A mixed bag of stellar acts shine at this year’s Santa Cruz Blues Festival
Music Festivals seem to be recession-proof—from the East Coast’s massive Bonneroo to the West Coast’s epic Coachella and the hundreds of smaller festivals in between—cash registers are ringing and communities are celebrating. And like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, blues fans will be swooping down to Aptos Village Park for the 18th Annual Santa Cruz Blues Festival on Saturday, May 29 and Sunday, May 30. Although corporations fund most musical festivals, in Santa Cruz, low back chairs and beer on tap are the frothy face of what is an increasingly rare locally owned event.
Headed up by the visionary owner of Moe’s Alley, Bill Welch, the SCBF was also co-started by locals Michael Blas and Phil Lewis. With Lewis leaving two years ago, Brad Kava and Mike Spano stepped in to take on the weighty details. Kava, a rock critic for 22 years with the San Jose Mercury News who would walk to the Aptos festival, was a shoo-in to eventually join the team. “I always loved the festival, and as a music critic, thought it had the best acoustics and most beautiful scenery of any show I’d been to,” he explains. “We have 200 volunteers and a paid staff of more than a dozen, and a bunch of local contractors taking care of amenities.”
Families have been staking out their claims of blanket-covered grass in the large field of Aptos Village Park for the better part of two decades. Hardcore blues fans gather to share the privilege of seeing world-class musicians in an intimate setting. While traditionalists may waver on the virtues and credibility of the line-up, Welch has a great ear for the next big thing and this year is guaranteed to be alchemical gold—as new acts and old favorites play side-by-side.
Susan Tedeschi may be a new face, but she’s an accomplished pro. Wife of Derek Trucks (nephew of The Allman Brothers’ drummer, Butch Trucks), Tedeschi has earned a Gold Record for Just Won’t Burn and multiple Grammy nominations. With Tedeschi’s voice reminiscent of Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt, wrenching the emotional component free from the melody—Tedeschi and Trucks will get the crowd on its feet on Sunday afternoon. Speaking from her home in Florida, Tedeschi is excited about joining forces with Trucks for the Blues Festival. “We’re still trying to figure out how to make everything flow and how to please everyone,” she says. “It’s definitely a dream to be able to go out on the road together with Derek.”
Truly a family affair, in addition to Tedeschi and Trucks, the band will also feature Allman Brothers bassist Otiel Burbridge and his brother Kofe on keyboards, with Mike Mattison (Derek Trucks Band lead singer) and Nigel Hall singing back-up (and on Fender Rhodes). Duane Trucks, Derek’s little brother, who has turned into a great drummer, will also be coming out for the show.
Tedeschi is no stranger to festivals and understands the dynamics of a longer event. “We play theaters where it’s more intimate,” she says. “But with festivals people are screaming and crazy because they’ve been in the sun all day and will scream at anybody that is onstage. It’s not even for us!”
Although Ben Harper and Relentless7 headline Saturday’s show, opening for them is a tried and true blues legend. Taj Mahal’s career is a 50-year journey into the heart of music. From traveling with the Rolling Stones to a duet with Harper on the 2008 release Maestro—Mahal’s penchant for incorporating the sound of Africa and accompanying Caribbean sounds into the blues will resonate deep within all fans.
From a hotel room in North Carolina, Mahal’s signature gravelly voice explains how his old school ideas have expanded his popularity throughout the world. “When I work with African musicians and we like each other’s work, I leave them with three or four of my CDs,” the blues legend reveals. “It’s worth it to me, because those guys will take that home and their younger brother or cousin will duplicate it and make cassettes. The important thing is that people get the music. Whenever we go to Africa to play, people will come out to see us because they have heard us on duplicated cassettes.”
Accompanying Mahal will be the members of his longtime trio who’ve been playing with the icon for the last 40 years: Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on drums. “It’s taken years to get the space where we are at,” Mahal says. “All three of us have created a fabulous sound for the blues—we’re really tight.”
The future of the blues is not in imitating the past, but in finding new ways to express one of America’s original forms. Welch knows he can’t keep doing the same thing over and over, and this year features a heaping spoonful of new flavors. On Saturday the funk gets the show going with San Mateo’s Eric Lindell gone Cajun. The New Orleans party ratchets up a notch with Dumpstaphunk—the brainchild of cousins Ivan and Ian Neville (sons of the famous Neville Brothers, Aaron and Art)—the groove will be positively blazing. Indie bluesman Joseph Arthur, who has toured with Tracy Chapman and Gomez, brings the singer/songwriter genre to a new pinnacle. Finally, Ben Harper, whose past collaborations have included projects with the Blind Boys of Alabama and Pearl Jam, comes through to end things with Relentless7’s blues-driven, big arena rock sound.
When the Sunday crowd snakes through the gates, the show will begin with Was (Not Was)—the Detroit funk sound brought to life with Don Was and backed up by the Boneshakers’ guitarist Randy Jacobs and singer “Sweet Pea” Atkinson. Blues fans rejoice every time SCBF’s beloved Coco Montoya joins the festivities, and later, when the rising sun will be in full bloom, Eric Burdon and the Animals will resurrect the music of the first wave of British blues/rock before Tedeschi takes the mic. Finally, headliner Buddy Guy’s Chicago-style riffs are slated to incinerate the evening and close out a wild weekend of smokin’ blues, brews and rib barbecues.
This year’s festival has the most variety of any years gone by—but is still true to the roots of blues music. Kava sums it up: “I think people will be surprised at how much they like the performers they don’t already know. For me, that’s the best part of a festival—getting turned on to something new.”
The Santa Cruz Blues Festival takes place all day beginning at 11 a.m. on Saturday and 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 29-30, at Aptos Village Park, 100 Aptos Creek Rd., Aptos. Tickets are $75 for general and $110 for Gold Circle each day or $140 for both days general and $210 for both days Gold Circle. For more information, visit santacruzbluesfestival.com.