Thursday, May 21, 2015

2015 Doheny Blues Festival delivers on all fronts

The death of blues music great B.B. King just days before the arrival of the 18th edition of the Doheny Blues Festival meant that the annual celebration in Dana Point, CA would likely find a number of performers offering fitting tributes to the King of the Blues.
That proved to be the case throughout the two-day festival (May 16-17, 2015) with just about every performer either acknowledging Riley B. King or even covering (or dedicating) a song in his honor. Not only was King rightfully considered "The King of the Blues," he had performed at the Doheny Blues Festival three times in the past - most recently in May 2009 (You can read my Orange County Register review of King's set at the 12th edition of Doheny Blues Fest here).
Bonnie Raitt at Doheny Blues
Festival in Dana Point.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
Headliner Bonnie Raitt and her long-time band offered one of the event’s most heartfelt tributes during their outstanding headlining set on the main Doheny Stage on Sunday night. Playing a two-song tribute, keyboardist Mike Finnigan recalled his participation in a King recording session two decades ago and how special that was before leading the ensemble through a high-powered “I've Got News For You.”
Then Raitt took over lead vocals on a song that both she and King have each featured in their live shows, the spirited Chicago blues rocker “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.” Raitt’s spicy lead vocals and slide work anchored the performance, but there was a swelling point where Finnigan and guitarist George Marinelli did a tandem solo section capturing the unspoken sentiment of the sadness of King’s departure mixed with the joy that he gave so much in his amazing career.
Raitt’s full 90-minute performance was a triumph, in part because of her enduring talents as a singer and slide guitarist, but also for her unique gifts as an artist able to interpret great songs. I caught all or part of 19 sets over the two-day fest and few moments were as powerful as her tender renditions of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” “I Can't Make You Love Me” (penned by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin) and “Dimming of the Day” (a Richard Thompson song she dedicated to her late brother Steve).

Although Raitt's set was the final one to play out over the 18th edition of the Doheny Blues Festival, it proved to be just one of many memorable appearances to play out on the three stages along the shores of the Pacific Ocean at beautiful Doheny State Beach.

Saturday, May 16, 2015
Paul Rodgers headlines day 1.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
The legendary rocker Paul Rodgers headlined on the Doheny Stage on the first day of the event, performing a 90-minute set that covered his 45-year career in spades. Armed with loads of hits, a life-long appreciation of the blues that gave birth to Free, Bad Company and The Firm, Rodgers brought all those elements together during his set. With Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist Howard Leese (of Heart fame) by his side and a solid rhythm section in tow, the set couldn't have been stronger. Rodgers has long since recognized that the enduring power of his songs is rooted in their connection with the audience, so his live performances thrive on sing-along crowds like the great one on hand in Dana Point. While it's no surprise fans were screaming along with Bad Company rockers like "Can't Get Enough," "Shooting Star" and "Feel Like Makin' Love," what was more impressive were the moments when the audience dove head first in singing along with little or not prompting during "Run With the Pack" and "Burnin' Sky."

Rodgers also celebrated the release of his most recent album (2014's "The Royal Sessions") with a potent performance of "Born Under a Bad Sign," a Memphis blues song that allowed the 65-years-young singer to showcase his amazing pipes. Rodgers' fast-moving set closed with a rousing version of the Free classic "All Right Now" and a British blues-drenched take on the T-Bone Walker classic "Stormy Monday."

Rodgers' impressive first-time appearance at Doheny was icing on the cake for Saturday concertgoers; the day had featured a number of fine performances on all three stages. Shari Puorto had kicked things off before noon on the Backporch, blending blues and funk while backed by a solid four-man band. An early highlight was "Out Of My Mind," a Texas-styled uptempo number where she got out onto the tables to get the party started on a high note.

The early afternoon was bolstered by strong outings from Swedish outfit Trickbag (experts on extolling Chicago blues) on the Sailor Jerry Stage, and then Eric Lindell teaming with Texas guitar great Anson Funderburgh offering up more than an hour of great blues on the Backporch. I only caught a bit of the North Mississippi Allstars, but was fully impressed with the group's high-octane slide-guitar blues. 

Those artists set the stage for some of the heavy hitters, including Los Lobos, whose understated approach doesn't always provide a great display at a big outdoor concert setting. The group's decision not to play their biggest hits  namely "Will the Wolf Survive?" and their cover of "La Bamba" - was also puzzling. Still, music lovers had to be pleased with the East Los Angeles-spawned troupe's '50s styled rocker "Evangeline" and the Southern-fried blues gem "Kiko and the Lavender Moon."
Guitarist Eddie Perez of The Mavericks.
Photo: Robert Kinsler

In addition to Rodgers' night-ending set, my favorite appearance on day one was The Mavericks. Although the band's sound touches on the blues, the Mavericks' sound is rich in an eclectic brew that includes Americana, Latin, folk, Tex-Mex and rockabilly. No matter how one might describe the band, the Mavericks delivered an incredible 75-minute performance on the Jerry Sailor stage. 

Featuring material off their two most recent LPs (2013's "In Time" and 2015's "Mono"), singer-rhythm guitarist Raul Malo, lead guitarist Eddie Perez and keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden led the band through standouts such as the instantly-infectious "What You Do To Me" and "Back in Your Arms Again" early on, with latter-half classics such as an amazing cover of Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou" and rousing "Dance in the Moonlight" thrilling new and long-time fans - many of whom (like yours truly) who were on their feet for the entire set. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015
Brandon "Taz" Niederauer proved he is already among the blues
brightest young stars. Photo: Bob Steshetz
In addition to the aforementioned Raitt, there were two other Sunday sets that were as powerful, both playing out on the Sailor Jerry Stage. An early afternoon set by Otis Taylor was powerful from start to finish, highlighted by the explosive power of Taylor's four-member band (featuring outstanding fiddler Anne Harris) and 12-year-old guest Brandon “Taz” Niederauer (who simply amazed everyone in the crowd). The young New York guitarist delivered artful, speedy and powerful rhythm and lead guitar work throughout the 65-minute set. Hypnotic versions of “Hey Joe,” “Red Meat” and the explosive “Rain So Hard” were among the songs where Taylor, “Taz” and the musicians thrilled a crowd packed in front of the stage.
Equally powerful was the return of brothers Dave and Phil Alvin (who last performed here with the Blasters’ original lineup in 2011), this time able to feature a batch of new songs thanks to the release of their 2014 collection “Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy.” Sure enough, the brothers performed a number of gems from that collection as well as the playful “What's Up With Your Brother” (off Dave’s 2011 solo album “Eleven Eleven”) and the Blasters’ staple “Marie, Marie.”
Boz Scaggs at Doheny.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
Delivering solid sets that nevertheless didn’t rise to the level of the day's best were blue-eyed soul soft-rocker Boz Scaggs (making his best showing with an energetic “Lido Shuffle”) and blues-rocker Beth Hart (displaying her strong soprano on “Might As Well Smile”).
Doheny Blues Festival is always a place where fans can catch a wide-ranging field of artists who cover the genre’s far corners. On Sunday, Chicago blues lovers got excellent turns from Big Jon Atkinson and the Nationals, and Lurrie Bell. Austin singer-guitarist Carolyn Wonderland performed her affecting Texas blues-rock brew on the Backporch Stage, while a little later the Rebirth Brass Band brought a New Orleans-styled party to the main Doheny Stage.

You can more details about the 2015 Doheny Blues Festival via writer George A. Paul's review posted on his Music Minded blog here.

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