Around halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles lies Dana Point, a coastal city known for its mild climate, romantic scenery and killer surfing (earning a reference in the Beach Boy’s classic “Surfin’ Safari”). It’s also known for hosting California’s premier blues celebration, the Doheny Blues Festival.
Put on by Omega Events around the third week of May, the two-day experience takes place at Doheny State Beach, featuring three stages of music amongst the grassy knolls and Eucalyptus trees, overlooking the harbor. For the most part, the stages alternate performances, giving the audience the opportunity to catch entire sets without having to miss out on another act that they’d want to see. Aside from the music, there is an international food court with plenty of options and there are 50-plus vendors, marketing all kinds of hip products. There is microbrew tasting for the adults and a variety of games and activities for the kids. All of these happenings are appealing to some, but if you are simply looking for a little rest and relaxation, you can simply bust out the lawn chairs on the sandy beach and take in all the sounds of the weekend. Compared to large-scale festivals around the country that draw too many people for comfort, this festival’s much-smaller crowd creates a laidback atmosphere where lines are short and space is plentiful.
Once again, this year booked some of the biggest names in the blues universe, from established legends to the best of the up-and-comers. The event also continued their tradition of embracing folk, funk, rock, jazz, R&B, gospel and world music acts that incorporate the blues into their sound. The following is an account of this year’s highlights.
Kicking off the festival’s 14th year was singer-songwriter Doug Macleod, who treated ambitious early birds to a set of acoustic blues over at the intimate Backporch Stage. The St. Louis native’s set featured songs from his most recent release “Brand New Eyes,” a set of songs that merged the quiet potency of early blues recordings with Macleod’s unique style of playing.
The most well received performance of the afternoon would have to have been the Tedeschi Trucks Band set. The eleven-piece ensemble was able to travel a different road with every song, steering their blues-rock sound down avenues of funk, jazz, R&B and world music, with a delighted audience going for the ride every step of the way.
The band, led by husband-wife team of Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks and primarily features members of their respective solo groups, had been highly anticipated even though the band’s debut album Revelator had yet to be released and most fans would be unfamiliar with the material. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the couple at the helm are now big stars. Both Tedeschi and Trucks have surpassed opening-act status at blues festivals such as these, and the latter is no longer simply known for his affiliation with the Allman Brothers Band. Over the years they have both have played unforgettable sets on the main stages at the Doheny Blues Festival and other events nationwide that have solidified their place as true torchbearers of the blues, and this performance did just the same. Tedeschi validated the popular sentiment that she may be the second coming of Bonnie Raitt, while Trucks’ playing shined with polished notes reminiscent of Eric Clapton. In fact, Trucks and company covered Slowhand’s “Anyday,” from his time in Derek and the Dominoes, as well as “Coming Home,” from his days with Delaney and Bonnie. The band would also throw in takes of Joe Cocker’s “Space Captain” and Sly Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song,” to give the audience some familiar music to sing and dance to, even if those songs weren’t their own.
As the sun began to set and the early-evening breezes blew in, the Funky Meters transported everybody from the coastal shores of California to the coastal shores of Louisiana. With founding members of the original Meters Art Neville and George Porter Jr. leading the way, they grooved on the music of that groundbreaking New Orleans band, making for the funkiest set of the weekend.
At the beginning of the performance, Porter’s bass strings snapped, but he kept on playing, un-phased, even as a roadie changed his string mid-song. The grooves would remain smooth, and drummer Russell Batiste Jr. was always on the beat, keeping the audience out of their seats and moving their feet. Guitarist Brian Stoltz’s cool, calm and collected look was a contrast to his fiery fretwork, which soared over the hypnotic rhythms with Steve Cropper-like slickness. Neville and Porter shared vocal duties; both contributing their equally grizzled soulfulness to the band’s biggest songs, including “Fire on the Bayou,” “Africa” and “Cissy Strut.”
Headlining the first night was the all-star tribute to the music and legacy of Jimi Hendrix, featuring modern-day virtuosos and trailblazers, curated by the guitar legends’ sole surviving band mate, bassist Billy Cox. It’s been over forty years since Hendrix passed, but his influence still thrives at all ends of the musical spectrum, and Saturday night’s performers were a testament of his lasting impression on all kinds of sounds. Living Colour’s segment explored the funky and punky aspects to Jimi’s sound, while Caesar Rosas and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos channeled the Experience’s garage rock grit. Jonny Lang, Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford and Susan Tedeschi joined forces to tap into the psychedelic wonder of Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic.”
Originality is a defining characteristic of the Hendrix legacy, and that aspect was celebrated by many of the performers that partook in Saturday’s performance. Eric Johnson found a way to bring a studio masterpiece like “Are You Experienced?” to life in a live setting. Ernie Isley took his inspiration of Hendrix’s distortion-and-feedback treatment of the “Star Spangled Banner” and applied it to another centuries-old standard, “Amazing Grace.” Steve Vai opened his segment with an improvised instrumental loosely based on some of Hendrix’s sonic attributes, but took things into a realm of his own making.
There were many moments from this set that are going to stick with the Doheny audience for a long time to come. Robert Randolph’s take on “Purple Haze” might have rocked harder than any other segment of the tribute, while Steve Vai’s take on “May This Be Love” made for one of the most beautiful moments in the festival’s history. Ernie Isley’s epic take on “Message of Love” rode a wave of euphoria to the stars, and with Billy Cox by his side and laying it down on bass, the moment really seemed to speak to the soul. Living Colour’s Corey Glover fronted a guitar brigade made up of Randolph, Rosas, Hidalgo, Cox and Trucks for a take on “Them Changes” that certainly wowed the audience. However it was another all-star ensemble that Glover rocked the mic for, this time including his Living Colour band mates, Steve Vai and once again Robert Randolph, that really took things up a notch; their face-melting take on “Foxey Lady” left a sea of people with dropped jaws and bugged-out eyes.
With many of his songs painted in LSD rainbows and science fiction imagery, Hendrix never came off as a blues purist, but he did explore such territory with “Red House.” It was this twelve-bar blues number that served as the night’s encore, with Cox front and center and support from Randolph and Stevie Ray Vaughn drummer Chris Layton (who faithfully served behind the kit for most of the night’s performances). It was a fitting way to wrap up day one, and was sure to have people fired up for day two.
Cedric Burnside turned out to be the breakout star of the weekend with an early afternoon acoustic set that proved that there are still new ways to interpret the blues. While the history of the music is sure to be part of his sound, considering that he is the grandson of the hill-country blues legend R.L. Burnside, his style proved to be very much his own, with stories and songs about his own life from his forthcoming album “The Way I Am.”
Later on in the day, Burnside was billed to join Big Head Todd and the Monsters for a tribute to Robert Johnson, whose 100th birthday occurred two weeks earlier. Aside from the handful of Robert Johnson covers, the collaboration paid respects to the greats who followed Johnson, including covers of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, as if Johnson’s birthday also represented the birth of the blues itself. Not only did the partnership feature songs by such icons, the set also featured one of the great blues heroes, harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite. It was in the presence of such a towering figure that has contributed so much to the music being celebrated that gave this tribute that much more gravitas. For those looking for no-nonsense blues, this was the set to catch.
Roots & soul legend Mavis Staples delivered a set of gospel glory backed by three singers and a sparse three-piece band, relying heavily on material from her latest release “You Are Not Alone.” Having recorded the new album with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as her producer, a lot of younger fans turned up for her set and many were already familiar with the songs. Beaming with smile from cheek-to-cheek between verses, Mavis herself seemed to be thrilled to sing them. Of course, she did revisit her past with a few Staple Singers cuts, including that group’s cover of “The Weight” and their own monster hit “I’ll Take You There.” It was almost as if those who had missed out on their Sunday mass ended up at church anyway.
To close out the festival was the great songwriter and former front man of Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty, who delivered nothing short of a spiritual experience. For over 90 minutes, the rock and roll legend and his phenomenal band lit up the night with a ton from his CCR songbook, as well as a few solo cuts and covers.
Fogerty and his band, featuring world-class drummer Kenny Aronoff, kicked things off with a blazing “Hey Tonight” and then got down to the knitty-gritty with “Green River.” Following this one-two punch, Fogerty took a moment to introduce his self and tell a short story about the heavy showers at Woodstock that inspired the next song, “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” It was one CCR classic after another, with things getting swampy with “Suzie Q” and “Born on the Bayou,” before they got sweet with a stirring “Lodi” and a sugary “Lookin’ Out My Backdoor.
After this more than generous string of familiar tunes, Fogerty included a couple of songs from his most recent efforts. “Somebody Help Me” was one of the night’s mightiest rockers, while “Don’t You Wish It Were True” proved that Fogerty could still make brilliant statements about the times we live in. This would be the only taste of such music, as Fogerty decided to shy away from newer material to carry on down memory lane. Truth be told, it wouldn’t have hurt if he’d played a few more fresh tunes, because unlike some of his contemporaries from the 60’s and 70’s, Fogerty’s output today is strong, still relevant and worthy of insertion to his set of many hits.
It really didn’t matter what Fogerty and his band were playing, their contagious enthusiasm caught hold of the audience and the audience sent positive energy right back at the performers, both ends taking each other higher and higher. The band never needed to build up momentum; they had the crowd enthralled from the get-go and that magic never slipped. There were lift-a-lighter ballads like “Long As I Can See the Light” and covers of early rock and R&B hits by Little Richard, Roy Orbison and Ray Charles. There was the playful “Down on the Corner” and the ragged “Old Man Down the Road,” before bringing the set to a close with what is perhaps the greatest us-against-the-elites song of all-time, “Fortunate Son,” which this group ripped into with more conviction and punk rock bite than CCR might of ever had.
For the encore, the band returned with “Bad Moon Rising,” the prettiest apocalyptic song in the history of music, followed by the crown jewel of all Fogerty’s recordings, “Proud Mary.” Without a doubt, day two belonged to him. Fogerty headlined the festival years earlier in 2007 to much acclaim, but by all accounts, this performance was that much more incredible. In his mid 60’s, Fogerty looked great, he sounded great and genuinely seemed to love being up on the stage and play to the people.
And that was a wrap for the 14th annual Doheny Blues Festival. Aside from the sets mentioned, the were many more performances that made this year one to remember, including a once-in-a-lifetime reunion by the original Blasters and a barn-burning set of blues rock from local guitar hero Walter Trout. This year continued the tradition of telling the story of where the blues have been, where the music is today and where it is going. The festival successfully found common ground between older and younger fans, making for an event that finds a veteran blues crowd enjoying the sounds alongside the Bonnaroo generation. For those looking for a music getaway in Southern California, away from the typical big cities full of tourists like Los Angeles and San Diego, you might want to catch what’s happening in between next May, in the quiet coastal city of Dana Point.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band: Love Has Something Else to Say, Bound for Glory, Midnight in Harlem, Learn How to Love, Anyday, Until You Remember, Comin’ Home, That Did It, Sing a Simple Song > Drums, Space Captain
The Funky Meters: Africa, Ride Your Pony, Fire on the Bayou, Jungle Man, Just Kissed My Baby*, That Ain’t the Way to Carry On*, People Say, Dance to the Music, Let the Good Times Roll, Cissy Strut
* feat. Oteil Burbridge
Experience Hendrix: Stone Free *, Freedom *, Message of Love **, Manic Depression **, Amazing Grace **, Power of Soul ***, Crosstown Traffic ***, Burning of the Midnight Lamp ^, Bold As Love ^, Are You Experienced? ^, Can You See Me ^^, Little Wing^^^, Hey Joe^^, Purple Haze#, Them Changes#@, All Along the Watchtower #$, Spanish Castle Magic #^, The Wind Cries Mary #$, Fire #$, Jam *% May This Be Love (Waterfalls) *%, Foxey Lady *^ENCORE: Red House @
*Billy Cox, Chris Layton
**Ernie Isley, Billy Cox, Chris Layton
^Eric Johnson, Chris Layton
^^Caesar Rosas, David Hidalgo, Chris Layton
^^^ Caesar Rosas, David Hidalgo, Susan Tedeschi, Chris Layton
#Robert Randolph, Chris Layton
#@Robert Randolph, Derek Trucks, Corey Glover, Caesar Rosas, David Hidalgo, Billy Cox, Chris Layton
#$ Jonny Lang, Brad Whitford, Chris Layton
#^Jonny Lang, Brad Whitford, Susan Tedeschi, Chris Layton
*% Steve Vai, Chris Layton
*^ Steve Vai, Robert Randolph, Living Colour
@ Billy Cox, Robert Randolph, Chris Layton
Mavis Staples: Jesus is Mine, Wrote a Song For Everyone, Creep Along Moses, The Weight, Wade in the Water, Freedom Highway, Only the Lord Knows, We’re Gonna Make It, Instrumental, I Belong to the Band, I’ll Take You There
Big Head Todd & the Monsters feat. Charlie Musselwhite & Cedric Burnside: John the Revelator, Smokestack Lightning, Ellis Island, Dirty Juice, I’ll Play the Blues For You, Last Fair Deal Going Down, When You’ve Got A Good Friend, Crossroad Blues, Travelin’ Riverside Blues, Kind Hearted Woman, Jesus Just Left Chicago, I Love the Life I live, It’s Alright, Conquistador, Boom Boom, Her Own Kinda Woman, Cashbox, Broken Hearted Savior
John Fogerty: Hey Tonight, Green River, Who Will Stop the Rain?, Suzie Q, Born on the Bayou, Lodi, Lookin’ Out My Backdoor, Somebody Help Me, Ramble Tamble, Midnight Special, Don’t You Wish It Were True, As Long As I Can See the Light, Have You Ever Seen the Rain?, Pretty Woman, Keep On Chooglin’, The Night Time is the Right Time, Up Around the Bend, Down on the Corner, Centerfield, Good Golly Miss Molly, Old Man Down the Road, Fortunate Son, ENCORE: Bad Moon Rising, Proud Mary