The Ann Arbor-based legend plays Traverse City’s Microbrew & Music Festival with Grand Rapids’ The Change this weekend, but juggles plenty more projects – from his own Madcat Midnight Blues Journey to touring internationally with Chris Brubeck.THE ARTIST: Peter “Madcat” Ruth
THE MUSIC: Blues, jazz, folk, world music
WHERE YOU CAN SEE HIM: On Saturday, with The Change, at the Traverse City Microbrew & Music Festival in Traverse City; 4-8 p.m. Feb. 18 with The Schrock Brothers at Virtue Cider in Fennville for the Virtue Farm Stone Fence Cocktail Competition
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To call Peter “Madcat” Ruth a Michigan music icon might be putting it mildly.
After all, the genre-melding harmonica whiz from Ann Arbor — who also plays guitar, banjo and ukulele — has toured the globe with iconic jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, won a Grammy Award as a featured soloist, recorded albums with Brubeck’s son, Chris, and impressed audiences worldwide with his own bands, including Madcat’s Pressure Cooker, Madcat & Kane and Madcat Midnight Blues Journey.
The Illinois native’s remarkable 50-year career took off as a teenager after taking three harmonica lessons from blues harp pioneer Big Walter Horton and joining Chris Brubeck’s band, Big Heavenly Blue.
He hasn’t looked back since.
“The most satisfying thing about being a musician is connecting to the ‘now,’ ” Ruth offered. “When I am deep into playing music, the sounds, the song, the lyrics, my fellow musicians and the audience are all connected in the ‘now’ and that is a magical state of being.”
He’s experiencing that “magical state” these days with a bevy of Michigan musicians, including favorites such as Seth Bernard, Drew Nelson, The Schrock Brothers, Frank Youngman, Luke Winslow King, The Change, Jay Stielstra, Dave Boutette and Chris Buhalis.
The eighth annual festival – which features craft brews, food vendors and live music – takes place in downtown Traverse City (at Grandview Parkway and Union Street) from 4-10 p.m. Saturday. Other performers include the Kyle Hollingsworth Band, The Nth Power, The Joshua Davis Trio, The Mainstays, Lucas Paul Band, Roosevelt Diggs, Charlie Millard Band, Brotha James, Jack Pine, Deep Blue Water Samba School and others. General admission tickets are $45. Attendees must be 21 or older. Get details online here.
A ‘COMMANDING TALENT’ AND A ‘NON-TRADITIONAL TRADITIONALIST’
Ryan Williams, frontman for the Grand Rapids based roots rock band The Change, called Ruth “one of the most talented, professional, creative, humble, soft spoken” musicians he knows – and a masterful player with “commanding talent that can bring a room to his feet” and inspire fellow musicians.
“We didn’t understand his impact on the community till I started getting to jam with him,” said Williams.
Bassist Mark Schrock of Madcat Midnight Blues Journey has played with Ruth “on and off” since 1978.
“I can’t think of another musician who plays with more joy than Madcat. He’s totally rooted in the blues harmonica traditions of the Chicago masters, but he considers himself a ‘folky’ and is totally open to playing all styles of roots music – and to push boundaries, adding an arsenal of effects and sounds to the music,” Schrock said.
“He’s a non-traditional traditionalist if that makes sense. Little known fact: In addition to being a Grammy winner, he is also an Eagle scout. He’s always prepared, whether it’s a certain kind of cable, any kind of tape, a knife, a screwdriver and extra pair of socks. You name it, he’s got it and he knows where it is. He’s an awesome bandmate.”
The familiar gray-maned harmonica virtuoso and singer, who plays at least one concert a week and usually “many more,” also recently recorded three songs for bluegrass guitar phenom Billy Strings’ upcoming new CD.
“Great stuff,” Ruth said of the former Traverse City guitarist’s new studio recording.
This weekend’s Traverse City event is among several Michigan festivals that Ruth plans to play this year, along with teaching harmonica and ukulele at the Wheatland Music Organization’s June Music and Dance Week, touring nationally with Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play and performing a duo set with Nelson at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. He’s also eyeing a new recording of his own.
Inspired by harmonica greats Sonny Terry, Junior Wells, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Charlie McCoy and Horton, Ruth said his biggest influence remains Brubeck, an award-winning pianist and pioneer of “cool jazz” who died in 2012 at age 91.
“Being on the road with him for four years was an incredible apprenticeship,” he said.
After all that he’s experienced as a musician, Ruth still remembers his first official “gig” as a fledgling 14-year-old musician.
“My first band to perform in public was a duo called The Petey-Tweety Band,” he said. “It was in a church basement.”
Now, he’s passing on his musical knowledge to the next generation of players.
“He has this unique ability to humbly give knowledge in performance and in techniques that make you so comfortable, you’re ready to learn and listen,” Williams said. “Frankly, this would be a very different and lacking musical landscape in The Mitten without people like Madcat.”
VIDEO: Madcat Midnight Blues Journey at Fountain Point
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