My review originally ran in The Orange County Register's Soundcheck blog on Sunday, May 20, 2012.
A special thanks to photographer Bob Steshetz for the use of his wonderful images with this post. You can visit his Bob By Request site here.
There was all kinds of talk and music-making related to braving tough times on the first day of the 15th annual Doheny Blues Festival in Dana Point -- but everybody seemed to be having far too much fun to get the blues Saturday (May 19, 2012).
With sunshine spanning from morning until late afternoon and temperatures never rising above the low 70s, many of the greatest performers who set foot on stage were all smiles. In fact, I can hardly remember another festival where the talent seemed to have as much fun as the crowd.
Officials with organizer Omega Events announced near the start of the festivities that for the first time in the history of the event both dates were sold out prior to the weekend kicking off. Further proof of the rampant good mood that washed over everyone came from a nice couple who approached me simply to say thank you for covering the festival.
How well did these good times and blues mix? Mostly fine, as evidenced by the majority of artists I caught over the course of 12-plus hours. Beginning with a breakfast set courtesy of San Diego's Red Lotus Revue and ending with simultaneously scheduled turns from Gregg Allman on the main stage and Big Pete on the Backporch stage (I caught some of each), the day overall was a blast.
And like any good party, there were some surprises.
There's an old adage that says musicians don't get out of bed before noon. How then to explain the fantastic set from Red Lotus Revue, a trio that performed a relatively early-morning set outside the front gates of the fest. Taking the stage (or should I say "asphalt") at 8:41 a.m., the group's original blues and covers of Sonny Boy Williamson were well suited for singer-harmonica master Karl Cabbage and guitarists Jimmy Zollo and Pete Fazzini. All three offered up outstanding musicianship that attracted a large crowd and plenty of cheers.
Lil' A & the Allnighters may have gotten a bit more sleep than that Revue, but the quintet launched the official opening at noon with a superb 45-minute performance on the Doheny Stage. The group's blend of Texas-style roots and Chicago blues was winning from start to finish. Highlights included a rousing instrumental take on Little Walter's "Off the Wall" and an equally reworked home run with another Sonny Boy Williamson classic, "Nine Below Zero."
One of the great things about this festival is that with three stages, it isn't difficult to seek out good sounds. So when I quickly tired of Johnny Winter on the main stage -- his fretwork was still sharp, but his vocals and his band's energy were less than ideal -- I headed over to the Backporch to catch Swedish outfit Trick Bag. Not only was the group in fine form, they had Southern California blues harp master Lynwood Slim sitting in.
And so the day went, with one great turn after another playing out on various stages. Cajun singer-songwriter and guitar great Benoit was absolutely stunning on the Sailor Jerry Stage, highlighting several songs from his excellent new album, Medicine. Whether dredging up soul-drenched Delta-style blues ballads (including a beautiful "Sunrise," his vocals front and center) or guitar-anchored blues or even funky stuff (like "Mudboat Melissa"), Benoit made plenty of new fans with his dynamic 75-minute Doheny appearance.
But I missed the last part of their set so I could sprint over to the Backporch and catch the last song from Cash Box Kings. It was worth the effort, as the group offered up its authentic Chicago blues with authority while maintaining the day's spirited fun.
Rounding out Saturday's best performances was the teaming of Osborne and the Holmes Brothers, who together featured songs from the singer's recent tribute to blues and soul, Bring It on Home. The ensemble blasted through playful romps ("I Don't Need No Doctor," "Shake Your Hips"), nuanced R&B ("Roll Like a Big Wheel," "I'm Qualified") and a completely rearranged version of her mid-'90s staple "One of Us" that silenced the standing throngs pressed near the stage with its emotional power.
Allman, the still-recuperating 64-year-old Hall of Famer, here making a rare solo appearance in O.C., was the highly-anticipated closer, yet the power of his set seemed to rise and fall depending on the strength of each cut. He opened with with the wonderful "I'm No Angel," but much of the rest of his performance lacked that initial forcefulness, despite an excellent six-member band he brought along to Dana Point. Other high points included a jazz-rock version of the Allman Brothers Band's classic "Dreams" and the layered gem "Melissa."
Before calling it a night, I checked in once more at the Backporch, where singer and harmonica virtuoso Big Pete and a bunch of his talented friends (including guitarist Kirk Fletcher) had transformed the area into a hopping blues club. People were dancing on the picnic tables and weren't about to let the party end quietly.
Wonder how much more things will pick up Sunday at Doheny Blues 15, bolstered by Buddy Guy in the afternoon, new sensation Trombone Shorty in the evening and Steve Miller Band to cap off the fest.