The all-woman bluegrass barbershop trio Baskery opens up the Santa Cruz American Music Festival at 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 27, with an inventive sound anchored by an upright bassist and two multi-instrumentalists. The group busts out clever musical twists like banjo with heavy guitar distortion to give alt-country a fresh feel.
Next up is roots-rockers Record Company, best known for their 2016 hit “Off the Ground,” which leans heavily on guitarist Chris Vos’ bluesy slide.
The blues get into full swing after that with JJ Grey and Mofro, a Southern band pulling from influences as diverse as Otis Redding and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Grey’s charismatic, slightly guttural crooning may remind audiences of the late Joe Cocker, who actually co-headlined the festival (then called the Santa Cruz Blues Festival) in 2009 with B.B King.
Next, rock legend Stephen Stills will take the stage with the Rides, a blues outfit that features keyboardist Barry Goldberg and guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd. The group’s second studio album, “Pierced Arrow,” came out last year, although in concert Stills pulls out throwbacks like Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” the anti-war song he wrote 40 years ago. Melissa Etheridge (see main story) comes out last to finish a Saturday afternoon of rocking music.
On Sunday, Barns Courtney’s voice rings with a timeless sound that is part pop star and part Robert Johnson. The English native guitar player, who grew up in Seattle, is up first Sunday to play viral online hits like “Glitter and Gold” and “Fire.” The Brothers Comatose, who hail from San Francisco, will take the stage with their upbeat, well-written bluegrass songs that drive forward with the energy of a steam engine.
After that comesbrothers, the Wood Brothers—guitarist Oliver and upright bassist Chris—who get deep into the roots of bluesy folk music. A couple years ago, multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix joined the group, sometimes playing his “shitar,” a beat-up acoustic with a bunch of percussive gizmos attached to it. The three harmonize beautifully.
A true highlight of the festival is 77-year-old Mavis Staples, who sang with the Staples Sisters on Stax Records, putting out hits like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” In her six-decade career, Staples has collaborated with Van Morrison, Billy Preston, Willie Nelson, Ry Cooder, Neko Case, Justin Vernon, Nick Cave, Ben Harper, Tune-Yards and Jeff Tweedy. The history of gospel, soul, pop, R&B and blues would not be the same without her.
Wrapping up the festival is the Devil Makes Three, the once local band that plays punk-infused bluegrass songs about religious themes, getting drunk and being messed up on drugs. That’s Santa Cruz music to raise your beer to.
Update 05/17/17: A previous version of the article said that members of the Brothers Comatose are not brothers. Two of the band’s members are brothers.