Thursday, May 27, 2010

More standout sets at Doheny Blues Fest

Here is my review of day 2 of the 13th annual Doheny Blues Festival. My review was originally published on the O.C. Register Web site (Soundcheck Blog) on Monday, May 24, 2010.

After catching the majority of the dozen-plus artists who performed Saturday at the first half of the 13th annual Doheny Blues Festival, I returned to Dana Point on Sunday ready for more.

Day 2 delivered a mostly different lineup, though several standouts from Day 1 returned, albeit in changed roles and settings.

Taj Mahal, who turned in a fantastic set Saturday with his Phantom Blues Band on the main stage, kicked things off Sunday morning by fronting his self-named trio on the more intimate Backporch Stage.

The 68-year-old singer-songwriter is a true pioneer, widely recognized as one of the first blues musicians to fuse those roots with sounds from Africa, Hawaii and the Caribbean. While he demonstrated that range of influences with his Saturday set, Mahal’s stripped-down approach on Sunday was focused squarely on the blues, his mighty voice and strong personality making this second performance a winner whether he played guitar, keyboards or banjo. Among the highlights were “TV Mama,” his fretwork sterling throughout the tune, and the playful “Fishin’ Blues.”

Jackie Greene, who had the finest set on Saturday, also performed scaled-back as part of a trio on Sunday. Word must have got out quickly about the power of Greene, because there was the same excitement and capacity-crowd dynamics in the area around the Backporch that greeted Taj Mahal earlier that morning.
Indeed, though Greene performed several songs he had spotlighted the day before, this time the vibe was entirely different. Acoustic renditions of “Gone Wanderin’” and “Uphill Mountain” allowed his voice to shine, while songs such as “Don’t Let the Devil Take Your Mind” in this up-close setting showcased his impressive skills as a songwriter in the tradition of Dylan, Springsteen and Mellencamp.

Kim Wilson was one of the busiest musicians of the weekend, as the harmonica virtuoso led the Fabulous Thunderbirds through a full-length set on Saturday before returning Sunday morning for an hour-long set with Nathan James, as well as a guest appearance with the Otis Taylor Band.

Just as Greene’s Saturday set was one of those captivating appearances fans will remember for years to come, so was Taylor’s performance Sunday afternoon. There was such power to the way he connected with the audience, heightening the encounter with cameos (including Eric Lindell at one point). Taylor is a gifted guitarist, his chops and arrangements enhanced here by the teamwork of fiddler Anne Harris, lead guitarist J.P. Johnson, drummer Larry Thompson, bassist/mandolin player Nick Amodeo and pedal steel whiz Chuck Campbell.

My other favorite performance from Day 2 came from John Németh — backed by his seven-man revue, fully capable of bringing the singer-songwriter-harmonica player’s fusion of soul and traditional R&B to life, he could seemingly do no wrong. Young performers are often afraid to slow things down too much at a fest, lest audiences wander off. Not Németh (pictured above). The audience that crowded around the Renaissance Stage seemed to love soulful ballads like “Why Not Me” as much as more powerful stuff, like the self-explanatory “Funky Feelin’.”

Coming in near the top of the pack was a wonderful appearance from veteran singer Bettye LaVette, featuring some of the sharp covers featured on her new album Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, due Tuesday. It was refreshing to see the talented singer sit down on stage (not on a chair, but on the stage) to sing a fully reworked blues version of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” then follow that up later in the set with a jaw-dropping version of the Who classic “Love Reign O’er Me,” with LaVette’s incredible voice more than capable of the heavy lifting that song requires.

Surprisingly, the day’s final three performers didn’t impress as much as they should. After watching excellent guitarist and vocalist Duke Robillard jam through a few songs, I wanted to make sure I caught the Robert Cray Band. Yet, perhaps because I have seen Cray & Co. so many times over the years, I found myself not particularly interested in his set — even during his signature hit “Smoking Gun.”

Meanwhile, Booker T. performed a pleasing set of classic R&B and instrumental material, naturally featuring his 1962 staple “Green Onions” — but the ensemble had the misfortune of following Taylor’s mind-blowing set, and suffered by comparison.

Finally, as much as I remain a fan of classic material from Crosby, Stills & Nash, including many of the titles they performed in their 90-minute headlining appearance on Sunday, watching the trio struggle to hit many of the notes that bind together those famous harmonies … well, maybe it was better that they were sometimes drowned out by the party people around me.

There were moments of magic in the set, particularly during the nine-minute rendition of “Wooden Ships.” But “Southern Cross” and “Our House,” for instance, lacked the precision and beauty that should now be routine for these Hall of Famers.

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