Viva Las Vegas! Musical director Jimmy Carpenter announced the next Big Blues Bender will be at the place Elvis Presley sold out 837 straight times. The lucky number seventh annual blues cruise on land will be Sept. 10-13, 2020, at the Westgate Resort & Casino, which houses the International Theater where Elvis played.
“I’m pretty excited,” Carpenter said. “This one is going to have some interesting rooms that we’ve never had before.”
The change of venues occurred due to remodeling of the Hard Rock Hotel Las Vegas. Carpenter is Las Vegas’ ambassador of the blues. He often performs in Vegas’ oldest blues club, the Sand Dollar Lounge.
President of the Las Vegas Blues Society, Carpenter recently released his fourth solo album, “Soul Doctor.” It’s his first with Gulf Coast Records, the working bluesman’s label.
At the annual festival, Carpenter leads the house band, the Bender Brass. It plays three hour sets each night of the Big Blues Bender, backing five to night artists. “It’s a lot of work but it’s a ton of fun,” he said. “We rehearsed 22 hours starting the Tuesday before festival started on Thursday. It’s a labor of love.
“The four weeks leading up to it, I go back and lock doors and write charts and put shows together. I am hard on myself. It has to not just be good. It has to be really good. Occasionally, there’s a hiccup, but for the most part it kicks butt.” Speaking of kicking butt, “Soul Doctor” fills the prescription. Carpenter’s tenor sax is complemented on 10 tracks with a group of all-star players, including Nick Schnebelen and label co-founder Mike Zito. Trevor Johnson plays guitar on straight-up blues songs, and Chris Tofield plays on the soul tunes.
Like Carpenter, Tofield is an East Coast native who landed in Vegas. He wanted to be in a 24-hour town, Carpenter said. Carpenter is from Greensboro, North Carolina. He moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he play with The Believers.
He stepped offstage for a while to try making it as a booking agent. Tinsley Ellis rescued him, when he called, saying he needs a sax player for what was basically a yearlong tour.
He later joined Jimmy Thackery and the Nighthawks, then moved to New Orleans to play with Walter Wolfman Washington. After meeting singer Carrie Showers, he settled in Vegas.
“We’re a nuclear family,” he said.
Nine of the songs on “Soul Doctor” are originals. Gulf Coast Records co-founder Guy Hale collaborated with the writing of “Wrong Turn” and “Soul Doctor.”
“He sent a bunch of songs, which was a different experience for me because I usually write songs around a lyrical hook. Doing it around somebody else’s lyrics was a different approach,” Carpenter said. “At first I really struggled. We talked, and he said, ‘Jimmy, you can do whatever you want with this. Just feel free.’ So I came up with the hook for ‘Soul Doctor,’ then it was really easy after I got the chorus in my head.”
The sole cover song, “Yeah Man,” was a natural pick. First, it’s an expression Carpenter often says. Secondly, Carpenter owns every record made by the songwriter, Eddie Hinton.
“He came through Greensboro. Playing in dive bars when his album ‘Very Extremely Dangerous’ came out,” Carpenter said. “He was an interesting and unusual guy. We partied all night a few times. He was funny and wacky and also kind of tormented.
‘Yeah Man’ is one of my favorite songs. I changed the odd time thing and made it a little more of a ballad.”
– Tim Parsons