april 2008


From left: Billy Gibson, unidentified dancer, Janiva Magness, Bobby Rush and an unidentified dancer turn up the blues heat for U.S. troops in Iraq. Chip Eagle reports that ‘Bobby gave them the whole show, complete with girls, the bloomers, the laughs, and the soul that's a Bobby Rush show. The troops simply loved it and the commanding colonel told me that it was the best time she had seen them have. When Janiva Magness told the troops she could be some of their mothers, the boys in the crowd made it clear that that was all right with them! When she did the slow, beautiful ballad ‘I Never Had You’ you could see tears in the eyes of some very tough soldiers.’

Bluzapalooza Turns Up The Blues Heat For U.S. Troops In Middle East

By Chip Eagle

Editor’s Note: Bluzapalooza, the first blues concert tour to go to a war zone, shipped out to military bases in Iraq and Kuwait on April 1 to entertain our troops. Created and produced by St. John concert impresario Steve Simon and presented by Armed Forces Entertainment, this inaugural Bluzapalooza tour stars blues icon and four-time Blues Music Awards (BMA) nominee Bobby Rush, two-time BMA Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year Janiva Magness, Beale Street Entertainer of the Year Billy Gibson, and Tony Braunagel from The Phantom Blues Band heading the Bluzapalooza All-Stars Blues Band.

"Bluzapalooza gives America's greatest Blues musicians the opportunity to say 'Thank you' and 'We love you' to America's greatest soldiers," says Steve Simon. "We are giving our men and woman on the front lines their own blues festival and we will be doing this at least three times a year.”

Simon will be taking his inaugural traveling Blues festival to Iraq and Kuwait in April. In October and January, Bluzapalooza will be going to Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar, Germany and Kuwait.

Chip Eagle, publisher of Blues Revue, BluesWax, Dirty Linen and FolkWax, accompanied the Bluzapalooza tour to the Middle East as a roving reporter. He graciously contributed this report to TheBluegrassSpecial.com without compensation, and for that we extend our heartfelt thanks. A special note of thanks and gratitude are due Steve Simon for giving our soldiers on the front lines this much-needed respite from their fearsome daily routine, and to the artists who made sure a good time was had by all by giving it their best. Indeed, they also serve.

Chip Eagle reports:

We are now past the halfway point of the Bluzapalooza tour of Kuwait and Iraq. We are staked out in Camp Slayer, which also contains the Bath Party House (not to be confused with either a bathhouse or a party house) and some of the palaces, a huge manmade lake, numerous boat/party houses, the personal brothels of the Dictator for Life, the brothel buildings of the Republican Guard, as well as many small buildings of various sorts that are now either facilities for the military or were destroyed in the fighting.

But don't get me wrong, these are not glamorous or even really comfortable arrangements. We are in a war zone and many of these buildings are worn-down wrecks that were looted and are now used as primitive living and work spaces for various personnel. Even though these accommodations are pretty rugged to the road warrior musicians of Bluzapalooza, they are far better than those of most of the troops whom we are here to entertain. Most of them live in tents and makeshift trailers surrounded by dust with countless inconveniences that we can't even think of in our circumstances here, much less at home.

Yesterday, Saturday (I think!), we were taken on a tour of some of the facilities, particularly the headquarters of the Third Infantry Division, the Rock of the Marne. As we walked through the command centers and logistical offices we were constantly meeting soldiers who wanted to tell us about what they were doing, what they felt is "really going on," and, most of all, how appreciative they were that we were there.

People from all over the building came to see Bobby Rush and at times it was like a hometown gathering when fans from various areas of the South, especially Mississippi, gathered around him. Bobby, always the consummate entertainer, gave them hugs and pats on the back, smiled for endless pictures, and really offered genuine warmth to folks far from home. The others in our troupe shook hands and talked with soldiers about their work, sports, and home. We heard them proudly tell of the history of their storied division, which has more Medal of Honor awardees than any other Army division. One of these awardees earned our nation's highest award only 100 yards from where we were standing in the initial fighting of the war. He earned it with his life.

We were humbled and moved when we were shown the Division's memorial to their fallen comrades, a pair of boots with a rifle standing between them and a helmet hanging atop and two video monitors that reminded us of those honored by the memorial. In a place where we were surrounded by those brave soldiers' comrades and so close to where so many are standing in their places, it was truly difficult not to be moved in a way that this writer simply cannot describe.

On the political side, one topic that was brought up to us throughout our trip was that our troops were constantly facing Iranian weapons and explosives, most of which could be traced back to specific and recent manufacture. Such words from the people who actually confront such danger were great food for thought for all of us, especially when there was a possibility that some of the troops we were meeting and entertaining might be facing such weapons in the next few hours.

After a stop for chow at one of the DFACs (dining facilities—nothing seems to be called by its actual name and we are all quickly learning the lingo of the service), we went back to the AO (Area of Operation) for a couple of hours of downtime. Then it was into a bus for our trip to one of the forward camps. There we were given a complete tour of the flight line where the helicopters are based. We met the crew of a Blackhawk helicopter as they were saddling up for a mission. They told us about their machine and showed us around it. They politely posed with us for photos and then we stepped away so they could load up and fly out. It really made us all think as we waved goodbye that we had just shaken hands with and befriended men who were literally going into harm's way before our eyes.


Billy Gibson (second from left) shares some memories of home with Richard Mask (far left) and (third and fourth from left) Charles Gregory Jr. and Andre Maxwell, Memphis natives at Striker Army Base in Baghdad, Iraq.

Then we headed to the other side of the airbase to where we would be performing that night. Camp Slayer is the last line of camps for the forward outposts and these troops were combat troops and we could immediately see that they were stiffer and more serious than those in Kuwait. We set up on a medium sized stage with chairs set up and bleachers all around. Tony Braunagel worked his magic with the mix and sound check and the sound was keyed in spot-on.

The house band opened up with a fast tempo number and the energy level immediately went up in the house. When Beale Street Entertainer of the Year Billy Gibson came up he launched into "Messin' with The Kid" and the Iraqi juke joint was jumpin' behind his red-hot harp wailing. Billy proceeded to walk through the crowd and lit into a harp solo on his knees in the middle of the crowd that brought them to their feet. It is hard to say enough about how key Billy is to opening up these shows on the right note. He closed with "Johnny B. Goode" and had the troops singing along on the choruses.

Moments later Janiva Magness came out to hoots and howls. No wonder, this beautiful siren in a small, glittering dress had to be an eyeful to the soldiers on the front line. When she finally said that she could be some of their mothers, the boys in the crowd made it clear that that was all right with them! When she did the slow, beautiful ballad "I Never Had You" you could see tears in the eyes of some very tough soldiers. But she came back with "Mojo Boogie" and her Madonna-like rubboard and they were once again laughing and back in the beat.

After some introductions by Steve Simon, Bobby Rush came out. If you haven't seen a Bobby Rush show, it is impossible for me to tell you what happened. If you have seen one, then you can trust that Bobby gave them the whole show, complete with girls, the bloomers, the laughs, and the soul that's a Bobby Rush show. The troops simply loved it and the commanding colonel told me that it was the best time she had seen them have. Mission Accomplished, Bluzapalooza!

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024