Photo, from left, shows me with Lee Rocker and Michael Ubaldini. I had interviewed Lee Rocker several times over the years, but never met him until Hootenanny.
Artists who have performed at the annual Hootenanny festival know what to expect: a wonderful setting where live music is offered up nonstop on the main stage, with even well-known acts usually playing only 30-minute sets until the day’s final two headliners arrive to play an hour each.
And then there’s the heat. Oak Canyon Ranch, located next to Irvine Lake in a mostly rural area of Orange County, seems to always attract desert-like temperatures on the first Saturday in July. Such was the case again on Independence Day (July 4, 2009), when the blistering sun made hanging out in front of the main stage a challenge for even the most experienced concert-goers.
But despite the challenges, a number of veteran Hootenanny performers — and a first-ever appearance here by Los Lobos — made this long day race by.
Anyone who was beat back by the heat or just wanted to check out early missed one of the biggest surprises of the day, when Los Lobos brought out Blasters lead singer Phil Alvin and Reverend Horton Heat (aka singer-guitarist Jim Heath, pictured above) to play several songs together to close out their 13-song set, including a great version of the Blasters classic “Marie Marie” with Alvin singing the lyrics in both Spanish and English.
Los Lobos’ set was strong from the start, with the venerable troupe playing a mix of straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll (including a powerful “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Evangeline” to kick things off) and traditional Mexican folk music.
A number of the other top-tier acts have played at past Hootenannys, several delivering best-ever sets there — and they didn’t disappoint this year. Rev. Heat offered up a wealth of classics and new material during an hour-long showcase, with Heath and the rest of the Texas trio playing their winning blend of rockabilly, early punk rock and surf music on favorites such as “Galaxy 500,” “Baddest of the Bad” and “400 Bucks” — as well as a new Western swing song fitting for the fest, “Drinking & Smoking Cigarettes.”
But fans in search of strong musical performances didn’t have to wait all day to catch great acts.
Fountain Valley’s own Michael Ubaldini was the second artist of the day yet delivered an outstanding eight-song set of original roots-rock on the main stage. Backed by a strong four-man outfit, he sang several of his best-known songs, including “Ave. of 10 Cent Hearts,” “Mardi Gras” and “Scratch My Back.”
Lee Rocker also continued to prove that he’s one of the best around when it comes to interpreting rockabilly. His Hootenanny set was a home run, with the O.C. singer-bassist playing his own rip-roaring “Bulletproof,” several songs from his pioneering ’80s band Stray Cats (“Stray Cat Strut,” “Runaway Boys”) and choice cuts from Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Hank Williams (including an excellent version of “Lost Highway”).
The Blasters were actually much stronger than the past few times I’ve caught Phil Alvin & Co. Highlights of their set included a fiery “American Music” and a bluesy “Dark Night.” Guitarist Keith Wyatt was dynamic, unleashing a number of great solos throughout the group’s set.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s energetic neo-swing was actually a welcome change from the parade of rockabilly and guitar-fueled proponents, with the group’s four-member horn section and party-up delivery typified by sing-along favorites “You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)” and “Go Daddy-O.” (That’s frontman Scotty Moore in the pic at left.)
I only caught part of the always-powerful Supersuckers (who played a terrific new song titled “Anything Else”) and a few minutes of Nekromantix on the main stage because I had anticipated catching the Rockers in the Round showcase on the Second Stage … but I came away disappointed.
Not because area singer-songwriters Jeremy Popoff (of Lit), Danny Walker (Handsome Devil), Brian Coakley (Wax Apples) and several other artists were not worth hearing. It was simply that the volume from the main stage overwhelmed the acoustic performances. I did enjoy Walker’s “Purple Heart,” as well as an acoustic take of “Shake” featuring Coakley and his wife Cindy Jamie on duel vocals.
Of the other performances I caught -– specifically from No Dice, singer-songwriter Roger Alan Wade and Danish psychobilly band HorrorPops –- the artists thrilled the hardcore Hootenanny fans with solid performances, but their material lacked the strength of the stronger artists on the bill.
Yet, with such a wide-ranging lineup, a large display of classic cars and motorcycles, plus clothing vendors, food booths and people-watching opportunities galore, Hootenanny continues to be among the most treasured events on the Orange County concert calendar.