Monday, May 23, 2011

Tedeschi Trucks Band, 'Experience Hendrix' highlight Day One at 14th Annual Doheny Blues Festival

This review (co-written by Ben Wener and me) was originally posted on Sunday morning, May 22, 2011. A special "thank you" to Omega Events for access to take these photos throughout the two-day festival.

Doheny Blues off to a rousing start in Dana Point
Until I’m back on site, mellowing on the grass as waves crash nearby, I tend to forget that there’s no weekend bash in O.C. (maybe L.A. too) that better embodies the spirit of Monterey Pop than the annual Doheny Blues Festival in Dana Point.

Not only are the crowds laid-back, highly attentive and deeply into the sounds, but the performers — who this time range from gospel great Mavis Staples and New Orleans funk pioneers the Funky Meters to a fest-closing set Sunday evening from John Fogerty, with a dozen more in between — all evoke the soul-satisfying musical purity that rose out of the late ’60s.

And no act did that more during Saturday’s half of the festival than the touring Experience Hendrix troupe, an all-star array of modern and legendary guitar greats in a nearly three-hour tribute to the most innovative virtuoso who ever touched six strings. It’s the first time the concept has come to Orange County, but I daresay there was a sparked-up feel to this outdoor set that earlier appearances indoors at Gibson Amphitheatre couldn’t possibly capture. At Doheny, it felt a bit like Clapton’s Crossroads Festival had been miniaturized and shipped west.

It helped, of course, that the performances were uniformly strong, though there were occasional glitches (Susan Tedeschi found herself unplugged when she went to solo during “Spanish Castle Magic”) plus a jam or two that eventually dawdled. “Them Changes,” for instance, with Corey Glover of Living Colour on vocals, sizzled at first but fizzled out two-thirds in as a host of players — Robert Randolph, Derek Trucks, Los Lobos‘ David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas — never seemed sure who was taking the lead next.

The bulk of the salute, however, was overwhelmingly strong, even inspired, an Electric Church encounter that one likes to think would have made Jimi proud.

Certainly he would have appreciated the roots on display at the outset. First up was Billy Cox, Hendrix’s bassist for Band of Gypsys, who kicked things off with rousing (if sometimes wobbly) versions of “Stone Free” and “Freedom,” abetted by Indigenous’ Mato Nanji (on right) on guitar. Then came Ernie Isley, who played with Hendrix in the Isley Brothers before Jimi’s emergence in ’67, who provided some scorching licks for “Message to Love” and “Manic Depression,” that circular groove that Isley recalled Hendrix was “riffing a whole lot, even before the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.” (He tacked on a bit of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a coda, raising his custom-designed flower-print Fender Stratocaster to his face to bite the strings.)

From there it was one standout moment after another. With guitarist Vernon Reid still in captivating form, Living Colour roared through “Power of Soul” and “Crosstown Traffic,” with Glover climbing up rigs and hopping over fences to get closer to the crowd. Eric Johnson (pictured at the top of this post) was less flashy though no less technically elegant on renditions of “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “Bold as Love” and “Are You Experienced?,” assisted by bassist Scott Nelson and Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton.

Rosas and Hidalgo led robust readings of “Little Wing” (joined by Tedeschi) and “Hey Joe,” while Randolph was given the steep task of enlivening that most recognizable Jimi track, “Purple Haze.” The least compelling portion came from Jonny Lang and Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford — they had the skill for “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Fire,” just not well-rehearsed precision.

But then Steve Vai stepped out and flat-out mesmerized with a wizardly display, most transcendentally during “May This Be Love,” which had other players (Isley for one) marveling from the wings. … Ben Wener

While that parade of amazing heroes was the day’s surefire attraction, the 90-minute performance from the newly formed Tedeschi Trucks Band was the hidden weapon that will forever make Day 1 at this 14th Doheny Blues Festival so memorable.

The 11-member ensemble, led by Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, simply would have torn the roof off the joint if Doheny State Beach had one. A singer able to draw emotion out of each note, Tedeschi sang a mix of blues, gospel, Southern rock, soul and funk material with nonstop emotion. She hit high notes at full Joplinesque volume but proved her artistry is much deeper than that by employing dynamics, phrasing and awareness of what the rest of the band’s sonics to really make the group’s 10 songs come to life.

With husband and slide-guitar virtuoso Trucks by her side, the two revealed a troupe that surely doesn’t sound like Springsteen and the E-Street Band (they’d never funk so hard on a cover of Sly Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song”) yet has that same ability to unleash fiery highs and tender lows.

On the gospel blues of “Bound for Glory” (from the TTB’s forthcoming debut, Revelator), the group spotlighted a full horn section and solid backing vocals from harmony singers Mark Rivers and Mike Mattison. That’s about as much range as most bands of this ilk ever show — but those bands don’t have Derek Trucks, who delivered an exhilarating solo so perfect, it left the chatty party folks crowded around me nearly speechless. And that was only the second song in the set.

Other highlights included “Midnight in Harlem,” with Trucks’ otherworldly guitar work serving as the perfect introduction to the heavy blues groove of “Learn How to Love” bolstered by another monster solo from Trucks. Elsewhere, on “Until You Remember,” the horn section showed off its muscle, but this new unification is proving to be an outfit for which no beat or note was wasted or unwarranted.

While no other acts on the bill demonstrated such magic, blues lovers still got the kind of overall strong performances they’ve come to expect at this event.

Singer-songwriter Doug MacLeod opened the day on the Backporch Stage with a set of original acoustic blues, his rich baritone vocals, authentic guitar playing and conversational stories pleasing the crowd. Featuring songs from his recently-issued disc Brand New Eyes, the St. Louis native delivered songs about his own life and experiences, including the wonderful “Train of Change.”

Not nearly as original but clearly winning points with concert-goers crowded in front of the Doheny Stage was the Dennis Jones Band. While his songs weren’t musically or lyrically groundbreaking, singer-guitarist Jones and his crew entertained with catchy, well-played blues-rock, including the sexually-charged “Hot Sauce” and the Buddy Guy-flavored “Big Black Cat.”

The 44′s kicked off the action on the Sailor Jerry Stage with a gritty set, and a guest shot from acclaimed Anaheim guitarist Kid Ramos helped kick it up a notch. During a fast-paced 55-minute set, the group indulged an extended jam in which Ramos and singer-guitarist Johnny Main traded leads, while harmonica pro Tex Nakamura added fantastic solos. The band’s set ended with an uplifting version of “Going to the Church,” its propulsive drive getting fans moving in time to the music.

Providing a good shift in gears was an infectious helping of Louisiana music courtesy of Terrance Symien & the Zydeco Experience. The Grammy winner and his top-notch band blended blues with his brand of zydeco, transforming the waters of the Pacific into the Gulf of Mexico. (He even threw beads into the crowd at one point, bringing still more New Orleans flavor to Dana Point.)

Boasting a voice that recalls Janis Joplin but doesn’t merely mimic the legend, Eden Brent brought her forceful vocals and skilled piano playing to the Backporch Stage. I thought her version of the ballad “Beyond My Broken Dreams,” written in the wake of 9/11, was a highlight.

When B.B. & the Blues Shacks first appeared at Doheny Blues a few years ago, thrilled fans couldn’t believe the group was from Germany. After catching its full set Saturday afternoon, I’ve come away equally surprised. Though based in Hildesheim, the quintet offered up Chicago-style blues as convincingly as any artist on the bill. They were among my favorite acts of the day, offering up traditional blues with an easygoing approach.

Yet, while they revived straightforward blues, the legendary Funky Meters celebrated a specific sound, one they crafted in the ’60s and ’70s while bringing their funk-rock-New Orleans blues brew into the studio to assist Paul McCartney, Dr. John, Robert Palmer and others. On Saturday, the quartet (featuring founding members Art Neville and George Porter Jr.) recreated that magic with a solid and entertaining set to brighten up the mostly overcast skies over Doheny Beach. … Robert Kinsler

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