In just a few short days, Mike Cooling gets to enjoy his favorite day of the year. The president of the South Skunk Blues Society will be surrounded by visitors who have come to Maytag Park with their lawn chairs, their coolers; they’ll pick a favorite spot, like they do every year, just to watch a day’s worth of blues shows.
Underneath the hard canopy of the Fred Maytag Bowl will be a revolving door of musicians taking the stage. Armed with guitars, a healthy dose of charisma and the innate skills to get folks out of their seats for a bit of the ol’ boogie-woogie, these performers know just how to leave an impression on the Newton crowds.
Which is partly why Bowlful of Blues has stuck around so long. The blues bug has left its mark on many a concertgoer, and they come back every year in droves to see the next lineup. Before they know it, they’ve been bitten again. Blues music just makes you feel good, Cooling said.
“I was a rock ‘n’ roller growing up. That was it until the first time I heard a blues band — a good blues band — live. From then on I was hooked,” he said. “If blues doesn’t get your body up and moving, then there’s something dead in you.”
Another reason the local blues festival has stuck around for three decades is because the folks in the South Skunk Blues Society “are too stubborn to let it die,” said Cooling. But he also contends the partnership with the City of Newton to use the Maytag Bowl venue is also why Bowlful of Blues persists to this day.
Bowlful of Blues will be celebrating its 31st show from noon to 10 p.m. Sept. 3 at Maytag Park. Headlining this year’s festival is Joe Louis Walker. Also performing is Gabe Stillman, Melody Angel, Heath Alan and Mojo Machine, with Denny Garcia, Lewis and Gus Major and Craig Mackaman playing between sets.
“(Walker) has played with almost anybody you can think of — the big names in the genre — and he’s every bit as good as any of them,” Cooling said. “He can play with them and he’s just one fine artist. He is a talented guitar player, and he brings it! I’m excited because I’ve never seen him live.”
While Cooling looks forward to every performer on the Fred Maytag Bowl stage, he is particularly excited for Gabe Stillman and Melody Angel. The society has wanted to put Stillman on the stage for years, and the stars finally lined up to get him in Newton. Cooling had previously played at the Kellogg American Legion.
“And he was just awesome! I’ve been trying to get him ever since, but his schedule has always been full,” he said. “The weekend after he was here to play for us, he opened for ZZ Top in Key West. I mean, the guy is just phenomenal. He’s very, very good. If you haven’t heard of him, you should come hear him.”
South Skunk Blues Society starts looking for the next year’s lineup as early as the day after Bowlful of Blues. Every other day leading up to the Bowlful of Blues is preparation for the next concerts, so to finally be in the park the day of the festival and enjoy the fruits of their labor is a good feeling for organizers.
“I’m a full on empath,” Cooling said. “The energy there is crazy. You don’t have to put up any walls. You can just be yourself and enjoy the positive energy there … It’s a lot of work. Every year I say, ‘This could be my last year.’ Then I get to thinking about it and I add on one more year.”
For the past three years, Cooling has served as president of the South Skunk Blues Society. Two years before that he was the vice-president, but he has been a member shortly after the organization was founded many, many years ago. Cooling and the rest of the society want to keep blues music alive.
“We’re small but mighty,” he said. “We’re small but we do big things, and we hope we can continue. I got to meet one of my heroes in 2019; Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown. Bernard Allison is another hero of mine that I’ve met twice now. The people are real. There’s nothing phony about people who play blues.”
Tickets are available for $25 in advance at Zzz Records in Des Moines, The Vinyl Shop in Grinnell, Mattingly Music in Newton and Hy-Vee in Newton. Otherwise, tickets are $30 at the gate. Kids under age 12 can enter free. Food vendors will be available. Coolers are welcome, but no glass containers are permitted.