Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Day 2 at Doheny Blues Festival 15: Otis Taylor, Steve Miller Band and Buddy Guy among standouts

My review originally ran on The Orange County Register site on Monday, May 21. A special thanks to photographer Bob Steshetz for the use of his great pics! You can visit his Bob By Request site here.

Live review: Steve Miller, Buddy Guy, Otis Taylor keep Doheny Blues smokin’ through Day 2

The second half of the 15th annual Doheny Blues weekend (May 19-20, 2012) in Dana Point played out with a strength that gripped the first day.

The festivities began with an impressive set from singer-guitarist Ray Goren (seen on right), who at the mere age of 12 already plays his Fender like a master, and the event didn’t end until Steve Miller Band proved that the troupe’s recent creative revival continues to make its recent blues-centered shows more than a nostalgic romp. In between came plenty of other highlights, notably how Otis Taylor, at 63, brings to blues what bands like Radiohead and Arcade Fire do for rock.

It’s amazing to think how much better Steve Miller and his outstanding five-man band were in their headlining appearance Sunday night than the last time the veteran rocker performed at the Doheny Days fest on this same site in September 2000, on a bill with the late John Lee Hooker.

But it wasn’t just his FM radio staples that sounded better almost a dozen years later. Since the release of two notable blues discs (2010′s Bingo! and last year’s Let Your Hair Down Down) and the death of longtime friend and harmonica great Norton Buffalo in 2009, Miller exhibits an obvious appreciation for where he’s been. He recalled playing rhythm guitar for Buddy Guy when he started out, for instance, and thanked him and all the other artists who shared the bill Sunday.

He also knows what is at stake in making the most of here and now, and has been a champion of getting young people into the blues and American music. It was great to see several teens positioned close to the stage singing along with Miller’s songs as if he was the next big thing.

His set was carefully structured to kick off with some of his biggest hits (“Jet Airliner,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Abracadabra”) and then go into an extended set of blues, during which he had lead guitarist Doug Hamblin on hand. That early Chicago feel that influenced Miller (seen on right) was highlighted in spirited renditions of obscurities and old standbys where he shared lead vocals with Sonny Charles.

“Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and “Tramp” were standouts amid that segment, the rich music ideally suited for a blues fest. Miller’s singing was fine and his guitar playing flawless whether indulging his well-known smashes or gems of old across a wonderful 100-minute set.

Other veterans in the mix Sunday also proved they remain at the top of their game.

Guy, the 75-year-old legend (seen on the left), brought his high-powered approach to the Doheny Stage a bit earlier in the day, blending dazzling technique, comedic storytelling and his booming voice — all more impressive here than at City National Grove of Anaheim last September. His version of Hooker’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” was a highlight, as he playfully turned his guitar around and scratched it against his chest, creating unique sounds and proving that his still-speedy leads aren’t the only sparks he can bring to the stage.

Taylor may have been a bit under the weather (he apologized several times for hoarseness), but that didn’t stop him and his mighty backing band from bringing their scorched-earth sound to the Backporch Stage. That area is normally a quiet place for people to relax and kick back while taking in acoustic performances, but Taylor would have none of that.

In songs that blended his intoxicating, open-to-interpretation stories with driving rhythms, Taylor (seen on left) had fans cheering and moving. His self-penned “Rain So Hard,” “Blind Piano Teacher” and a version of the rock standard “Hey Joe” (best known by Hendrix) were all potent this afternoon. Amazing fiddler Anne Harris (who plays violin like Guy wields his guitar) and the rest of Taylor’s band — an ensemble diverse and strong enough to stand out at Coachella — seemed to bring their A-game to this gig.

Other noteworthy performances included a pleasing breakfast set from singer and harmonica player San Pedro Slim; a wow-factor outing from Irvine’s own Goren, who at only 12 showed he not only plays like Jonny Lang but sings with convincing emotion while improvising on artful arrangements of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

Two other sets also really smoked: Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue offered up a heavy dose of funk, blues and horn-anchored soul on the Sailor Jerry Stage early in the evening, while rockabilly and American roots were celebrated during the Paladins‘ 75-minute stint on the Backporch.

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