True to the Blues: Eastside Kings Festival Returns

"It's not three chords, it's the heart and soul of a nation!" – Birdlegg

Jontavious Willis (Courtesy of The Kurland Agency)

A millennial playing original country blues, Jontavious Willis has come on as a next-generation talent in America's purest art form. The 25-year-old from Greenville, Ga., owns a superb style: fingers peddling over the strings of a small body acoustic while singing in a big, warm voice homed into the emotional transference on which the genre thrives.

Recently departed Austinite Paul Oscher, a certified badass who made his name blowing harp for Muddy Waters, counts among the blues elders who've raised a glass to Willis, having stated, "When I heard him play I said to myself: 'This is how the blues, as I know it, is going to stay alive.'"

This weekend, Willis makes his Austin debut, playing Friday at Antone's and Saturday outside on 12th and Chicon for Eastside Kings Festival. That gathering stands out from other festivals: The average age of performers is higher, the lineup's predominantly people of color, artists collaborate in unique combinations, and with most of the action taking place around a row of clubs on E. 12th Street – the original capital of Black nightlife in Austin – it emanates an intimate, juke joint vibe.

“Blues is serious goddamn business. It’s not three chords, it’s the heart and soul of a nation! So we don’t like it fucked around with.” – Birdlegg

This is where you catch performances you won't see anywhere else. Sunday finds Houston's eternally talented Jewel Brown – a featured vocalist for Louis Armstrong's band in the Sixties – performing alongside esteemed organist Dr. James Polk, one of Austin's foremost musical geniuses who handled arrangements for Ray Charles and taught music studies at Huston-Tillotson University. Speaking of foundational figures in our city's music history, low-key blues master Bill Campbell — once described in the Chronicle as the "'token white boy' in many of the Eastside's best bands of the 1960s" – makes his annual ESK Fest appearance playing bass in the house band at King Bee Lounge. Among the artists he's backing: must-see Dallas soul man Ernie Johnson, whose funky, charisma-oozing singles like "Narc Man" are still dance-floor relevant today.

For ESK Fest co-founder Eddie Stout – a musician, recordmaker, and mover/shaker in the international blues community – the festival's purpose echoes the work he's done though Dialtone Records: preserving the culture and providing opportunities for the true practitioners of blues. Over nine years, the fest's musical circle has widened to encompass musicians from relevant Southern territories – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia – while its sacred circle of old-school Eastside musicians slowly contracts.

Since the last in-person ESK Fest, mainstay trumpeter Donald "Duck" Jennings, bassist Burley Manor Jr., and generational genre forerunner Blues Boy Hubbard have all gone to glory.

"Blues Boy was the best in town – it was spiffy blues," remembers Charles Shaw, who drummed for Hubbard in the Jets.

Shaw, now 76 years old, came up among East Austin's vibrant music scene, seeing B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland at the Doris (pronounced "Dori") Miller Auditor­ium and playing at Charlie's Playhouse, Victory Grill, and Eastside Lounge. He remembers when white musicheads from across the highway – like a young Eddie Stout – started coming to Eastside blues shows in the Seventies, presaging the city's mainstream blues boom.

"They were very supportive," he says. "They wanted to learn the blues and it went over pretty good to them."

Shaw was also in the Mustangs, whose incredible 1966 "Tender Loving Care" 45rpm single is a record collector's wet dream. Their singer, Matthew Robinson, plays ESK Fest Saturday night in the courtyard of 1818 E. 12th. Another everlasting local staple, Mel Davis, performs on that same stage Saturday afternoon with his long-running Blues Specialists outfit.

"It's like a family reunion," James Kuykendall says of the fest. "I get to see everybody and talk to them and really get to do the blues."

The 72-year-old Kuykendall, performing Sunday afternoon at King Bee Lounge, is living history of blues in East Austin, having grown up two blocks off E. 11th, where he started hitting clubs to see live music as a teenager. He soon went on to play bass with two of the city's finest blues musicians: Hosea Hargrove and the aforementioned Hubbard.

"Hosea did the kind of blues where you take 'em down to the river and shoot his woman or his woman shoot him," he summarizes. "Then the blues I played with Hubbard is more like B.B. King, Johnny Taylor – them kinda people."

He credits Hubbard with teaching him the ins and outs of music theory, which he calls "an awakening."

Meanwhile, the veteran of Eastside joints like Ernie's Chicken Shack has a complicated relationship with the genre – blaming the blues musician lifestyle for misdeeds in his past. He's looking forward to playing his set on Sunday, but notes that it's not something he usually does.

"I only play in church now," Kuykendall says. "I quit playin' the blues 'cause I wasn't actin' right."

The magnetic bassist and singer with a penchant for fine threads goes on to define not "actin' right": hanging out with women who were not his wife, doing drugs, staying away from home for days on end.

"I wasn't taking control like I needed to so I decided I best go to church," he says. "That's what saved me. I don't do drugs anymore and, when I go out and play music, I don't look at the ladies like I used to. They might look at me, but I don't get after 'em."

Still, to fans of real-deal blues ESK Fest is church. Stout and fellow organizers Steve Fulton from Austin Vin­tage Guitars, Pierre Pelegrin of Jus­tine's Brasserie, and drum dynamo Jason Moeller have had to roll with challenges during the pandemic. Last year, they streamed the fest, then, this year, the event's city funding got reduced by 80%. Now, the recent COVID-19 surge has caused them to shift five of their seven stages outdoors. They also tweaked the lineup to include smaller ensembles, with many musicians playing with limited accompaniment.

"Oh, I can kick ass that way," Gene "Birdlegg" Pittman says about performing with only one backing musician. "That's no problem for me!"

The internationally touring vocalist and harmonica player is a kinetic presence in performance, leaving no inch of the stage untouched. Animated, interactive, and frisky, Birdlegg will – almost certainly – promenade into the crowd and – potentially – even hump a lucky concertgoer's leg. This man lives onstage, but has had limited performance options over the last year due to COVID-19's impact on touring and live music. Thus, you can expect him to be raring to go Sunday on the El Tigre Coffee patio. After all, this is his domain.

"Blues is serious goddamn business. It's not three chords, it's the heart and soul of a nation! So we don't like it fucked around with," says the Austin-based harp blower. "My bass player asked me if a white boy can be a bluesman and I said, 'No.' There's too much you have to humble yourself to. You have to agree that we invented this shit and we are the masters of it. People who don't know the blues or don't know Black people and don't live with 'em have no right to criticize our music. They have a right to learn it. I may not be the best singer. I may not be the best player, but I am the blues."

Eastside Kings Festival runs Fri.-Sun., Sept. 10-12, with a closing party at Justine’s on Tue., Sept. 14. Wristbands, $25 per day, are available at Antone’s Records, 2928 Guadalupe.

Eastside Kings Festival 2021

Friday, Sept. 10


305 E. Fifth

Cookie McGee & the Moeller Brothers with Johnny Bradley on bass (8-8:40pm)

The Moeller Brothers (8:40-9:10pm)

Jontavious Willis with Jayy Hopp (9:30-10:30pm)

Lots of Blues (11pm-midnight)

Saturday, Sept. 11

Austin Vintage Guitars

4306 Red River

Living Blues Magazine Guitar Workshop (1-2pm)

Emcee: Hash Brown

Free to the public

Mission Possible Parking Lot

1190 Chicon; open-air stage

Emcee: Roger Wood

Eve Monsees & Mike Buck (4-4:30pm)

Ray Reed with Hash Brown (4:30-5:15pm)

Jontavious Willis (5:30-6:30pm)

The Moeller Brothers with Johnny Bradley on bass (7-7:30pm)

Crystal Thomas (7:30-8:20pm)

Circle Bar

1810 E. 12th; open-air stage

Rip Lee Pryor (4:15-5:15pm)

Johnny Nicholas (5:35-6:35pm)

Jayy Hopp (7-8pm)

Joey J. Saye (8:20-9:20pm)

Corner of 12th & Chicon

1818 E. 12th; open-air stage

Mel Davis & the Blues Specialist Band (4-4:45pm)

Oscar Ornelas (5-5:30pm)

Jacqui Walker (5:30-6pm)

Matthew Robinson (6:20-7:20)

Andrea Dawson (7:40-8:25pm)

House Band: Harold McMillan, Oscar Ornelas, Buddha Mills, Mathew Brodnax, and the Texas Horns

King Bee Lounge

1906 E. 12th

Shake Anderson Band (4-5pm)

Cookie McGee (5:15-6:15pm)

Lucius Parr (6:45-7:45pm)

Lil' Jimmie Reed (8:15-9:15pm)

House Band: Pee Wee Calvin, Corey Keller, Mike Keller, and Bill Campbell

El Tigre Coffee

1204 Salina; open-air stage

Ray Reed with Hash Brown (4-5pm)

Terry Harmonica Bean (5:15-6:15pm)

EJ Mathews (6:30-7:30pm)

Lucious Spiller (7:45-8:45pm)

House Drummer: Russell Lee

Sunday, Sept. 12

Circle Bar

1810 E. 12th; open-air stage

Orange Jefferson (4:15-5pm)

Mike Milligan (5:20-6:10pm)

Lucius Parr (6:30-7:20pm)

Johnny Nicholas (7:40-8:40pm)

House Band: Eve Monsees, Mike Buck, and Pierre Pelegrin

Mission Possible Parking Lot

1190 Chicon; open-air stage

Emcee: Roger Wood

Keller Brothers (4-4:45pm)

Joey J. Saye (5-5:45pm)

Lil' Jimmie Reed (6-7pm)

Soul Man Sam (7:30-8:30pm)

House Band: Corey Keller, Mike Keller, Matt Farrell, and Scott Nelson

Corner of 12th & Chicon

1818 E. 12th; open-air stage

LA Hopi with Chris Ruest (4-4:45pm)

Terry Harmonica Bean (5-6pm)

Gospel Starz (6:15-7:15pm)

Adrian Reed Anointed Praise Gospel Mass with Crystal Thomas (7:35-8:40pm)

King Bee Lounge

1906 E. 12th

James Kuykendall (4-4:30pm)

Mac Mcintosh (4:30-5pm)

Ernie Johnson (5:30-6:30pm)

Dr. James Polk & Centerpeace Jazz Band with Jewel Brown (7-8pm)

Courtney Santana Band (8:30-9:30pm)

House Band: Pee Wee Clayton, Hash Brown, Jason Moeller, Bill Campbell, and the Texas Horns

El Tigre Coffee

1204 Salina; open-air stage

EJ Mathews (4:15-5pm)

Lucious Spiller (5:15-6pm)

Rip Lee Pryor (6:15-7pm)

Birdlegg with Matthew Brodnax (7:15-8:15pm)

House Drummer: Russell Lee

Tuesday, Sept. 14

Afterparty at Justine's Brasserie

4710 E. Fifth; open-air stage

James Butler (8-8:45pm)

Crystal Thomas & the Eastside Kings with special guests (9:10-10:30pm)

House Band: Stevie Fulton, Eddie Stout, Jason Moeller, and Sean Giddings

More information at

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Eastside Kings Festival, Eddie Stout, Dialtone Records, Blues Boy Hubbard, Charles Shaw, Antone's, Jontavious Willis, Birdlegg, Gene Pittman, Bill Campbell, Jewel Brown, James Polk, Ernie Johnson, Donald "Duck" Jennings, Burley Manor, James Kuykendall, Mel Davis, Matthew Robinson

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