Santa Cruz American Music Festival debuts this weekend with blues, country and everything in between
This weekend, Santa Cruz gets something old, new, borrowed and definitely blue, as the 23-year-old Santa Cruz Blues Festival shifts names and direction, but borrows some of the same great acts.
The Memorial Day weekend festival that put Santa Cruz on the blues map by bringing in some of the biggest names in music has become the Santa Cruz American Music Festival—a name one of the founders says is more appropriate for the times.
“It’s something we talked about in years past,” says Phil Lewis, who started the festival and Moe’s Alley with Michael Blas and former partner Bill Welch. Current partners include Mike Spano, Connie Burroughs, Judy Appleby, Margie Way, Jim Tracey and Bruce Howard, all of whom have helped out over the years.
“The blues people are getting older and some of the performers are passing away, like B.B. King,” Lewis says. “We wanted to open it up a little more to different kinds of acts.”
In 1993, the festival was one day and featured the top names in solid blues, including Albert Collins, Pinetop Perkins, Jimmy Rogers, Rod Piazza and Debbie Davies. But three years later, New Orleans boogie-woogie piano man Dr. John was added to the mix, and the following year featured rockers Little Feat. The festival was expanding its musical turf, even if no one was saying so in so many words.
Later lineups included the Doobie Brothers, Los Lobos, John Hiatt, Joe Cocker, Chris Isaak, and Was (Not Was)—artists who were said to have music that was inspired by or originated with the blues, even if no one would mistake them for Robert Johnson.
This year, the festival broadens its scope again, bringing in a first day of blues with Bonnie Raitt, JJ Grey and Mofro, Ana Popovic, Coco Montoya, Chris Cain and Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and a second day anchored by Nashville country music with Big & Rich, Kellie Pickler, Los Lonely Boys, Ryan Bingham and Drake White & the Big Fire.
“The new name gives us artistic license to present different types of music,” says Lewis, a music lover of a wide range of styles. “These days the genres are getting melded together. You can’t really stick it in a box. You can’t say, ‘This is just blues, this is just jazz, this is just country.’ That’s what’s exciting about music. You hear a performer and you can hear his or her influences. Some of it might be blues or jazz or New Orleans or pop or R&B. The crossover is amazing.”
Sunday, country day, is a challenge Lewis is excited about, although he did receive an obscenity-laced email from someone in Indiana who had been a regular festival goer and now won’t return.
“I said, ‘Excuse me, isn’t Saturday one of the best blues days we’ve ever had?’” Lewis answers. People can be stubborn, he says, but if they open their minds, they are usually rewarded.
“Country is really popular right now,” he adds. “A lot of acts are doing a lot of cool stuff. The key is, like we did in the first year, getting the word out to a new crowd and having them come and have a good time—and bringing their friends the next year.”
If he had had his way, Lewis says he would have brought in more obscure, rootsy performers, Texas red dirt bands and mandolin players, like the Dead Reckoners, the Punch Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show.
“You, me and a few hundred people would be there and enjoy it tremendously,” he jokes. “I’ll try to throw in acts like that when I can.”
Even the current lineup is eclectic. Los Lonely Boys on country day? No one would ever call them country. And Ryan Bingham, like Steve Earle or Ryan Adams, falls into that category which is no category: “Americana music.”
The festival has had great success finding up-and-comers and staying with them when they up and arrive. Trombone Shorty is a good example. The New Orleans horn player was unknown when he was booked to open the show. He became a big draw, going on to play the festival three times, and is now an international star. Florida’s JJ Grey and Mofro was the first band up in 2006, when people were still walking in. This year, they are second on the bill, right below Bonnie Raitt, and will no doubt be a headliner soon.
JJ Grey has influences all over the spectrum, including soul, rock, blues and funk.
“I don’t want to think and add something to make an album more bluesy or have more soul or funk,” Grey says in a phone interview. “I want it all to be there, but I want to stay out of the way of that happening.”
There’s no worry about genre in a set with his seven-piece band; they play soulful ballads and New Orleans-tinged jump tempo tunes that get crowds dancing.
Grey, with peacocks screeching from his Florida backyard, recalls touring with B.B. King and being afraid to talk to him, and the strangest festival lineup he was booked on—and how it ended up being one of the best he’d ever played.
In 2003 Grey opened for King and Jeff Beck on a national tour, but he kept a low profile, not wanting to bother the headliner. Then King’s grandson told him that B.B. thought he must hate him because he didn’t talk to him.
After he explained why, King invited him onto his bus and they hung out and talked in what Grey calls “a life-changing experience.”
Then there was the heavy metal Azkena festival in Bilbao, Spain, where Mofro and the Black Crowes were the only old-style rockers, among a lineup that offered a lot of Scandinavian death metal.
“But that was one of my favorite festivals I ever played,” he says. “I never had a reception from an audience like that, especially one that didn’t know you. They sang along, even though they didn’t know the words. They made them up. And then they serenaded us off the stage, singing the whole time. That was phenomenal.”
A few weeks back he played an unusual festival in Alabama that included country bands and Styx. The highlight, for him, was seeing Hank Williams, Jr.
“I was blown away. His set was a mixture of everything,” says Grey. “That guy’s voice is massive. He played rock ’n’ roll, straight-ahead rock, boogie woogie. I had no idea what I was in for. My point is, you never know what will happen until it happens.”
That’s the attitude Lewis wants to keep at Santa Cruz’s biggest festival.
“Country fans love live music,” he says. “We’re starting this the way we started the Blues Festival. We’re experimenting. I’m looking forward to booking next year. We’ll get an earlier start and we’ll have one under our belt.”
One of his standards is Coco Montoya, the rocking bluesman who doesn’t consider himself just a bluesman. Montoya has played 10 of Santa Cruz’s Blues Festivals, starting with the third. He also hosts the after-party jam session, which this year will be Sunday at the Catalyst.
Montoya’s set on the big stage will include Chris Cain and “Mighty” Mike Schermer.
“It’s all going around in a circle,” says Montoya, on the phone while driving from Chicago to Denver. “In the ’60s or ’70s, you’d have jazz acts and funk acts and rock acts on the same bill. It was just about music. That’s what was fun about going.”
Blues waxes and wanes in popularity, Montoya says. “It’s not at the highest high it’s known, but sooner or later there will be a rediscovery and the young people will embrace it like they did in the past.”
Like several performers on the bill, Montoya had a relationship with B.B. King. King played Santa Cruz last year in a benefit to raise money for heart surgery for Montoya’s wife, Lenora, who is in excellent health now.
“B.B. was very important in my life,” he says. “He was very nurturing and was there to help you along when you were fairly green in this business. He was the kindest, sweetest soul I’ve met in my life. It’s going to be very hard to be in a world without B.B. King.”
King played the Santa Cruz festival in 2006 and 2009. Does his passing represent the beginning of the end for blues?
“Well, it won’t be the same,” says Montoya. “But thank God there will always be people that are pure in the art of playing the blues. I feel good about the young people coming along, like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang. It’s like water. If you let it sit too long, it gets stagnant. It has to move and flow. While some traditions remain, there will always be people who push the envelope. They’ll be there.”
Among others, he likes “soulful” Bruno Mars, who Lenora turned him on to. He also respects Eric Clapton.
“I remember when he did a blues album and we all got a better pay day,” says Montoya. “He got severely criticized by some people who said he didn’t know the blues and he wasn’t a blues artist. I totally disagree. If you don’t hear the blues in his playing, you’re not listening. The blues will survive as long as there are people like Eric Clapton who really love and care about this music.”
Montoya says he’s learned to open his mind to new sounds, and the Santa Cruz audience will also.
“I once saw an interview with Vince Gill and the interviewer asked him the question, ‘What do you think of country now?’ Gill said he thought it was great, but it ‘may not be my cup of tea. But you know what, I wasn’t Merle Haggard’s cup of tea and it goes all the way back to Hank Williams, who may not have liked someone who came after him.’ He embraced that fact, and I think that has to happen. People have to open up and give things a chance. You’d be surprised how much they have in common.”
The Santa Cruz American Music Festival will be held Saturday, May 23 and Sunday, May 24 at Aptos Village Park. Tickets are available at santacruzamericanmusicfestival.com or day of show at the gates.