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Blues Rules at the Firehall Reunion

Thursday, January 27, 2000 Blues rules at Firehall reunion
By James Reaney, Free Press Arts & Entertainment Reporter

London bluesman Douglas Watson wants to put some fire into the GoodLife Snowfest International this weekend. Watson and the Hot Flames blues band are part of the Labatt Firehall Reunion event on Saturday at Centennial Hall. The reunion is part of the three-day Snowfest, which opens tomorrow.

The reunion is the fourth such gathering for musicians and fans who loved the downtown London slice of sweet home Chicago. Warm and bluesy reunions on- and off-the-stage are guaranteed.

"I'm hoping to put some fire up on the stage," says Watson, who founded the Hot Flames almost 10 years ago, just after the Firehall closed.

Watson's own blues odyssey started before he ever encountered the Firehall in the mid-1980s. The bassist-singer was born in Chicago, home of the modern blues. His father, Eddie (Lovie Lee) Lee Watson, played keyboards for blues legend Muddy Waters and was one of the pallbearers at Muddy's funeral in 1983.

Douglas Watson's step-brother, Carey Bell, is a great blues harp player, who has played the Firehall and toiled with the Rolling Stones.

It wasn't just those blues bloodlines that brought him into the music. "The first time I made $300 in two days, I knew it was my profession," Watson says of his first big break, a gig in Wisconsin.

At the time, Watson, who goes five-foot-10 and 250 pounds now, might have been better known around Chicago as a fine defensive tackle, starring in high school football.

But he found his blues groove with help from the best -- including his father, Muddy, guitarist Albert Collins and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.

"I learned how to stay in the pocket . . . when you are in the pocket, people got to move their head or stomp their feet, one or the other."

Other reunion performers include Cheryl Lescom, Soul Sausage, Jack de Keyzer, Paul James and Sweet with Heat featuring Tim Woodcock. It starts at 7 p.m. and benefits the Canadian Diabetes Association. Tickets are $10.

The Firehall was the big, blue heart of the old Talbot Inn. Remnants of the inn, including the Firehall site, are still to be seen at Talbot and Dundas streets in London.

Former Talbot Inn owner-operator Brian Mortimer may have booked 2,000 acts into the Firehall during its 10-year run, which ended in 1990.

Among the touring stars was blues legend A. C. Reed, whose 1984 visit brought Watson to the Firehall for the first time. Watson toured with Reed's band, the Sparkplugs, for many years.

"That was one place that I knew I could enjoy myself," Watson says with the huge, house-rocking laugh that often shakes its way through his talk of a life spent in the blues. "Every time I went down there, I knew somebody was going to be there that was very entertaining."

After the Firehall departed, Watson stayed. During the 1990s, he has been based in London. The Hot Flames have been mainstays at some nightspots and Watson even handled bookings for a downtown club. Sundays, he's at the Scots Corner, playing the wily old pro alongside rising guitar star Chris Chown.

Offstage, his five-year-old son, Dakota, inspires him. His girlfriend Louise is helping guide his career. There are plans to record a CD in March.

But the rhythm of any blues life is never perfect. The past includes its share of relationships and opportunities passed. Watson isn't working at a day job now or playing as much as he would like. But on Saturday, he'll be one of about 800 blues people remembering the good times.

The Firehall always was one place sure to warm a winter's night