Drummer outside Lambeau Field aims to keep music alive on game days
Chicago native Keith Hudson is usually seen playing drums across the street from Lambeau Field on game days. But he has played music around the world and jammed with some blues music icons.
GREEN BAY – Many people hurriedly walk past Keith Hudson with only a passing glance.
Situated under a streetlight and a “Welcome to Green Bay” sign, the 61-year-old drummer plays a selection of his own beats across the street from Lambeau Field even after the sky darkens and the temperature drops.
As the crowd around the stadium thickens, Hudson’s music slices through the excited fan chatter, the steady flow of cars, and the occasional competition of a tailgater’s stereo. Boom-boom bah, tss, tss, tss. Boom-boom bah.
A few passers-by dance to the music on their way to the Packers game. A handful throw a dollar or two in Hudson’s box. He thanks each one of them.
“I’m looking at the people’s faces and how they’re enjoying the music. It’s spreading joy,” he said. “People are healed by music, and I truly believe that. It’s the universal language.”
The Chicago resident has traveled to Green Bay on and off for the last decade to perform near Lambeau, because he can stay with friends while in town. He's played in other cities, outside other stadiums, but fans and authorities have been most receptive to him in Wisconsin.
Hudson sets up his distressed, yet dependable, drum set a few hours before the start of each home game — day or night, sunny or snowing — and plays nearly nonstop until the sea of green and gold disappears inside the stadium.
Then he waits. Sometimes he covers the drums in plastic to protect them from the elements. Sometimes he moves them to a new position down the street. Carrying a single piece, then slowly walking back to get the next one.
And when the game is over, Hudson takes his seat again and plays for another two hours.
He can earn a couple hundred dollars on a good day — nothing to get rich on, but enough to pay a bill or two.
Keeping the blues alive
The soft-spoken man with a quiet confidence began playing music as a child and has traveled as far as Switzerland, Germany and Korea to perform.
He’s been in jazz bands, reggae bands, 20-piece orchestras and R&B bands. He’s jammed with artists such as “Bad to the Bone” singer/songwriter George Thorogood, B.B. King’s daughter, Shirley; and Tommy Shaw from Styx.
Tomiko Dixon, granddaughter of Chicago blues icon and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Willie Dixon, met Hudson — a friend of her uncle — when she was 15 years old.
“He rolled past on a bike with a guitar and … I asked, could he play that guitar that he had on his back?” said the now 37-year-old. “He told me, ‘Yeah,’ and started playing my grandfather’s 'Spoonful.' He told me if I ever want to get into singing to let him know, and he gave me his number.”
More than a decade later, Dixon finally called that number and asked Hudson to collaborate on some music when she decided to turn her passion for singing and songwriting into a career.
“I decided in 2008 to carry on my grandfather’s legacy because I felt he wasn’t getting the recognition that he should have received out here in the music business. I’m doing my part to keep (blues) alive,” said Dixon, who saw her grandfather perform on numerous occasions before he died in 1992. “The blues has and always will be a music that explains the true facts of life. The blues talks about it all and keeps it real simple.”
The blues spoke to Hudson, who battled depression throughout his life and watched friends and family suffer from drug and alcohol addiction and end up in jail. So he learned to communicate with lyrics, guitar, keyboard, bass and of course, the drums — his instrument of choice.
“(My mother) was born on Oct. 26, 1917, in Clarksdale, Miss. She came up here … a year after Chicago’s World Fair, and she hoboed her way up here at 16 years old on freight trains,” he said. “I used to lay on the floor and just listen to her blues collection — Albert King, B.B. King. I think I learned quite a bit from the stories that were in the lyrics.”
Music culture in Chicago has changed since then. Live venues are fewer and farther between, and local artists are passed up for newcomers willing to turn songs from art into commodities, Hudson said. For him, today’s music has less heart, less proficiency, less everything.
“Everybody seems like they want to forget you,” said Hudson, his weather-worn hands calmly resting on his knees. “The very first gig I had was with a guy named Hound Dog Taylor. We played up on the Chicago’s north side at a place called Minstrel’s. All those places are long gone. After disco, the live music scene just seemed to perish all over the country, all over the world.”
Even playing on the streets in the Windy City has become a challenge.
“In Chicago, they treat us like criminals,” Hudson said. “They make us get licenses. For Chicago … being the home of the blues, they’re really not keeping the art form alive.”
Freedom to play
Outside Lambeau Field, though, Hudson is free to play whatever he wants. He uses that time to practice so his skills stay sharp, and take a break from the crime and poverty that surround Chicago.
“Keith likes to do and control his own thing,” Dixon said. “As long as he’s doing what he loves to do, I support it.”
Maybe he’ll inspire a future musician or two as well. Hudson offers kids the chance to sit at his drum set and make their own rhythms.
“I love to teach,” Hudson said. “I see the children of today without an avenue to express themselves through music. There’s very few places for the kids to learn.
“(This might be) the first time they’ve ever seen a person playing live music. To see cymbals moving around, people jumping up and down and playing music, it was awesome for me, so I know what it does for the kids.”
After all, it’s something he’s just as passionate about now as he was at 7 years old.
"As long as I can sing and play some form of music, I can sustain myself," he said. "It just makes you feel good inside. It soothes my soul, and if somebody else enjoys it, that's great."