This year’s annual Blues Party reflects both the Silver Dome Ballroom’s lively present and illustrious past.
From a current perspective, the festival running Sept. 27 and 28 at the historic venue near Neillsville features top talent, as is its custom on a regular basis. In this case the featured acts are internationally known stars Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials and Studebaker John & The Hawks, and regional standouts including Howard Luedtke & Blue Max and The Jay Stulo Band.
The nod to the past comes from the festival’s name. As ballroom owner Doug Myren explained, the first-ever blues festival was supposed to feature singer-guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who played with the legendary Howlin’ Wolf and influenced rock greats such as Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. Myren had gotten to know Sumlin when the musician participated in a recording on one of small labels Myren, a Twin Cities attorney, used to operate.
Unfortunately, Sumlin was admitted to the hospital a couple of days before his scheduled performance and died a few months later, in 2011.
Because the first solo album Sumlin released after Howlin’ Wolf died was titled “Hubert Sumlin’s Blues Party,” Myren made the name of the festival an enduring tribute.
Both Lil’ Ed and Studebaker John should do that legacy proud.
“Lil Ed and The Blues Imperials are maybe the best Chicago blues band going in the world anymore,” Myren said. “You’ve got Buddy Guy, of course, but after that Lil’ Ed is probably the cream of the crop. And he’s got a pretty good pedigree as well. He’s the nephew of J.B. Hutto, who’s a famous old slide guitar player kind of like Elmore James.”
Both artists are known for their original material, he said.
“Lil’ Ed will occasionally do a J.B. Hutto song or two and occasionally a standard, a cover, but not very often,” Myren said. “All of his albums are full of original songs in that style, but really good songs.” Williams’ wife, Pam, co-writes some of the lyrics, he added.
Lil’ Ed is known for his dynamic stage presence.
“He’s quite the party starter,” Myren said. “And he’s got his own fans that come out for him that call themselves the Ed Heads. And a lot of times they’re wearing cardboard versions of the fez type hat that he’s wears a lot. ... He always wears this kind of funky looking fez type of hat, so I’ve seen a lot of fans all over the Twin Cities and elsewhere passing out these cardboard hats that you just wrap around your head and now you’re an Ed Head,” Myren added, chuckling.
Studebaker John doesn’t do any covers, Myren said, adding, “He’s quite a triple threat: writes and sings and plays them, and he’s a really excellent harmonica player as well.”
Myren added that Studebaker John invented a unique harmonica stand that allows him to play with much more force than if he were using a rack strapped around his neck. “I think he’s produced and sold a few to other harmonica players as well,” Myren said.
Recording the show
This year the festival sounds will be preserved by more than the attendees’ memories. Myren has lined up an engineer to record the full band sets on the main stage for possible release later.
“We'll have to see how it sounds and how it turns out, of course, so there are no promises he’s necessarily going to even do anything with it,” Myren said. “But we’re going to record it and see what we get.”
One possibility, Myren said, could be to put together a various-artists commemorative compact disc, a limited edition featuring a couple of cuts from each of the bands who performed.
“Something we could sell at the ballroom or even online, I suppose,” he said.
Beyond the world class blues talent, festival attendees can enjoy the unique surroundings. Built in 1933, the ballroom was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind building, architecturally speaking,” Myren said. “It’s just an architectural marvel.”
As the Silver Dome’s website states, the structure utilizes a Lamella truss design, referring mainly to the honeycomb pattern of bolted ceiling beams.
“It’s one of the only ones left and the only one ever built with rounded band shell style ends on it,” Myren said. “All the others were built like barns, squared off at each end.”
The ballroom was built by the Keller Brothers — Albert Paul, Henry and Walter -- with assistance from Cornel Moen and other area laborers, the website says. Not coincidentally, Myren noted, the Kellers were musicians themselves.
“They had a family orchestra they played in so they thought it should have these band shell style ends for acoustic purposes and stuff,” he said. “And so the acoustics are amazing in the place.”
Place in history
Good thing, considering the luminaries who have entertained crowds there.
As Myren pointed out, before the interstate highway system was built, U.S. 10 served as the main road between Chicago and the Twin Cities.
“That’s how Count Basie ends up playing there,” he said. “That’s how Johnny Cash and George Jones end up playing there.” In fact, Myren added, Cash and Jones played there on the same night — and he has an old display ad for the show to prove it.
The who’s who icons performing on their way through included: the Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller orchestras, Frankie Yankovich, Johnny Paycheck, Bellamy Brothers, John Anderson, Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, Buffalo Springfield (with Neil Young and Stephen Stills), Cheap Trick, Herman’s Hermits, Styx and Bobbie Vee.
Since Myren bought the establishment in 2000 (the Silver Dome caught his eye while driving to Packers games from the Twin Cities), he has brought in acclaimed musicians such as Wayne Hancock, Spider John Koerner & Tony Glover, Grant Hart (of Husker Du) and, earlier this year, Reckless Kelly.
That would explain why the venue draws people from a wide radius, including Eau Claire, Stevens Point, Marshfield, Wisconsin Rapids, Wausau, and the smaller communities surrounding those cities. Still, Myren would be happy to welcome more fans on a given night, considering that, for instance, Eau Claire is only about 45 minutes away “at most,” he said.
Since buying the ballroom, Myren said, he has been gradually fixing it up, “and it’s looking pretty nice now,” he said. “I need to get some paint on the exterior and repair a few windows, but otherwise it’s in pretty nice shape.”
In conversation it’s evident that Myren’s commitment to the Silver Dome Ballroom stems from his love for music, as he speaks with knowledge and alacrity about players such as, well, Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials and Studebaker John and The Hawks, and the stage itself.
“I love that place,” he said. “I don’t even really feel like the owner. I feel like the caretaker of this amazing community asset.”