New CD; new book!

Steve Cheseborough on Seattle "Blues To Do" TV (photo by Margene)

It’s out! The new CD, Fetch It! See reviews of it here and here.

You can order it through this site or through CD Baby, or pick it up at Music Millennium in Portland or at any of my public appearances (see calendar to find out when those are).

And look for the third edition of Blues Traveling: the Holy Sites of Delta Blues, at your local bookstore, or order a signed copy from me! Here is a recent review of the book.

My webmaster, Jim Cheseborough, and I are always working on this website. The new google calendar should be working fine. Email me for help with anything that isn’t working here — or just to talk about the blues anytime.

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Me on Oregon Art Beat 2008

Me on Oregon Art Beat
Originally published 1/24/2008

Well, it’s exciting to be featured on a TV program anytime but it’s totally thrilling when the program turns out so well:

Check it out! My thanks and praise to Shawn Hutchinson and his crew for boiling down my life and work to a fine eight-minute piece.

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Furry Lewis in Hollywood movie

I had known for years that Furry Lewis, one of my musical heroes, had a part in W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings, a 1975 movie starring Burt Reynolds, but had never seen it, because it has not been released on DVD, so it’s not on Netflix or at video stores or anywhere. Well, now it is available for watching, in its entirety, on YouTube:
I wish it were hi-def, but at least we can watch it.
Of course you can skip to the Furry Lewis scenes (about two-thirds of the way in). But I recommend you watch the whole movie. It’s an interesting and entertaining Southern story, with a country-Western band at its center. Kind of an earlier, Southern-C&W-based Blues Brothers. The band’s lead guitarist is Jerry Reed, and you get to see a lot of his playing if you’re into that sort of thing. There are a lot of stereotypes in the story of course. But when Furry Lewis (as “Uncle Furry”) enters the movie, he is depicted as a kind of embodiment of music and culture, almost a holy man — which of course is what he was. In the scene where Lewis and Reed jam, it’s Lewis who takes the lead (on bottleneck) while Reed comps behind. The movie is surprisingly and satisfyingly respectful to Lewis.
And there’s that great story, don’t remember where I read it, from the filming of this movie: it seems Lewis was nipping at a half-pint of whiskey, and an assistant director of some other functionary told him that wasn’t allowed on the set, and took the bottle away. Star Burt Reynolds heard about that, and the next day called a meeting of all cast and crew and told them something like, “In case y’all haven’t met this gentleman, this is Mister Furry Lewis. And Mr. Lewis will do anything he damn well pleases while he’s on this movie set.” And then Reynolds presented Lewis with a half-gallon of whiskey. Keep that story in mind as you watch the movie, it makes Reynolds and the whole movie more enjoyable.

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Playing Little Hat Jones songs

OK, I guess I’m a late enrollee in the Little Hat Jones fan club. Been digging, playing and teaching “Kentucky Blues” and “Bye Bye Baby Blues” lately and thought I’d chime in about them on here.
What beautiful, unusual and different-from-each-other songs those two are! In “Kentucky,” the singer is an expert at escaping from the law, which is always on his trail. Even a legendary lawman with a team of bloodhounds is no match for our hero, who gets away “like a submarine.” What a great image, disappearing like a submarine, gone without a trace. In “Bye Bye Baby,” sung in a different part of his range, straining to hit the high notes which makes it sound even achier, he is a rejected lover who still has hopes even as he says farewell forever. That verse where he says “can’t carry you” but then in the next line rethinks it and asks “don’t you want to go?” is just too much.
As for the guitar parts, they are not what they seem at first. On “Kentucky” there seem to be some extra notes sounding during the main I and IV chords. He might be doing the same descending pattern on the third string as on the first string, but not striking that string much, so you get a suggestion of those notes. Try it and see what you think.
The “Kentucky” intro, which returns in each verse, I think is single-note lead-in on fifth string to three-finger B7 shape at fourth fret (ignoring the capo), then slide down and back up a fret, then 3200 on the four high strings, then a full B7, with high string open and then closed, then E7, which moves around for the turnaround,
“Bye Bye Baby” — the turnaround I think is fancier than it seems at first. Instead of just descending from third fret to 0 on the fourth string, try 3003, 2013, 1303, 0003 on the four high strings. Sounds old-fashioned and ragtime-y, and he seems to do that.
The other strangeness on “Bye Bye Baby” is during the second line, coming back from the IV chord to the I, he adds some strange and wonderful thing on the third string, putting a finger on and off the second fret about three times. Listen and you’ll hear it. It is quite tricky to fit it in.
Oh, and back to the “dozens” verse of “Kentucky” — I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the “mother” (or “mothers”), not the “money” that your father had. Maybe the oilmen on the other side of town talk about your father’s money when they play the dozens, but in Little Hat’s community I doubt it, even if it sounds like that.
Have fun with these songs!

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Dad, the Giants and the blues

My dad, Doug Cheseborough (1921-1997), was a Giants fan. He grew up in New York City and used to go see the Giants play when they were still based in that city. I don’t think he ever forgave them for moving to San Francisco, but he remained a fan.
When I was a kid, Dad would listen to Giants games on a tube radio. He penciled in marks to find the stations that broadcast the games in the various National League cities. Hard to believe he could pick up AM radio broadcasts, from our home in Rochester, coming from Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, etc., but he did. Of course those faraway stations didn’t come in real clearly. There was a lot of crackling and static, and the announcer’s voice would go in and out. To a casual listener, like any of us family members who happened by, it sounded like a bunch of noise.
But to dad it was a baseball game. He listened carefully and followed the whole game, play by play, reconstructing it in his head from those fuzzy bits of sonic information. And he’d be happy — or, more often, upset, since the Giants usually weren’t faring well in those years — for days, at least until the next game, based on the results!
I never learned to appreciate baseball, not by crackly radio broadcast or by high-def color TV or by live game. But one of my main obsessions in life is the blues of the 1920s-30s, which I study by listening to crackly old 78 records. (I don’t collect the original records, but even when you listen to CDs or online versions of those songs, they are just transferred from the original 78s, scratches and all.) The recordings might not be that clear to begin with, plus there are all those scratches, and the performers sing in archaic regional dialects and use strange expressions and play in odd tunings. When I dig in and listen hard, spending hours trying to figure out what the heck they are doing so I can re-create it with my voice and guitar, I think I’m continuing a tradition I learned by seeing my dad concentrating on those radio broadcasts.

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Blues and poker

As some of you know, I’m almost as avid about poker as I am about playing the blues. Is there any crossover between the skills required in each of those pursuits? Or, do bluesmen make good poker players?
I’ve heard, in TV interviews, people claim that their professional backgrounds help them in poker. Everything from cage fighter to auctioneer, they say that because they’ve learned some set of professional skills, that makes them good poker players. Some of those claims might be true. Heck, all of them might be true to some extent. There are many skills needed in poker, and you might learn those skills through other businesses or occupations. However, most poker players overestimate their own abilities. So saying, “I’m a good poker player because I’m a good manicurist” (or whatever) might just be part of that same overestimation.
So what about my principal occupation, musician, does that help me in poker?
Well, I actually think being a musician can harm your poker game to some extent. Because music is all about the rhythm. And poker is not. That is, you win a hand, that doesn’t mean you’re going to win the next one. Or you raised and then waited one street, doesn’t mean it’s time to raise again. There usually isn’t a rhythm to a poker game, at least not one you can recognize as it’s happening, and if it there is a rhythm, it’s a much slower one than any song! So don’t try getting into the groove.
Being a performer (of any type, not just a musician) might benefit you at the poker table, because you are used to being watched. For some poker players that is a tough thing to get used to, having people watch you carefully. Performers love that attention of course. But be careful not to go into an act, unless you really know what you’re doing. You could give away information that you don’t want to while you’re entertaining the “audience” who are really your opponents.
Maybe blues, specifically, helps prepare you for the ups and downs of poker, through its lyrics. Blues is all about winning and losing at love and relationships, how even good times turn bad and bad times don’t last forever. That’s a good attitude to have when gambling! Good luck.

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Mowing the lawn acoustically

I housesat for a friend for about a month this summer, and he had a grassy lawn and a push mower. (Grassy lawns are out of style in Portland, where the trend is to kill the grass and replace it with native, mostly edible, landscape, but my friend hasn’t quite got there yet. He does have a nice garden with a lot of berries, though!)
Friend advised me that I could borrow a power mower from neighbor if I didn’t feel like using the push mower. I vacillated…push mower is quieter, healthier for me and for the earth, simpler to use…but power mower gets it done quick and without so much effort. And as I vacillated days went by and grass grew longer, and the prospect of doing it by push mower seemed more daunting. Then it hit me: do it a little at a time! Mow for 20 minutes a day, a small patch. If it takes 10 days to get through the whole lawn, that’s fine. Start over at the beginning on the 11th day.
Sure enough, that system worked great. I got 20 minutes of exercise every day without totally exhausting myself trying to do the whole lawn. I didn’t use fossil fuels or annoy the neighbors with noise. And the grass got cut — acoustically!
Yes, when you play an acoustic instrument, you use your own muscle power, usually through hands, feet or breath, to make something vibrate — a piece of wood, metal or skin, usually. And it is such a powerful thing to do. You might think the opposite, that real power involves plugging your guitar into a big amp and playing really loud. Trouble is, then you’re just flipping a switch. Playing electric music is like catching a football in a video game. Playing acoustic music is catching a real football.
Mew York-based jazz musician Taylor Ho Bynum is on an “Acoustic Bicycle Tour” of the West Coast, playing concerts from Vancouver to Tijuana, solo or with local ensembles, traveling by bicycle (he flew to Vancouver to start, and will fly back to New York at the end, but the West Coast tour is by bicycle). I caught his show in Portland last night,with the Portland Creative Music Guild, and it was wonderful — the music and the tour concept. Bynum plays acoustic music, and he is traveling acoustically. “I see the entire trip as a kind of composition,” he says. He also noted that this way he gets to actually see the cities he plays in, and the spaces between them, instead of just seeing airports and hotel rooms.
So, whether you play music, mow lawns, grind coffee (the hand mills are fun and easy to use and leave the coffee oils undisturbed and more flavorful) or whatever, try doing it acoustically, of your own power. You will get exercise, conserve fossil fuels, reduce global warming, and have a better experience.

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The Three Ps

Practice, play, perform.
Those are pretty much the three ways to make music. And the words create different feelings in musicians or music students.
“Practicing” sounds like drudgery, delayed gratification. Doing something dull now so that you can do the exciting stuff later.
“Playing” sounds like fun, of course! Kids play all the time; grownups have to work much of the time but look forward to chances to play.
“Performing” sounds even more exciting — that’s what got you interested in music in the first place, hearing others perform. That’s what the big-name artists do, perform all the time. Performing might involve pay, applause, admiration and all that good stuff. But it also might sound scary: am I ready to perform? What if I screw up in front of all those people? What if they just don’t like me?
So let’s look more closely at these three Ps and see how they work together. A student was complaining about not finding time to practice, and another student suggested that the first book a gig or at least schedule a jam session or some kind of public show. “I only practice when I have a gig coming up,” the second student noted. That idea has some truth to it. That’s why I like to bring my students to an open mic every few months, so that they have something to practice for, a reason and a deadline to polish up a few songs for.
The trouble with that idea, though, is that you have to reach a certain level of competence — and you do that by practicing! — before you’ll be ready for any kind of public performance, even a jam session. And if you just start practicing a lot, lo and behold, you probably will start getting invited to more jams, you’ll develop the confidence to go to more open mics, you might even get asked to perform in other settings as people notice how good you are. So it’s really a better idea to just practice regularly whether you have an imminent gig or not.
Also, practice should be a meditation-like experience, a daily soul-nourishing and solitary activity that you look forward to and enjoy deeply. I am not joking! Meditation is a great analogy. You don’t meditate to prepare for anything, really, even though it might help you prepare for stressful life experiences. You do it for its own sake. Same with the runner. He might have a race coming up, and knows that today’s run is helping him get in shape for that. But he still enjoys today’s run. Practice with that kind of attitude and you will get to love practice, and by the way, you will become good (or better)! And just like the meditator or the runner, some days you will have to push yourself, even force yourself to practice. But after the first five or ten minutes you’ll be into it and enjoying that special time, just you and your instrument and the music flowing between you.
“Do you really think Hendrix practiced? Or Coltrane?” a musician who admits he doesn’t practice asked. Yes, I am sure they practiced constantly, morning and night. Such genius instrumentalists weren’t born that way. And didn’t just jump onto the stage. I’ve read that Hendrix even took his guitar into the bathroom when he had to go, because he liked the acoustics of that room. Coltrane reportedly had an oral fixation, and had his sax in mouth almost all the time. Earl Hooker was a dazzlingly inventive guitarist with a wonderful tone, a musician’s musician, generally considered the best Chicago blues guitarist. He was on the road touring most of the year, and the other musicians in his band watched TV or played cards in their free time. But Hooker did not watch TV or play cards, at all. All he did was practice. Is there any wonder that he is a legend and the other musicians are not?
I think the musician who said Hendrix and Coltrane didn’t practice meant they “played” instead of practicing. I’ve heard other musicians say, “Just play every day.” The idea is, if the word “practice” bothers you, just call it “play” and then you’ll do it. Well, sure, you can call it whatever you want. But you do have to practice! And it’s not the same thing as playing. If you ask me, “Play me a song,” I’ll play you something I know, and I’ll play it in a way I’ve mastered (through practice!). I could even ask myself to play a song, and do the same thing. And enjoy the playing and the sound. And sure, just playing the song I already know is enhancing my musical ability to some tiny extent — doing more for my music than, say, watching TV or playing cards. But it’s not going to lead to real improvement, any more than our marathon runner will improve by taking a walk around the block. No, if I want to improve — and I do! And I hope you do too! — then I have to isolate the parts that I have trouble with, and play them slowly and repeatedly until they become easy to me. Or break a new piece down, perhaps with the help of a teacher, into component parts and work on each one and then fit them together. (This is a very brief description of how to practice — there are books on the subject, and if you’re my student I can help you with it, but this is the basic idea, break it down and work slowly on the parts and then fit them together.) This is very different from “playing” or “performing.” But it works. Very well. And it can be enjoyable, very enjoyable, deeply satisfying even. Digging soil and planting seeds also are enjoyable and satisfying to a gardener. You probably don’t tell your gardener friend “Don’t garden. Just eat the food.” So don’t tell your musician friend, or your musician self to “just play” instead of practicing!

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The Mob Museum

Another trip to Vegas. Didn’t do well at the poker tables, but that’s another story. I visited the Mob Museum in downtown Vegas, and I enjoyed it and recommend it. (Stop at Banger Brewing for a beer afterward, and at Pizza Rocks for a slice — downtown Vegas is so much hipper than the strip!)
The Mob Museum shows that even though the Mafia and other U.S. gangs came of age during Prohibition, and later moved into gambling, those are by no means their only businesses. The mob is interested in money. It goes where the money is — liquor was very lucrative during Prohibition, and gambling was very lucrative during the early decades of Las Vegas. But the mob also has been involved in Hollywood, labor unions, importing, drugs, etc. Wherever there is money to be made without having to do much actual work to get it (violence and intimidation and bribing officials are fairly easy once you’re experienced), that’s where the mob goes.
I found the earlier parts of the museum, about the rise and workings of the mob, more interesting than the later parts, about the investigation and dismantling of the gangs. But yes, organized crime has been more or less tamed in this country. And some people lament that and romanticize the gangster era, the museum points out. Some Las Vegas residents say the casinos ran smoothly and were more fun when the gangsters ran them. What’s wrong with that idea? The museum says the mob took profits out of the community, only to enrich the mobsters. Some of the proceeds went back into the businesses, but since the mobs avoided paying taxes, their success didn’t help the larger society the way legitimate business supposedly does.
But I immediately was struck by the similarity, not the difference, between the mobs and the corporations that now run the casinos (and everything else). The corporations also evade taxes (and have been increasingly successful at that in recent decades). The corporations also bribe public officials to get their way. They also resort to violence, in subtle but extreme ways, getting the police or even the U.S. military to help them achieve their goals whenever necessary. They don’t give anything back to the community unless they have to, slashing workers’ pay and jobs whenever it is expedient. Basically they are the same as the mobs, except bigger, better financed and more efficient. Like the mob, the corporations also are a “shadow government,” unelected but with great power over ordinary citizens.
We can only hope that someday soon the corporations will be dismantled and put into a museum as one of the interesting evils of the past.

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Nickel strings on nickel-plated guitar?

It sure sounded like a match made in heaven, nickel strings on my nickel-plated National. But after trying them, I am going back to the Gore-Tex-coated bronze ones! I know, I’m a traditionalist about a lot of things, but as my buddy Blind Boy Paxton says, “Sometimes the new things are better.” He’s the one who persuaded me to go back to using a wound third string on my parlor. Mostly by laughing at the strange quacking sound the unwound third was making.
I still have nickel strings on that parlor, though! And if you’re going for old-style authenticity, I encourage you to try them. On any guitar. Even a National.
That’s what all our guitar heroes of the prewar era would have used.
Until bronze strings became popular sometime in the 1960s, nickel strings were what all “steel” string sets were. We’re really talking about the wound strings here, the 6th, 5th and 4th, and maybe the 3rd, unless you use an unwound third. The metal they are wound with is usually some kind of bronze these days. Phosphor bronze is what you most commonly find in stores, although I have never cared for the superbright sound of those. You can also find white bronze, 80/20 bronze etc. The unwound strings up top are just plain steel, I believe that’s the same in almost any set of metal strings, even if you get coated strings. The bronze wrapping, and the coating, is only on the wound strings. The high strings are still plain steel.
So nickel strings have nickel wraps on those wound strings. I’m not one to change strings at all very often, much less string types. But since I got that new, old-fashioned parlor guitar recently I started experimenting with different strings on it. And I tried nickel and I really like it.
I wouldn’t say they instantly make me sound like an old 78 (that probably has more to do with the guitar and how you play it) but they do sound different. It’s hard to describe the difference — string companies typically promote their strings as “bright” and “warm,” which I think are opposites when it comes to string sound! These nickels probably are more toward warm and away from bright. But it’ll probably be different as they age, and certainly will be different on different guitars.
They do look cool, I think. And, perhaps most importantly, they are easier to play! Nickel strings have less tension than bronze strings. So you use less (left) hand strength. And you might want to try a heavier gauge than you usually use. (That might cancel out the difference in tension, but it might give you a better sound.)
If you want to try them, look for electric-guitar strings. Yes, I’m talking about putting “electric” strings on your acoustic. Most of the nickel strings now available are sold as electric-guitar strings: DR Pure Blues and D’Addario Pure Nickel Jazz are two such brands. And yes, they do work on acoustic guitars and no, you don’t have to plug them in (although I suspect they would sound great with a pickup)!

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Blues and brews at the Dude Ranch

I had heard (from Upright brewer/owner Alex Ganum) that there had once been a jazz club on the site of his brewery, where I play on Sunday afternoons. Alex was tickled to find out about the club, because he is a huge jazz fan. In fact the name of his brewery, Upright, is a tribute to the upright bass, an instrument Alex loves, especially as played by Charlie Mingus. You may have noticed the bass clef on Upright tap handles and bottles. And you might also have tasted Monk & Mingus, which Alex brews annually for the Cheers to Belgian Beers festival.

Of course I also was delighted to find out that there had been live jazz in the building (now called the Leftbank Building, 240 N Broadway), since I carry on the tradition by playing live blues in the basement every Sunday. And I am even more delighted now that I’ve found out more details, from reading Jumptown: the Golden Years of Portland Jazz 1942-1957 by Robert Dietsche.

The club in the building was called the Dude Ranch, and here is how Dietsche describes it: “There never was and there never will be anything quite like the Dude Ranch. It was the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theater, Las Vegas, the Wild West rolled into one. It was the shooting star in the history of Portland jazz…”
Apparently the building started as a hazelnut ice cream factory (!) in 1908, then became a speakeasy in the ’20s. It was the Dude Ranch 1945-46. Among the shows was Norman Granz’ traveling Jazz at the Philharmonic, featuring Thelonious Monk (and Roy Eldridge, Helen Humes, Meade Lux Lewis, Coleman Hawkins et al, playing together in various combinations). So Monk, one of the two jazzmen commemorated in Upright’s Monk & Mingus, actually did play in the building!
Besides being the hottest club, it also is significant now for being the ONLY remnant, sadly, of that scene. Everything else was bulldozed for the freeways, Rose Garden, hospital etc.

So…come celebrate Portland history while sipping fabulous beers and hearing old-style blues, 3:30-5:30 p.m. Sundays at Upright Brewing, in the basement of the Leftbank Building, 240 N. Broadway.

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Guide to Portland Waterfront Blues Festival 2012

Portland Waterfront Blues Festival, coming up July 4-8, is one of the world’s biggest blues festivals. It also is the biggest annual event in Portland — an interesting idea, for any city’s big party to be a blues festival, and especially a Pacific Northwest city without a blues tradition of its own.

First let me tell you about my own involvement in this year’s fest. I will NOT be stage-managing or emceeing the Workshop Stage this year. I had fun doing it last year. It was great to see a lot of friends and fans, and make new ones, there. And I enjoyed introducing and interacting with all the great acts that performed there. But unfortunately I will not be doing that job again this year.

I WILL perform at the fest. My slot is 3:45-4:30 p.m. July 5, on the FedEx Crossroads Stage (that is the stage that used to be the Workshop Stage — it is being renamed, relocated and restaffed). My program is called “Myth and Reality of the Crossroads” to christen the new stage. I’ll talk about what Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson did or didn’t do at the Crossroads, where the Crossroads might actually be, what it means, etc., and sing relevant songs…or as much music and chatter as I can pack in in 45 minutes! Come on by.

Here are some other acts I recommend you check out this year:

  • Toots and the Maytals — the great Jamaican soul and reggae singer graces our festival.
  • Arthur Moore Harmonica Hoedown — Local harpist/teacher Moore invites anyone with a harp to come up and play a solo!
  • Goodfoot Allstars’ Tribute to James Brown — I haven’t heard this act, but it’s hard to go wrong with good musicians playing the Brown soundbook. JB was not just a great singer and entertainer — he was a great songwriter as well.
  • James Cotton Harmonica Workshop — This is not a how-to workshop, but the veteran harpman (who has worked with Muddy and Wolf)  talking about his life and music and showing us how it’s done. He also blows with Elvin Bishop later that night (July 6).
  • Zydeco — Stop by the Front Porch Stage to check out topnotch zydeco acts playing over several days. Includes dance demonstrations and lessons, and plenty of room to dance.
  • Lloyd Jones Big Band — Jones sounds great whether solo or with any kind of group. Here’s a chance to hear what he can do with his own big band.
  • Bobby Rush — This ageless chittlin-circuit performer has so much fun joking about his sexual prowess, admiring his lovely and flexible dancers of various sizes, doing some acrobatics of his own, and singing with a crackerjack blues-soul-rock band backing, that you will have a great time too. He performs with the band and dancers on the Miller Stage on July 7, then probably solo (he plays guitar and harmonica) on the Crossroads Stage on July 8. Both shows should be terrific, and very different from each other.
  • Otis Taylor and Don Vappie — The banjo came over from West Africa with the slaves, then became the quintessential white country instrument in America. In recent years it has been reclaimed by black players of blues, pre-blues and old-time, including Taylor, who sometimes plugs in and  veers into rock. His pairing with New Orleans jazz banjoist Don Vappie on the Crossroads Stage on July 7 should be acoustic and interesting. They also play together earlier that day on the First Tech Stage, joined by Portland banjo virtuoso Tony Furtado.
  • Cedric Burnside — This wunderkind is a grandson of the great North Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside. And he is not just trading on the name. Playing as a young teenager with his granddad, Cedric quickly distinguished himself as a killer drummer, and became sought after by various acts in and out of the blues. Cedric went into singing and songwriting, while still drumming, in a duo with Lightnin’ Malcolm. He has since taken up the guitar. He plays three times at this festival, and it could be something different each time.

OK, folks, that’s my advice. Make sure to bring $10 and two cans of food per day (the festival benefits Oregon Food Bank) and extra money for beer, food and Empty Bowls (handmade bowls that further benefit the food bank). See you out there!


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