By Andy J. Gordon
The Long Beach Blues Festival took place at the beautiful Rainbow Lagoon Park over Labor Day weekend. The weather was hot, and so was the music. The festival was a major fund-raiser for publicly supported radio station KKJZ, located at California State University in Long Beach and known as “America’s Jazz and Blues Station.” Celebrating their 30th anniversary, the festival had a world-class lineup of artists on September 5 and 6.
It was a great way for families, couples, hipsters, and especially blues fans to spend an end of summer weekend. People hauled their chairs, blankets, and coolers to the grassy Lagoon Park. Fans packed tightly on the grass, and there was plenty of shade for concertgoers who did not want to burn under the afternoon sun. For those that did not bring their own picnic treats, vendors were selling a delectable variety of food choices. Fans could choose from BBQ, Cajun specialties, burgers, hot dogs, kettle corn, roast corn on the cob, pizza, gyros, wine, beer, and lemonade. Other vendors were selling colorful shirts, hats, crafts, and blues music CDs.
Saturday’s lineup started with a bang as Hill Country Revue (www.hillcountryrevue.com/) delivered an energetic set of swamp-infused blues and rock. This was only the third stop on their tour and follows their debut album release “Make Your Move” (reviewed here: http://jetsetjen.com/articles/music/cd-hill-country-revue-make-move). Vocalist Daniel Robert Coburn, and slide guitar wizard Kirk Smithhart said they enjoy festivals. By traveling together across the country by van, the newly formed band is really getting to know each other, Smithhart explained. They are writing new material and trying it out on stage. Coburn said it is great to be on stage with such great musicians. He often just stands back and listens. On Saturday, the fans were equally impressed.
Following Hill Country Revue was the Homemade Jamz Blues Band (www.hmjamzbluesband.com/). The band is the youngest ever nominated for a Blues Music Award. The sibling trio earned plenty of new fans with a set that displayed their skills, and a soulful spirit that seemed to be in contradiction with their young ages. Taya, the 10-year-old drummer, seemed to be the big crowd pleaser. Next up was Bettye LaVette (www.bettyelavette.com/), whose soul singing was impressive, but her slower-paced songs under the blazing afternoon sun made me feel like it was nap time.
That changed as soon as Johnny Winter (www.johnnywinter.net/welcome/) and his band took the stage. It always amazes me when an elderly, frail, seemingly well-past-his-prime musician delivers a mind-blowing set. Winter, who struggled to get to his seat at the front of the stage, sang and played like a young gunslinger. His set was energetic and tight.
Speaking of young gunslingers, Kenny Wayne Shepherd came out at the end of the set, and joined Winter for a blazing double lead guitar sendoff. After Shepherd left the stage, Winter and his band played a blues guitar version of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61” for their encore. It was a great set and reminder that the old guard can still deliver electrifying blues.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd (www.kennywayneshepherd.net/) came out next with his band for a blistering set of blues and rock. Shepherd is clearly a guitar virtuoso, who sometimes tries to be too flashy. That was not a problem today as he blazed through some of his original material, blues classics, and a brilliant version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.”
Last up on Saturday was New Orleans favorite the Funky Meters (www.funkymeters.com/). Art Neville, 72, founded the Meters along with George Porter Jr., and has been preaching the funk for a half century. The Funky Meters are a reinvention of the original group, with Neville on organ and vocals, George Porter, Jr. on bass, and Russell Batiste on drums. Their usual guitarist, Ian Neville, who is Art’s son, could not make the trip, so they enlisted frequent collaborator, Eric Krasno (founding member of Soulive and Lettuce). Krasno, known as a soul, rock, jazz, and jam band master, had no problem delivering the funk.
Their set was tight, energetic, and featured solos by each musician. Neville, known as “Papa Funk,” uses a wheelchair and cane to get around due to back problems, but still enjoys travelling and performing. He said he loves to see young people in the audience, and is encouraged to see folks around the country that appreciate his music. When asked whether he is considering retiring, he responded, “no, I’m thinking about putting a new band together.” I am not sure if he was teasing me, but if he was serious, there are many talented Neville family members, and a multitude of other artists that would love to play with Papa Funk. As Saturday’s show ended, I was thinking how lucky we are to see him still performing on stage.
Sunday’s festivities opened with more sunny skies, a little less heat, and another lineup of great musicians. The Andy Walo Trio (www.andywalo.com/) got things rolling with their traditional guitar-driven blues. Diunna Greenleaf (www.diunna.com/home.html) followed, and she belted out a set of tight, solid songs. With a strong supporting band, her amazing vocals got many in the crowd on its feet, especially when she came off the stage and into the crowd, singing all along the way.
Things really got going when the Blind Boys of Alabama (www.blindboys.com/) took the stage in matching lavender suits. Under a cloudless sky, they offered a blend of gospel, blues, and soul that brought religion to the masses. Their version of “Amazing Grace,” which sounded like a mash-up with “House of the Rising Sun,” really got the crowd moving. Other selections from their most recent CD “Down In New Orleans” showcased their great harmonies, and blues-laced sound.
Sonny Landreth (www.sonnylandreth.com/) followed the Blind Boys set with a searing display of guitar pyrotechnics. Landreth uses a fingerpicking style that is visually amazing and sonically pleasing. He delivered a combination of songs that demonstrated his ability to switch between blues, zydeco, and rock.
Mavis Staples (www.mavisstaples.com/), the lead voice of the Staple Singers, came on stage next, and fronted a band of talented musicians. She ran through a number of soulful tunes and then left the stage while her band showed their blues chops. When she returned, she told the audience about performing with her father for Martin Luther King, Jr. The band launched into a version of “Freedom Highway,” the invigorating civil-rights anthem that is a Staple Singers classic from 1965. The crowd was inspired and moved by the spiritual vibes coming from the stage. She closed things out with another Staple Singers song, “I’ll Take You There,” a number-one hit from 1972.
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Womack (www.bobbywomack.com/) closed the show on Sunday. After a long weekend of blues, soul, funk, and rock, the crowd that remained was a large group of diehard Womack fans. He was able to charm them with several of his R & B hits including “That’s The Way I Feel About Cha.”
The festival ended and fans streamed out of the Rainbow Lagoon Park. There was a feeling of rejuvenation and restoration because the blues is alive and well. This year’s festival proved that admirably. I hope that KKJZ continues to keep the blues, America’s true original musical art form on the airwaves, and fans continue to show their support by turning out for next year’s show.
Lagoon photo courtesy the Long Beach Blues Festival.
All other photos by Andy J. Gordon.