Cover Stories

American Music

coverwebChris Isaak and Gregg Allman trace back the roots of their sound as they headline the Santa Cruz Blues Festival on Memorial Day weekend

There’s a passage in Greil Marcus’ fascinating study of American roots music, “Invisible Republic,”in which he describes the origins of this unique musical expression as emanating from the “old weird America”—an eclectic amalgamation of blues, gospel, spiritual, folk, antebellum slave songs, Cajun and jazz genres, sprung largely from the cultural backwaters of the Mississippi River watershed in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Marcus was writing specifically about the 1967 bootleg recordings produced by Bob Dylan and the Band that came to be known as The Basement Tapes, but he could have well been talking about Chris Isaak’s most recent album, Beyond the Sun, released by Vanguard Records earlier this decade.

Isaak, who will be a headliner at the 22nd annual Santa Cruz Blues Festival over Memorial Day weekend, explains his cultural genealogy in far less complicated terms than those chronicled by Marcus in “Invisible Republic.” He traces his musical roots to a cupboard in his childhood home in working-class Stockton—the California delta town most notably depicted by Leonard Gardner in his iconic novel “Fat City,” where Isaak’s factory-employed parents kept their collection of 45 records: Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, many of which had been recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis by the legendary producer Sam Phillips.

These influences are dominant in Beyond the Sun, which Issak recorded at the original Sun Studio, at the corner of Marshall and Union avenues in Memphis. The album includes Isaak’s sterling covers of several early rock and blues classics, and in fact one hears enduring traces of these elements throughout the entirety of Isaak’s accomplished career, dating back to his first big hit from the1980s, the brooding love ballad “Wicked Game.”

The Isaaks’ cupboard in Stockton was nothing if not culturally fertile.

“My brothers and I would listen to these records over and over,” Isaak declared in the liner notes to his album. “The record player was one of those old-fashioned ones that looked like a suitcase and folded out. It had two little speakers, one on each side …We thought it sounded fantastic, and scratchy sound or not, the records moved you.”

It’s that emotional attachment to the music that caught the attention of Santa Cruz Blues Festival head honcho Bill Welch, and made him want to bring Isaak into his 2014 festival lineup.

“I’ve always been a fan of his,” Welch says of Isaak, whose remarkable artistic oeuvre includes nine albums, a pair of Grammy nominations, an acting career and a long-running television show. “I always found his music interesting, and his crafting of songs superbly executed. He’s been on our radar for a number of years. But when I heard these Memphis ballads, I realized he was tapped into the same roots that have always fed our festival. His interpretation of these classics really struck me. His voice resonated at some deep level.”

Welch acknowledged Isaak’s musical links to Orbison, Cash and other Sun artists, but also to the likes of blues legends B.B. King (who recorded at Sun as well) and Otis Redding.

“He taps into that unique strain of Americana that has come to define our festival,” Welch says. “It’s damn good music.”

Isaak’s musical sensibilities will provide a critical cornerstone to Welch’s upcoming festival, which has become an iconic annual event in Santa Cruz County. While Isaak will serve as the headliner for Sunday’s show, Gregg Allman, the surviving sibling and an artistic force in the legendary Allman Brothers Band, will headline Saturday’s all-star lineup.

“We vary the theme of the festival a little each year,” says Welch. “This year’s lineup has a lot of southern influences. It’s another chapter of American music. In a way, it’s a lesson in American history.”

If Chris Isaak’s musical roots can be traced to Memphis in the 1950s, Gregory LeNoir Allman’s extend a decade earlier and about 200 miles east along Highway 40, to Nashville, where he was born a little more than a year after his brother Duane, with whom he would forge another branch of American roots music—Southern Rock, a rubric coined by Gregg—in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

cov Gregg AllmanThe Allman Brothers’ legacy (which extended well beyond Duane’s death in a tragic motorcycle accident in 1971, and that of bassist Barry Oakley the following year) paved the way for the likes of the Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels, Lynyrd Skynard and Elvin Bishop later in the decade. I would argue that Allman Brothers’ classics like “Ramblin’ Man” and the instrumental “Jessica” represent the definitive early anthems of the Southern Rock genre.

And while the Allman Brothers’ sound of the 1970s clearly drew from the musical traditions of country and rockabilly, there were also strong elements of the blues incorporated into the band’s music.

Those influences have been underscored in Gregg Allman’s most recent album, Low Country Blues, produced by T-Bone Burnett. The collection includes Allman’s own composition “Just Another Rider,” written with Warren Haynes, along with several blues classics, including an absolutely stunning cover of B.B. King’s “Please Accept My Love” (I confess to liking it more than the original) and a haunting rendition of Sleepy John Estes’ “Floating Bridge.”

Again, there’s a depth of feeling in the album, his first solo production in nearly a decade and a half, that caught Welch’s attention. “I remember when I heard Gregg’s first solo album, Laid Back, in 1973,” Welch noted. “I really loved that album. Every song’s a classic. Forty years later, he’s still producing great music. And he’s an amazing performer.”

Low Country Blues was recorded following Allman’s diagnosis with hepatitis C, and was released right before a subsequent liver transplant in Jacksonville, Florida. He clearly tapped into deep emotional pain, including a profound confrontation with mortality, in his interpretation of these songs.

Allman called the production of the album “a life support system” that helped to pull him through his crisis. He’d garnered some hard miles he didn’t have when the Allman Brothers first formed in the late ’60s. The collection climbed to No. 1 on the Billboard charts for blues albums, and was nominated for a Grammy.

In terms of this year’s Blues Festival, there’s a bit of serendipity to the backstory. Like the great Mississippi watershed from which it sprang, Low Country Blues flows directly into Chris Isaak’s Beyond the Sun. Burnett, the fabled Grammy-winning producer who has recorded many giants of the industry, and who recently served as musical director for HBO’s riveting drama, True Detective, was developing plans to build a replica of Sun Studio in Los Angeles when he recorded Allman’s album. The ghosts of Sam Phillips are everywhere. Burnett, who hand selected the studio musicians for Low Country Blues, described Allman as “one of the greatest blues singers” of all time. His signature vocals go down like smooth southern bourbon—yet another perfect fit for this year’s festival.

A defining aspect of the Blues Fest has been not only to build each day’s lineup around a legendary act—Ray Charles, Leon Russell, Eric Burdon, Etta James and Joe Cocker have been among the headliners—but also to showcase young up-and-comers at earlier stages in their career (Nina Storey, Tommy Castro, Coco Montoya, and Trombone Shorty, who’s playing again this year, come immediately to mind).

This year the most exciting “new” act may well be Vintage Trouble, a dynamic four-man rhythm-and-blues band from Los Angeles who will be joining Isaak in Sunday’s lineup. Like most of the other acts in this year’s festival, they have strong southern roots, albeit with a gritty urban edge. Formed only four years ago by vocalist Ty Taylor and guitarist Nalle Colt, the band released a powerful first album called The Bomb Shelter Sessions.

Only two weeks after forming, Vintage Trouble hit the nightclub circuit in L.A., and quickly became a regional sensation, playing a phenomenal 80 shows in only 100 days. Last year, they landed a gig on The David Letterman Show, which demonstrated Taylor’s charismatic performance as the band’s lead singer. Sunday’s set in Aptos will mark their first appearance in Santa Cruz County.

“They’re new and interesting with a funky R&B feel,” says Welch. “They’re very cool. Very serious. Very high caliber. This isn’t a fad with them. They are rootsy, but they are also carving out a new area of music. I think they’re a band we’re going to be hearing about for a long time.”

Saturday’s counterpart to Vintage Trouble is the intensely appealing Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, who are returning to Santa Cruz for their fourth appearance at the festival, the last time in 2011. Since then, front man Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his ensemble of musicians have set the world on fire with their combustible blend of funk, blues, rock, hip hop and New Orleans jazz.

For all the great musicians who have graced the Blues Festival over the years, the most significant artistic vision to shape each event is located backstage, in an old RV, where producer Welch is at the helm of command central. I have long viewed Welch as shaping each event like a Monet or Renoir, composing an impressionistic canvas of music that, when blended together, combine to make something greater than the sum of its parts. With its intimate sylvan setting in the 10-acre Aptos Village Park, the festival has become part of the fabric of Santa Cruz County cultural history.

Welch, who was born chronologically right between this year’s two headliners, grew up in working-class Los Angeles, where his first musical palette was influenced by the American rock ’n’ roll of the 1950s and the British invasion of the 1960s—the latter of which, not so coincidentally, had been fueled by many of the same musical genres that influenced both Isaak and Allman, as well as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The blues are a “mother music,” not only in America, but globally.

By the time he was a teenager, Welch was steeped in the music of the ’60s.

An encounter with the Jimi Hendrix Experience when he was only 14 had a life-changing impact on him—he was forever captured by the muse of rock ’n’ roll. By 18, he was a roadie, learning all aspects of the business, including sound production and tour managing. The more eclectic his skill set, he figured, the easier it would be for him to find work.

He was right. He wound up serving as tour manager for the Crusaders, and the late Chicago-born vocalist Minnie Riperton. While on the road, Welch developed a philosophical approach to the business that he relies on to this day.

“I always viewed that my primary job was taking care of the artists on stage,” he says. “Both leading up to their appearance and while they were on. My job was to complement the artists, so they could create and perform their artistry to the maximum, to help them enhance their artistry while they performed uninhibited by unnecessary distractions or sound problems.”

After spending a year-and-half in New York City, where he honed his chops on the mean streets of the East Coast (including working for Bill Graham), he returned to the friendlier climes of California, and by the mid-1980s had discovered what he calls the “magic” of Santa Cruz. He had expanded his technical repertoire to serving as a soundman on film production, and, lured by his buddy Johnnie Chesko, he worked on the production of the cult classic, The Lost Boys, here.

Welch was smitten with the place. He joined Local 611 of the Stagehand Union, and began serving as the head sound technician for most of the musical performances at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.

Santa Cruz became not only a safe haven for Welch, away from the maddening influences of Los Angeles, but also, most literally, a learning ground. He was amazed by the diversified musical influences he encountered in the community—he started listening to KFAT (later KPIG) and KUSP and discovered a host of new musical influences, like Santana, Dylan and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

In 1992, with his friend Phil Lewis, he co-founded Moe’s Alley on Commercial Way, soon to become an iconic music venue in the region. The following spring, again with Lewis and a support cast that included partner Michael Blas and booker David Claytor, the team launched the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, a one-day affair with Albert Collins as the first headliner. Blas and Claytor are still part of the production team, along with more recent recruits, Connie Burroughs and Mike Spano.

Little did Welch know that the show would go on for more than two decades. In many respects, the production has consumed Welch, who took over the reins of Moe’s by himself a decade ago. Like all good blues icons, he’s ridden some hard miles.

“Keeping something like this together for so long takes it out of you,” he acknowledges. “But I’m constantly regenerated by the community. Music matters here. They love it. It moves them.”

It’s been a remarkable ride, Welch says. Watching the legendary Ray Charles take the Blues Fest stage in 2003 marked one of the primary highlights of Welch’s promotional career.

“It really was one of the ultimate moments of my life,” Welch declared. “He was the ultimate artist. A consummate professional. And it was really a historic moment for this community. People will always remember when and where they saw Ray Charles perform.”

Welch notes that in many ways the festival is a “time stop” for music fans. “Music has a way of reminding us of good moments in our past, of bringing you back to a certain space, a very comfortable place,” Welch asserts. “We remember when we heard an album, or where we first heard a song. It’s the up side of nostalgia.”

He acknowledges that not every act in the festival’s storied history fits precisely into a traditional concept of the blues. The combining of Chris Isaak and Gregg Allman as headliners at the 2014 iteration of the festival speaks to Welch’s unique and creative tradi-tion of musical alchemy. 

“We expand the genre,” Welch says. “We had Los Lobos here [in 2012]. They have lots of musical influences, of course, but the blues is one of them. I view the festival as a melting pot of American music. I clearly take the broad view. But the blues is always the prime ingredient. It’s the common thread that links it all together.”

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