’s hardships. That real satisfaction that
comes from real knowledge, and thus, always touches on the bittersweet.
But the three non-originals Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel did that afternoon, and the way the band did them, is also
affirmative of what I said above But it’s important to emphasize: Mike Milligan’s original music is affirmative, yes, but it
is also excellent. It is celebratory, but not saccharine; philosophical and affirmative, but not cloying. With these
qualities shown in what the band chooses to cover as well, and how the band also does these.
Mike Milligan did a rendition of a classic R&B number far too few artists do anymore, Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home.”
Milligan and Steam Shovel did it with an arrangement that paid respect to the roots, to the way Sam did it and made it
so real for him, but with an arrangement that partook of Mike Milligan’s composing originality that made it just as real for
him. The same thing was done for another R&B hit, this time for a song that’s very much overperformed by others, Bill
Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The same thing I said above that Mike put into the arrangement he and Steam Shovel
did of “Bring It On Home” applies here, and is summed up thus: Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel’s arrangement of “Ain’t
No Sunshine” was the first time I’ve ever heard an arrangement of Withers’s lament of love lost that possessed enough
originality to make this chestnut sound fresh and hold my interest.
The third cover done related also that sense of speaking very personally that Mike brings to his philosophical originals.
He did a cover of another artist’s song that also approaches life affirmatively from that vantage of been-there, one from
Austin, Texas drummer/singer/songwriter Doyle Bramhall, an all-too-little appreciated blues “dreamer consenting to
dream of the actual world,” (American philosopher George Santayana) and one of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s oldest and
closest friends. Bramhall’s “Life By The Drop” is one of those philosophical masterpieces that’s properly a part of any
true musical artist’s repertoire as much as certain songs of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan are, and it’s only fitting, as
well as fully understandable, that it would be part of Mike Milligan’s as well.
In the hour’s interval between the ending of Mike Milligan’s set and the beginning of Buddy Guy’s the lawn area before
the stage really filled up, a very real demonstration of that bandwagon effect that occurs when an excellent guitarist
comes to play who possesses a merely substantial reputation for artistry, Mike Milligan, and when another excellent
guitarist come to play, but whose reputation for artistry is transcendent and superhuman. That’s Buddy Guy, of course.
But the now seventyish Buddy Guy’s reputation as one of the master players of the Chicago blues guitar is probably
something quite different for this writer, for whom the blues is a very personal part of life, than it was for a large part of
the audience. To me, Buddy Guy’s reputation as a blues artist does not come because his playing transcends the
human at all. No, it comes because his playing is most fully, is most essentially, human. It is but an example of what
can become fully human when what is human strives to do its very best. What is, at bottom, only an actually-existing
embodiment of what we humans can do when we let our talents, and our honest understanding of our talents, reach out
to meet and join with our ambitions and drives!
But as much an icon as Buddy Guy has become in the popular imagination, he is, of course, a very real embodiment of
that which has made Chicago blues guitar revered and admired the world over, revered and admired not just for its
embodiment in Buddy Guy, but in so many other seminal players as well – from Muddy Waters through Elmore James
through Hubert Sumlin, just to name an appropriate three!
But, lest there be any misunderstanding, this writer, a blues writer who has published nationally and heard many of the
blues greats, went to the Rib Fest on Labor Day precisely because he wanted to see Mike Milligan – and every bit as
much, because he wanted to see Buddy Guy as well!
In this context, a little history of the social acceptance of certain types of blues comes appropriately to the fore. In the
middle and late 1960s, when a whole generation of young people such as myself, who’d grown up on rock ‘n’ roll, were
being knocked out by the electric blues and the black artists doing it, the Guardians of the Gate at the Museum of Real
Blues weren’t even noticing. To many of them, the postwar electric blues was an aberration, a bastardizing, of the real
blues, which was acoustic and played without amplification; one that didn’t deliberately, aggressively create a sound
that was driving and insistent. Thus, an authoritative blues historian who’s done some admirable work on the acoustic
blues, Englishman Paul Oliver, writes only one word about Buddy Guy in his 1969 Story of the Blues, and says there
only that Guy was “flamboyant [!]”
Another tidbit. When Buddy Guy first appeared at the legendary venue of the New Music of the 1960s, San Francisco’s
Fillmore Ballroom, the otherwise hip and knowledgeable audience of the countercultural young was disappointed. “He
sounds just like Hendrix or Clapton,” they complained – not realizing that the influence, the copying of styles, was the
other way around!
Now Buddy Guy is recognized not only for his seminal influence on contemporary blues, but on rock as well, for his role
as dean and mentor to two or three generations of rock guitarists now. Certainly something recognized by his induction
into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame last March.
Which is why the Buddy Guy who performs today is as much a Rockstar as he is a Bluesman. And he clearly showed
that in his very exciting show Labor Day, a show that was an outstanding display of the best that would be put into a
Rock Show as done at the hands of a rock master. Only Buddy Guy applied it to the blues, and the show’s musical
repertoire was, indeed, overwhelmingly comprised of that music which is specifically blues. It was, as any blues
cognoscenti could inform the unknowing, very much the blues, the music of Albert King, Muddy Waters, John Lee
Hooker, Sonny Boy (John Lee) Williamson, and Tommy Johnson – artists clearly of the blues first; indeed, of a few
artists who never left the blues to go into any realm of pop at all. And it was the Chicago blues guitar that was at the
heart of what Buddy Guy played that late afternoon – needless to say, with a lot of flamboyance, theatrics, and displays
of out-of-the-ordinary technique.
Buddy Guy also took full advantage of another quite well established part of rock showmanship the body-mounted,
wireless electric power source makes possible, that of playing the guitar and singing after one leaves the stage to
wander at length and at depth through the audience. But this writer definitely sensed in this particular aspect of the
performance how much this show was happening in staid, hyper-conventional Indianapolis every time Guy would stop in
his perambulations to good-naturedly cajole a female member of the audience to sing a few words from a blues song.
Those called on to be singers betrayed a palpably hesitant, reluctant air, as though they felt put out by something
unavoidable that did with no harm, but was very un-kosher nonetheless. This was not freewheeling Chicago or San
Francisco by any means; this was Indianapolis, and if you had become aware the hard way of what’s all too
appropriately still called Naptown, you knew exactly where you were!
Buddy Guy was in top form throughout that hour-and-a-half set, and both his singing and his playing were true joys to
behold, exciting morsels of audio nourishment for those who give listening to good music the seriousness it deserves.
But Buddy Guy was far from being the whole show that Labor Day set at the Rib Fest. His magnificent band, Buddy’s
Guys, five persons in all, had three soloists outstanding in their own right, and they were integral parts of the show as
well. Guy frequently called on them to strut their stuff. These three made Buddy Guy’s show that afternoon in Military
Park the exhilarating experience it was every bit as much as did Guy himself, so it’s only appropriate to end by
acknowledging them. But this acknowledgement is but an affirmation of the continuing power and attraction of the
blues; for these three players, all much younger that Buddy Guy himself, show how much the blues is still alive and
And so I end with acknowledging the bluesy excellence that was shown in traditional style and approach by keyboardist
Marty Samples, whose blues piano showed how well the great Chicago blues piano tradition continues. The same can
be said of the solo guitar contributions of Rick Holland. But saxman Jeff Hennigan went well beyond the traditional
confines of blues in his display of excellence. In one very notable solo he combined the blues sax with the be-bop
and1960s jazz avant garde saxes to create an exciting, creative, and truly different hybrid. Hennigan did something
that’s very much a blues squaring of the circle: successfully melding John Coltrane and Charlie Parker with Abb Locke,
A.C. Reed and Eddie Shaw!
The stage of the Indy Rib Fest, Labor Day, 2005, only went to show how appropriate it is to still keep alive those words,
and that thought, of the late Little Milton, who sang in his blues anthem from the 1980s, “The blues is alright.”