Review published on http://www.ocregister.com/ on Sunday, May 11, 2008
There are headlining performers who often earn top billing via name recognition and album sales. But in the world of blues, the formula for success seems to be divided between those who have been around forever (B.B. King, the late John Lee Hooker) or bust out of the gate so quickly that fans want to know what all the fuss is about.
But day one at the 11th running of Omega Events' Doheny Blues Festival in Dana Point - staged on Saturday, May 17, 2008 - found there can be a happy medium.
When Jonny Lang burst on the scene in 1996, he was a fresh-faced 15-year-old kid from Fargo, N.D., who nevertheless played powerfully on electric guitar and already had a voice that recalled a young Joe Cocker.
Now 27, Lang used the occasion of his night-ending spot before a capacity-crowd on the Main Stage to demonstrate he is now a singer, guitarist and frontman whose time has clearly arrived.
When Lang last performed at the Doheny Blues Fest in 2003, he was good, but this time he was great over the course of his 90-minute showcase. The searing guitar attack now is part of a wider artistic focus that still involves the well-known early staples of his set ("Wander This World," "I Am," "Lie to Me"), but also features gospel and R&B influences in mature songs such as "Thankful" and "Turn Around."
Of the other big names performing on Saturday, Robert Cray's story is much like Lang's. He came to prominence in the 1980s, finding popularity outside of the blues world with his "Strong Persuader" album and the sure-fire hit "Smoking Gun."
But Cray has done nothing but keep moving forward. In Dana Point, he used his soulful and wonderful voice and strong guitar playing in the service of gems such as "The One in the Middle" and "Right Next Door (Because of Me)."
Although Eric Burdon was one of the architects of the British Invasion in the 1960s, his Saturday performance was far from essential. In one of the biggest disappointments of the day, Burdon & the Animals played big hits such as "We Gotta Get Out of this Place," "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and "House of the Rising Sun" to the delight of casual fans. But Burdon's once-masterful voice has lost its range and power, and the arrangements sounded closer to a bar band's delivery than that of a seminal force from the 1960s.
However, most of the day's performances were strong and worth the walking required to get to all three stages as they offered a rotating schedule of artists. On the acoustic Backporch, Bobby Rush told stories and sang the blues from throughout his 53-year recording career. And earlier on the same stage, harmonica wiz Lazy Lester teamed with Kid Ramos, Johnny Bazz and Bill Bateman for some Louisiana-styled Delta offerings that quickly helped the crowd forget about the noontime sun.
Part of Doheny's contribution to audiences is presenting influential artists to bring depth to the fest. At 94, singer-keyboardist Pinetop Perkins is truly one of the last of the original guard of Mississippi bluesmen. He remains an important voice in the blues, and teamed with 77-year-old guitarist Hubert Sumlin (a longtime player with Howlin' Wolf's band) and harmonica great Willie "Big Eyes" Smith (the youngster in the trio, he turns 72 this year) to play a mix of Chicago and Delta blues.
And those who didn't get to the blues fest until late missed the so-called Breakfast Set, with guitar virtuosos Pat Hennessy and Terry Medeiros playing instrumentals such as "Rude Mood" and a strong original, "Long Lean Woman." And kicking things off on the Main Stage, Elnora and Sumpthin' Cookin' also turned in a strong set of jazz-tinged blues tunes. And area singer-guitarist Leff Rogers also impressed the early arriving fans with a set of electric guitar-styled blues throughout his 45-minute set.