Tuesday, May 20, 2014

2014 Doheny Blues Festival roundup: Gregg Allman, Buddy Guy, Nikki Hill, the Doobie Brothers, Vintage Trouble, James Cotton, more!

What follows is an extended version of the two reviews that ran in The Orange County Register earlier this week covering the 2014 Doheny Blues Festival (Saturday and Sunday, May 17-18, 2014) in Dana Point.
Patrick Simmons and Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers perform at the Doheny Blues Festival on May 18.
Photo: Kelly A. Swift


Up-and-comers enjoy spotlight at Doheny Blues Festival

Lesser-known artists take advantage of opportunity at first day of annual Dana Point bash.



Who: Gregg Allman, Buddy Guy, Nikki Hill, Matthew Curry, the 44s, Kid Ramos and more
Where: Doheny State Beach, Dana Point
When: May 17
Day 1 of the 2014 Doheny Blues Festival featured a mix sure to please all types of fans, with 11 sets spread across three stages. But for the first time in the event’s 17-year history, the best turns belonged to lesser-known artists playing the intimate Backporch stage.
Not that headliners Gregg Allman and Buddy Guy didn’t deliver strongly on the main platform, but there was an energy surrounding these up-and-comers that was mostly missing from the more high-profile sets.
Case in point: a night-ending performance from Allman that coincided with a blues jam anchored by the 44s on the Backporch. Both sets featured guests, with Allman bringing up renowned saxophonist Mindi Abair early on, although the audience near the front of the stage continued to chat away and party with little interest, despite a few cheers when Abair delivered a gritty solo.
A few minutes later at the Backporch, a considerably smaller but far more enthusiastic crowd tuned in as local hero Kid Ramos joined the Los Angeles blues-roots rockers commanding that stage. Johnny Main, the 44s’ frontman, was charged up as he sang, played guitar and led his band through a blistering set celebrating the power of the blues.
The highlight was a tribute to the late harmonica great Lester Butler (of the Red Devils), in a piece titled “Devil Woman,” which had a heavy and infectious groove further enhanced by Jacob Huffman’s sublime work on mouth harp. That performance blew away the first 30 minutes of Allman’s affair, including his staple, “I’m No Angel.”
Likewise, earlier in the day, Guy could be seen on the Doheny Stage while Durham, N.C., singer Nikki Hill took over on the Backporch.
The legend delivered his characteristic brand of Chicago blues, tearing away at his guitar and thrilling the crowd with humor-laced material. At 77, he remains a marvel, able to perform much as he did in his prime. Yet, a frequent presence in Orange County, his choices were almost identical to those at recent appearances at City National Grove of Anaheim and the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. As he did at one of those shows, he reiterated: “They don’t play this kind of blues on the radio anymore, (but) if they call me, I’ll bring it.”
For those who have caught him recently, a better choice was to check out the buzz-worthy Hill and her amazing three-man band. Her voice ranged from sweet on the ballads “Gotta Find My Baby” and “Don’t Cry Anymore” to gritty on rhythm and blues standards like Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” and Sam Cooke’s “Twisting the Night Away.” Guitarist Matt Hill was particularly impressive during an extended take on the Chuck Berry classic, “Sweet Little Rock ’n’ Roll” as well as a set-ending, crowd-goes-crazy version of AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie.”
Guitarist Matthew Curry rocked Doheny.
Photo: Robert Kinsler
Another standout from the day was teen frets-master Matthew Curry, who scorched the Backporch with the force and intensity of Otis Taylor when he played that stage in 2012. The singer-guitarist served up an authentic blend of original Southern rock, British blues and Jimi Hendrix that earned the relative unknown spontaneous standing ovations.
High marks also must go to the Americans, whose spirited roots-rock kicked off the day; their lush “Foreign Land” was especially memorable. John Nemeth & the Bo-Keys, joined by singer Percy Wiggins, brought a nice taste of Memphis with a full-length set on the Sailor Jerry Stage. Key bits included the raw “Keep the Love a-Comin’,” featuring Nemeth’s stirring harmonica skills, and the soulful “Testify My Love,” during which he held a series of vocal notes that added to the song’s emotional weight.

Doheny Blues' second day outshines first

The heavier half of the Dana Point festival came capped by roaring sets from the Doobie Brothers, Vintage Trouble and Gov’t Mule, plus a heartening turn from James Cotton.



Who: The Doobie Brothers, Gov't Mule, Vintage Trouble, Roy Gaines, James Cotton and more
Where: Doheny State Beach, Dana Point
When: May 18
The second half of this year’s Doheny Blues Festival clearly outdistanced the first for a number of reasons, though chiefly because every one of its 11 performances was sharp. Between simultaneous morning sets from legendary James Cotton and local hero Eric Sardinas to night-ending appearances from the Doobie Brothers on the main stage and guitarist Roy Gaines on the Backporch, it was next to impossible to take a break without risking missing something big.
A throat cancer survivor, the 78-year-old Cotton can no longer sing, so he has refocused on blues harp while members of his excellent backing band handle vocal duties. On Sunday, several potent songs off his just-released album, Cotton Mouth Man, were included, with “He Was There” and the title track showcasing his mastery. He often swapped one “Mississippi saxophone” for another, utilizing each’s tones to add different colors.
Ruthie Foster on May 18. Photo: Robert Kinsler
Variety was another key element to Sunday’s fast-moving roster. Cotton had no sooner ended when singer-songwriter-guitarist Ruthie Foster and her three-man band roused the crowd with more than an hour of originals and tasty remakes, blending everything from gospel to soul. A gifted singer, Foster’s ambition was evidenced by a thoroughly original interpretation of “Ring of Fire,” offered as a lovely jazz-tinged ballad, bolstered by Scotty Miller’s touching keyboard work.
The early afternoon offered concertgoers several hard choices, with Keb’ Mo’ and the California Honeydrops performing at the same time. (I missed the latter but heard many fans say it was their favorite.)
Keb’ Mo’, however, proved yet again why he’s a frequent attraction at this Dana Point bash. He’s an exceptional acoustic guitarist whose approach traces back to Robert Johnson’s, yet his singer-songwriter manner is his alone and has extended the lyricism of the blues genre as much as anyone in recent memory. Spotlighting classics from his 20-year discography as well as new material from his latest, Bluesamericana, the Los Angeles native’s 70-minute outing made room for fan favorites like “Suitcase” and “Shave Yo’ Legs” (the latter a prime example of how he mixes tender romanticism and comedy) alongside compelling fresh bits (“The Worst Is Yet to Come,” “Somebody Hurt You”).
Late afternoon and early evening sets continued to produce an impressive range of performances.
Gov’t Mule’s hard-edged jams were commanding on the main stage, with singer-guitarist Warren Haynes unleashing stirring licks on “Game Face” and “Inside Outside Woman Blues #3.” Meanwhile, on the Backporch, James Intveld and Rosie Flores were found reviving traditional country & Western songs and rockabilly with an authentic touch that recalled Buck Owens, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Their harmonies were perfect and the group’s overall sound was a welcome departure from some of the day’s heavier fare.
Vintage Trouble flat-out stormed the Sailor Jerry stage with the flair and passion the retro-modern L.A. quartet exudes everywhere they play. With the audience singing, dancing and moving to the group’s rock ’n’ soul hybrid, frontman Ty Taylor led the outfit through more than an hour of great songs.
Whether kicking beach balls back into the crowd or mingling among them, Taylor’s presence could not be denied. The rousing rocker “Blues Hand Me Down” and soul ballad “Nancy Lee” were early highlights, while several as-yet-unreleased numbers such as “Lowdown Dirty Dog” and “Lo and Behold” revealed that guitarist Nalle Colt, bassist Rick Dill and drummer Richard Danielson continue to conjure something special as they seek out exciting ways to give ’60s R&B a contemporary style.
The long day ended with two more strong sets. The Doobie Brothers opened with an energetic one-two punch of “Jesus Is Just Alright” and “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” though the ensemble was particularly potent later on during the beautiful “Clear as the Driven Snow,” filled out by lush vocals and a textured arrangement.
Singer-guitarist Roy Gaines on the Backporch.
Photo: Robert Kinsler
And on the Backporch, guitarist Roy Gaines attacked with his fretwork and sang with feeling on a number of heady tunes, notably “The War Is Over,” during which he played like a hungry 21-year-old, and the swinging “Jump in My Cadillac,” which became a lively showdown with his supporting six-stringer.

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