Communion with Lil’ Ed and Big Mike

I attended the Almighty Funky Church of the Blue Lamp over on Alhambra Boulevard a few weeks back, and though it was a spur of the moment decision, I believe to my soul that the blues, the barbecued hot links, the raffle and especially the solid community good vibes were there just for me. And each character I fell into conversation with felt the same way.

At the heart of the matter is promoter Big Mike Balma. Along with his all-volunteer band of Sherwood Forest men and women (in the guise of the nonprofit Sacramento Heritage Fest staff), he let this town take its first gander in nearly a decade at raucous Chicago houserockers Lil’ Ed and his Blues Imperials. Bejeweled fez (fashioned from Holiday Inn ice buckets) on head, nasty slide guitar in hand, Lil’ Ed Williams deftly blended gritty West Side Chicago blues and John Lee Hooker’s signature boogie beat. As a nephew of legendary Chicago slide king J.B. Hutto, Williams has good time in his blood. Even as he slashed raw and fierce tones with his band churning behind him, he always had a smile on his face.

The happy folks in the full house were no slouches in the style department, either. Through a bar-front property line of mullets, I saw a Captain Spaulding look-alike, decked out in gold pith helmet and riding jacket. Best of show, though, was the late arrival of a long-married, good-looking 50-something couple that snapped to the groove in the room; stopping time on the dance floor, their high-school romance was never so fresh and obvious.

At break, Big Mike held court onstage, calling raffle ticket numbers from the beer pitcher. Blues CDs, Sacramento Heritage Fest 2000 T-shirts and a travel party-pack. (“Hey Jeff, can you put a free beer in this pack for the winner?” Balma barked out with a gleam in his eye. The club’s owner gave an amen and voilà, a Balma party-pack bonus.) This is standard M.O. for Balma, who’s been a tireless hometown promoter of good blues music, good food and good times for over nine years. He’s a past president of the Sacramento Blues Society and has presented the annual two-day Sacramento Heritage Festival (see story at right) for eight years. And Chef Balma, with his own recipes for barbecued tri-tip, hot links and chicken breast sandwiches available outside, learned his skills honestly—right from the blues artists themselves. He often houses the stars he books, modestly saying, “I just learned by doing.” The same could be said for his promotion and devoted staff. One female volunteer offered her take: “There’s no politics, no long meetings; we just all pitch in and have a good time. We love this music!”