New show comes to town as Blues Festival says goodbye
Bill Welch has co-produced the Santa Cruz Blues Festival for 22 years. In that time, the annual Memorial Day weekend event brought us Ray Charles, Buddy Guy, Etta James, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and dozens of other top-tier artists. As of this year, however, the Blues Festival is no more.
Although a new and similar music festival will take its place this spring, the 2014 Blues Fest was the final one, which may come as a surprise to local music lovers and festival regulars.
“It’s time for me to move on,” says Welch, who is looking to focus more of his energy on his other projects, including Moe’s Alley, the club he co-founded in 1992. The club, his primary focus, recently installed a new state-of-the-art sound system and has a new lighting system in the works. By stepping away from the Blues Festival, Welch will be able to devote more of his time to producing concerts at Moe’s Alley, but that doesn’t make his decision to end the festival any easier.
“It’s a very hard decision to make,” he says. “It’s been 22 years of blood, sweat and tears. Lots of ups and downs and great moments. But the festival takes a lot of attention, time and preparation to do.”
Festival-goers need not fret, however, as some of the principals of the Santa Cruz Blues Festival joined forces to create a new Memorial Day weekend event called the American Music Festival, which will present blues and also host a wider range of artists and genres, without straying too much from tradition. All four acts who have been announced so far, including Bonnie Raitt and Los Lonely Boys, have played the Santa Cruz Blues Festival in the past.
The Blues Festival has long incorporated a variety of styles into its roster, including artists and bands that could best be described as Americana, rock, and soul. Last year’s lineup featured rocker Gregg Allman, crooner Chris Isaak, New Orleans jazz sensation Trombone Shorty, and singer-songwriter Jackie Greene. The American Music Festival plans to build on this base of numerous American styles to expand the reach of the festival even further.
Phillip Lewis, who co-founded the Santa Cruz Blues Festival with Welch in 1993, is consulting with American Music Festival organizers in order to develop the concept for this festival, which will aim to continue the great Santa Cruz tradition of Memorial Day weekend festivities at Aptos Village Park. With his experience co-founding both Moe’s Alley and the Blues Festival, Lewis says he is excited to be a part of the Santa Cruz American Music Festival.
“There is such a rich and storied history of great music at Aptos Village Park over the last 22 years,” says Lewis. “We’ve seen Gregg Allman perform ‘Whipping Post,’ Ray Charles perform ‘Georgia,’ Al Green perform ‘Love and Happiness,’ and Joe Cocker perform ‘With a Little Help from My Friends,’ just to name a few.”
For hard-core blues lovers, the event will feature a blues-focused Saturday lineup, paying respect to the tradition that serves as the foundation for so many musical styles. “We’re always going to have one foot in the blues,” says Lewis. “And it’s nice because it gives us chances to expose folks to a wider range of music.”
Sunday will feature a more eclectic mix of Americana sounds. The idea is to appeal to the blues audience in Santa Cruz and also use the blues as a jumping off point for all the styles that grew out of it.
“The beginnings of American music are rooted in the blues, so we will generally spotlight a heavy dose of that,” says Lewis. “But American music is such a mixture of many genres including jazz, country, bluegrass, New Orleans, R&B. This event gives us the flexibility to present all types of American music.”
For this year’s inaugural American Music Festival, organizers are going big, bringing the legendary Raitt, a longtime favorite of Santa Cruz audiences who will perform Saturday, May 23. Also confirmed at this point are roots rockers JJ Grey & Mofro, the Memphis-based Serbian blues guitarist and vocalist Ana Popovic—both of whom will also play Saturday—and American Chicano rock outfit Los Lonely Boys, who will play Sunday. Lewis hopes to get six more acts for the festival and announce them when each contract is signed.
The big-picture vision for the festival, explains Lewis, is to bring together a variety of artists and genres; some that audiences are familiar with and some that may fall outside of their musical radar.
“The beauty of American music,” Lewis says, “is that artists are influenced by all genres of music they hear. They ingest those influences, then the music they make may be completely different than anything we have heard before. You may have a performer that has a flavor of folk, jazz, bluegrass and blues. That is the true beauty of music: it’s always evolving, and that is what we want to represent and present to our audience.”
NEW VIBRATIONS Philip Lewis co-founded the Santa Cruz Blues Festival 22 years ago, which will be replaced by the American Music Festival this year. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER