Phil Lewis, a consultant for the Santa Cruz American Music Festival, remembers last year’s Sunday show on May 27 as “probably the best-run show” he and his team ever did.
That’s going back 25 years, to when Lewis helped create the original Santa Cruz Blues Festival, an annual Memorial Day event at Aptos Village Park that preceded its American Music Festival cousin.
That day’s lineup last year included the Brothers Comatose, Wood Brothers and Mavis Staples—each act bringing more energy to the stage than the last, before the day culminated with Santa Cruz favorites Devil Makes Three, who finished the afternoon with a bang. Looking back, it was a fitting finale to a two-day festival that Lewis says may never happen again.
“Not at that park. If I could find a better venue, then yeah, sure,” he says, looking out the window of his Capitola mortgage lending office.
The event is on indefinite hiatus, and there will certainly be no Santa Cruz American Music Festival in 2018, now that the Aptos Village project—currently under construction—has taken away the plot of land on Aptos Creek Road where the festival organizers used to park tour buses and semi-trucks hauling heavy equipment.
Lewis says running a small festival is more difficult than ever. Artists are asking for more money these days—as are staging companies, unions, county regulators, garbage collectors, security teams, chair rental companies, fencing businesses, bus companies, and even Cabrillo College, where the festival would host most of its parking for concert goers. “Everything,” he says.
“Everybody wants more money. At some point, you’re like, where does it stop?” Lewis says, leaning back in his chair, shaking his head as he crosses his arms. “It doesn’t.”
Lewis remembers one of his favorite acts over the years as B.B. King, back in the Santa Cruz Blues Festival days. “You could feel his energy all the way back to where the food was. From him to that last person. He had that charisma, more than any person I’ve ever met. He would melt people with his eyes. Amazing,” Lewis says.
But Lewis’ favorite memories of the two-day festival are of the fans.
He says he’s had a half-dozen people over the years tell him they met their spouse at the event. And another couple, he recalls, came to a Saturday show about 10 years into their annual Blues Festival tradition, and then had their baby delivered the next day, on Sunday. Lewis got the full story at the following festival, one year later—the baby’s first birthday.
When the festival started, Lewis remembers only two other major Memorial Day weekend events. One was an air show in Watsonville; the other was the Strawberry Music Festival four hours away in Yosemite. In recent years, however, event organizers found themselves competing with an increasingly long list of other festivals, stretching from May through September, including BottleRock in Napa and Monterey’s California Roots Music and Art Festival, both happening that same weekend.
Bill Welch, who owns Moe’s Alley, helped create and run the Blues Festival for 22 years before bowing out in 2015, the year the event became the Santa Cruz American Music Festival. Welch says that as music festivals grew more popular, artists started demanding steeper rates. Headliners would charge the local blues festival—known for its small crowds and laid-back vibes—the same price that artists demand for the bigger-ticket events.
Lewis says festival organizers paid last year’s Saturday headliner, Melissa Etheridge, more than what it cost to put on the original blues festival in 1993. He says that while the event never lost money, “people didn’t get paid for their time, that’s for sure.”
Welch says he and Lewis loved crafting lineups so that the acts would build one on top of the other. The big music festivals of 2018, however, offer a smattering of options with several stages. They’re often also destinations for food, beer, wine, and art. Welch says the shift is indicative of the way music listening has changed, now that phone apps like Spotify let fans hear whatever they want, whenever they want.
“When we were starting 25 years ago, barely anyone had a cell phone,” says Welch, who remembers Ray Charles’ 2003 performance with a 22-piece band as an incredible “coup” for the blues event.
Three years ago, Lewis says he and some of his partners noticed that both blues fans and blues performers were getting older. “There were no B.B. Kings coming up,” he says. And Welch says that 30 to 40 performers who played the Blues Festival have died over the years.
That’s when Lewis switched formats to the American Music Festival, experimenting with a day of straight country music for the Sunday shows, and bringing in artists like American Idol’s Kellie Pickler. Lewis loved those shows and their vibes, but attendance was poor. In 2017, he swung the Sunday format a little bit back toward the center, with more of a rocking country-blues feel, for the set that included Mavis Staples and Devil Makes Three.
Going forward in Aptos, the loss of parking may dissuade other events from setting up at the park. If it does, Santa Cruz County could lose a small chunk of change in the short term. The Parks and Recreation department collected $85,000 in fees at the park in 2016. But parks workers also had to do $53,000 in maintenance, amounting to $32,000 in gross revenue—a number that will likely be dwarfed by sales and property taxes after construction crews finish the Aptos Village project.
Lewis says he’s looked at other venues, including the football field at Cabrillo College, but says they wouldn’t let him serve alcohol, which is a deal breaker for the festival financially.
Normally, Lewis would have spent the fall and winter months booking music acts. Now he’s putting more time into his passion for racing outrigger canoes. He’s training for the first race of the season on April 21.
As Lewis talks, his computer plays the Pandora station for Michael Kiwanuka, an artist who Lewis would have loved to bring to Santa Cruz County. Kiwanuka’s station cues up a wide-ranging list of musical acts—from Marvin Gaye to the Lumineers.
Eager to share new music, Lewis does a Google search to show me Kiwanuka’s most popular song, “Cold Little Heart.”
The tune opens with electric guitar and female voices. Then comes the thick base, heavy drumbeat, clapping hands, and vocals. “Did you ever want it?” Kiwanuka sings. “Did you want it bad?”
“This guy has a lot of different influences in his music,” Lewis says. “And I would book him. Nobody knows about him, but he would put on a great show. There’s a lot of performers out there that would be really good together. It’s still fun to play with lineups.”