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Blues fill souls, cupboards

Portland's Nichole Cooper ready to light up fest stage with Mavis, Eric and Joe


by: PHOTO COURTESY OF WATERFRONT BLUES FESTIVAL - Mavis Staples will bring her joyful noise to the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival.Downtown Portland will turn into one giant party for four days this week with the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival, which kicks off on Independence Day and runs through Sunday, July 7.

Featured performers include Robert Plant, John Hiatt, Taj Mahal and Mavis Staples. The festival features numerous blues, funk, swing, zydeco and acoustic acts, including the North Mississippi All-Stars, Robbie Laws, Dusty 45s, Franco Paletta and the Stingers, Linda Hornbuckle, Karen Lovely, Kinzel & Hyde, the Solomon Douglas Swingtet, Cooper and The Selwyn Birchwood Band.

Admission to the July 4, 5 and 6 concerts costs $10 each day and two cans of food, to be donated to the Oregon Food Bank. Unlike in previous years, you’ll need a $50 pass for July 7, the day Staples, Mahal and Plant play. If you buy the $60 four-day pass, you’re fine.

(By the way, if you think your food donation doesn’t make a difference, think again: last year’s festival food and fund donations helped Oregon Food Bank move food equivalent to 3.1 million meals to 20 food banks and more than 900 agencies, OFB says.)

You can find out more festival information at waterfrontbluesfest.com.

Two of the bigger names at the festival are Eric Burdon and Joe Louis Walker, both of whom spoke with the Tribune about their careers. Nichole Cooper, a former Portland resident, also shared her story.

Eric Burdon

Most musicians are lucky to be in just one famous band, but Eric Burdon sang lead vocals for two — The Animals and War. He stresses, however, that he won’t be performing a “nostalgia” show when he graces the Miller Stage at 9 p.m. Friday, July 5.

“I’ll be doing a nice sampling of old and New Animals (his current band), War, as well as songs from my new album ‘Til Your River Runs Dry.’ ”

The new album contains the single “Water,” inspired by none other than the former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev. “When I asked him what he thought the most pressing issue of the day was, he said ‘Water!’ ” Burdon recalls. “It’s not only ‘Water,’ a song I recorded to bring awareness of the environmental disasters, but also ‘River is Rising’ which came as a result of watching New Orleans get flooded, while other parts of the world were suffering from drought.

“ ‘In the Ground,’ as well, talks about our addiction to

oil. Let’s not forget the great disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana. Oil and water don’t mix.”

As part of the first wave of the British invasion to wash ashore in 1964, Burdon says when he got to tour with The Animals, he checked out some homegrown talent.

“I went straight up to the Apollo in New York, where I had the chance to see James Brown and B.B. King together on stage,” he says. “I also was lucky to catch Count Basie and his orchestra in an afternoon show after a Western movie. I think I was the only white face in the theater.”

He also gives props to Bo Diddley, for whom he’s recorded a tribute song. “His rhythm was the source of everything that happened, from Buddy Holly to the Stones to The Animals,” Burdon says.

Just as he was inspired by artists in America, Burdon has found his band inspired other groups, in turn.

“While they’re not exactly the new kids on the block, artists like Iggy Pop and Patti Smith make their appreciation of The Animals known. Black Keys I guess are the newer inspiration.”

As for War, he hears traces of his famous multiracial, Latin-flavored group in numerous world-music bands.

“You can see a direct link between what we were doing and the work of David Byrne and Talking Heads, who basically influenced an entire genre of hip-hop music,” Burdon adds.

As for who inspired his lyrics, which grace the songs of such classics as “Spill the Wine,” Burdon credits Nina Simone for encouraging him to keep writing.

“(Simone) borrowed my journal when I first met her and when she finally returned it she said: ‘Eric you are a musical historian. A musical journalist. Keep doing what you are doing.’ It was inspiring words from one of my favorite singers of all time. And since that day, we became the best of enemies.”

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF WATERFRONT BLUES FESTIVAL - Joe Louis Walker is a featured performer at the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival.

Joe Louis Walker

When he answers the phone, Joe Louis Walker says he’s recovering from a fun night.

“I had to catch a gig by a friend of mine.”

Who’s the friend? “Ronnie Wood.”

Oh, you mean the guy in the Rolling Stones, whose “gig” was in front of 20,000 or so fans in Washington, D.C., to close out their most recent tour? Yes, that guy.

“They were on fire,” says Walker, who talks about famous musicians the way most people talk about guys and gals in our softball league. Then again, he had an earlier start than most of us in rubbing shoulders with stars, given he was only about 10 years old when he used to buy smokes and other items for Lightnin’ Hopkins and other famous bluesmen in San Francisco back in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.

“For a couple of years, I thought my name was ‘Gopher’ — go fer this, go fer that!”

By age 16 he already was gigging in clubs, and found he liked just about anything musical — few bluesmen talk about Chuck Berry, Bach, Nick Lowe and Herbie Hancock all in the space of about 45 seconds, but Walker does.

And he’s also played with more people than you can think of, from his dear friend and former roommate Mike Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Electric Flag to John Lee Hooker, Thelonius Monk, Muddy Waters, Steve Cropper, Ike Turner and Steve Miller.

Walker will share his music with folks at the waterfront festival, first giving a guitar workshop on the Fedex Crossroads Stage at 2:15 p.m. July 4, and then again at the First Tech Blues Stage at 4:45 p.m. that day.

Walker has more than a score of records under his own name and has played on numerous others. With a voice like Elmore James and a pronounced, somewhat angular guitar style that echoes another Walker — T-Bone — as well as Otis Rush and B.B. King, Walker has forged a distinct sound also rooted in what he calls the blues’ “cousin from the same tree” — gospel music.

Yes, Walker the bluesman is also Walker the gospel man, having played with both the Soul Stirrers as well as The Spiritual Corinthians Gospel Quartet. Unlike other artists, he has no problem playing both divine gospel and the more secular blues.

“In the Bible it says, ‘Make a joyful noise unto God.’ It doesn’t say make an unjoyful noise.”

Nichole Cooper

Among the younger talents looking to hit paydirt at the festival is Nichole Cooper, who performs under her surname. A Portland woman who made tracks to Nashville to become a singer, she’ll be on the same Miller Stage as Plant on Sunday, performing songs off her new record “Motown Suite” at 1:30 p.m.

“I have a 12-piece soul band that rocks pretty hard,” Cooper says, noting opening for Plant is a thrill. “He is a legend and a major hero of mine. Me and the band are really excited to rock that show,” she says.

The upbeat rock ‘n’ soul singer draws on such women as Patsy Cline and Tina Turner for ideas.

“I am inspired by powerful women who are not afraid to emote,” she says.

The former Miss Multnomah County 2005 adds she’s looking forward to bringin’ it all back home.

“It makes all the starving and struggling in Nashville worth it,” Cooper says. “I cannot wait to share with Portland what I have been working so hard on this past year.”