Located down in the lush Aptos Village Park and up the mossy banks from Aptos Creek, the 19th Annual Santa Cruz Blues festival on May 28 and 29 guarantees blues enthusiasts a rare concert experience in an intimate outdoor setting.
While many of the original acts have gone to the great blues jam in the sky—Albert Collins, Pinetop Perkins, Snooky Pryor, Koko Taylor—the festival has continued to flourish with fresh line-ups each year to satisfy the hardiest of music fans.
The booker and one of the main organizers, Bill Welch (along with Brad Kava, Michael Blass and Mike Spano), hunkers down in his basement bunker located in the Santa Cruz hills. Although it’s been the better part of two decades, it still takes Welch and his partners one thousand hours to put Santa Cruz’s favorite outdoor festival together. Each year starts from scratch with the organizers sorting through hundreds of possibilities and narrowing it down to fewer than 10 acts—without a doubt, one of the most spectacular this year will be Experience Hendrix, a massive combination of 13 headliners performing the rock god’s classic jams.
Welch pitched the idea to Jimi’s step-sister, Janey Hendrix, who controls the estate and all things related to the most influential guitarist in the history of music—and now, parents, grandparents, kids and grandkids will get to experience Hendrix in a whole new way. Billy Cox (Band of Gypsies), Hendrix’s bass player after Noel Redding left the band, will stay onstage throughout the extravaganza with Chris Layton (Stevie Ray Vaughn) on drums. “Honestly, it’s a historical event. It is going to be like when we had Ray Charles here nine years ago—it wasn’t until after the show when people said, ‘Oh my god, I get it!’” says Welch, noting the unlikelihood of the collaboration reuniting for any other blues festivals in the future.
During Saturday’s Experience Hendrix performance, the rhythm section will be joined by artists like Ernie Isley from the Isley Brothers—and then Living Colour will do what they do best: take over. “They were one of the first bands, like Jimi Hendrix, who crossed the color barrier into a new genre of music,” says Welch. Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo from Los Lobos will also take the stage, joined by Luther and Cody Dickenson of the Mississippi All Stars, among many other stars, including Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang and Keb’ Mo’.
Earlier Saturday, as the crowds settle in and the low-back chairs click into place, is newcomer Mia Borders. “I heard some of her stuff and thought she would be cool to open up,” says Welch. The organizer always has an eye out for exciting new performers. “And I love to book the female perspective on the blues when I can.” After Borders, Santa Cruz favorite Jackie Greene will grace the stage—his newest album features the Mother Hips as his backing band, and the result is pure California Soul. No guitarist could open for Experience Hendrix, so 25-year-old Trombone Shorty, who blew up the Monterey Jazz Festival last year, will wow the crowd with his New Orleans funk.
As the crowds head back for Sunday’s show, a more traditional line-up kicks off the day. Chris Cain opens with straight-ahead blues guitar from his brand new album So Many Roads, followed by festival favorite Tommy Castro. “This is a comfort zone for me. Guys who have played the festival before, but still put out new music that is challenging,” says Welch. “For me, it is about music that is relevant and underappreciated—so these guys are no big stars, but the music is phenomenal.”
Sunday shines with Dave Alvin’s West Coast debut with The Guilty Ones, scaled down five-piece time-honored blues band. Their poignant new album, Eleven Eleven, is due out June 12. When on the road with his band, he kept being asked about his brother Phil from the Blasters. In response, he crafted a song called “What’s Up with Your Brother?” From his home in Los Angeles, Alvin reflects, “Growing up, Phil was always the singer in the family. Nobody in the entire neighborhood, nobody could sing like Phil. We didn’t sit around and sing together when we were kids, we weren’t the Everly Brothers—it was a very clear delineation of powers—I sat, he sang. Without getting too morose, we’ve all lost so many friends in the last few years, we decided we should do this while we can.”
Dave Alvin’s career has included playing guitar in the seminal punk rock band X, becoming the face of American Roots music, and more recently, being the bar band on the TV show Justified. “What attracts me are things that really aren’t in the mainstream. Roots music flirts with the mainstream, or the mainstream flirts with it—so it comes and goes in relationship to pop music.” Alvin has a metaphor he often uses to explain his passion: “Roots music lives under a rock, and every now and then somebody or something lifts up that rock and exposes it to the sunlight, but to survive it has to scurry back under the rock. Roots like it where it’s dark and shady.”
Alvin is excited to head back to Santa Cruz to play the Blues Festival. “There’s a bunch of festivals where as soon as we are done playing it’s like, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ But Bill has created an onstage, and, more importantly to us, a backstage area where it feels just like we’re hanging out in his living room.”
Sunday’s headliners, Boz Scaggs and Tower of Power are a perfect one-two punch. After years of trying to get Tower of Power to play, Welch finally succeeded. And with Tower featuring half the original members—Emilio Castillo, Rocko Prestia, David Garibaldi, Doc Kupka and Mic Gillette—the result is guaranteed to be unforgettable. “Some younger people just do not know who Tower of Power is. One of my jobs in the festival is not to reintroduce the music, but to share the music.
“In the final count,” adds Welch, “I hope it’s as interesting to everyone else as it is to me. The festival has gone from being a straight-up rocking blues festival to American Roots music of the best kind.”
The SC Blues Festival takes place Saturday, May 28 and Sunday, May 29 at Aptos Village Park, 100 Aptos Creek Rd., Aptos. For details and tickets, visit santacruzbluesfestival.com.