Lil’ Ed, band riding high as award nominees

Chicago’s Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials are rolling into New Orleans with two 2013 Blues Music Awards nominations.

Lil’ Ed, aka Ed Williams, is nominated for traditional male blues artist and Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, the group, is nominated for band of the year.

Signed to Alligator Records since 1986, Williams and the Blues Imperials released its latest album, Jump Start, via the blues-loving Chicago label last year. Loaded with good-rocking, high-powered and humorous blues numbers that feature frequent solos from Williams’ searing slide guitar, the album shows a veteran blues band in full bloom.

While the Blues Foundation Awards show in Memphis is still a few months away, the frequently touring Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials perform Friday and Saturday at the Rum Boogie Café in Memphis and then Sunday in New Orleans at Chickie Wah Wah.

Williams’ best time in New Orleans, he said from Lake Forest, Ill., happened when he played both the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and a club on the same day.

“We had to walk down to the club from the Jazz Fest,” Williams said. “And here’s this gang of people just following us because they know we’re going to the club!”

When the group and its impromptu entourage arrived at the club, a line of people was already gathered outside.

“And all these people behind us were like, ‘We want Lil’ Ed! We want Lil’ Ed!’ ” Williams recalled.

Rather than take a break, Williams and the band stepped on stage, tuned up and started playing again.

“It was awesome,” Williams said. “It was one of the greatest things in my life.”

Of course, touring isn’t always as good as that great day in New Orleans.

“It’s easy to play for 800 people because everybody’s having a good time,” Williams said. “Because the people that ain’t having a good time, you can’t even tell. But then you might play for 15 people and several of them are sitting up and looking at you like, ‘He must be out of his mind.’ And the hardest part is if you got 10 people in the house and three of them get up and walk out!’ ”

Williams and his brother and Blues Imperials band member, James “Pookie” Young, learned to play from one of Chicago’s great bluesmen, their uncle, singer and slide guitarist J.B. Hutto.

“Uncle J.B. started me off playing a little Elmore James-type rhythm,” Williams said. “He’d teach me a little of it and then he’d go out of town. He’d come back in about two weeks and I’d say, ‘Uncle J.B., I got it!’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, but can you do this?’ And then he’d go to the chord changes. That would freak me out every time, because I thought I was doing something! And he taught me like that until he got me into the one, four and five change, which was really cool.”

Williams, in turn, taught everything he learned from his uncle to his little brother, Pookie.

“Uncle J.B. came over to our house one day, looked at us and said, ‘I need you.’ ” Hutto recruited his still raw nephews to play a gig. “He said, ‘Just play that rhythm pattern I taught you. You play that and Pookie is going to play the bass and we go’ play this music.’ ”

The show turned out to be a terrifying and exhilarating baptism by fire in front of 400 people in South Bend, Ind. Hutto encouraged his underage nephews by having them drink Irish coffee through the night.

“J.B. just tore that place apart,” Williams remembered. “And me and Pookie were standing up on stage, seeing these people on the floor hucklebucking and jerking. We started to smile.”