Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review: Doheny Blues Festival marks 20th Anniversary

Moreland & Arbuckle performing on the Backporch Stage at Doheny Blues Festival in Dana Point, CA. From left, Dustin Arbuckle, Kendall Newby and Aaron Moreland.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
As Orange County's most celebrated and enduring live music event, it's no surprise that the 20th Annual Doheny Blues Festival offered a slew of great sets on Saturday and Sunday, May 20-21, 2017.

The seaside event featured a total of 23 artists playing on three stages, as well as a full-length breakfast set staged outside the front gates each morning. Here is a recap of a dozen highlights this writer caught over the sun-drenched weekend in Dana Point.

From left, Monster Mike Welch and
Mike Ledbetter.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
As the first artist to perform on the Doheny Stage on Saturday, the Casey Hensley set the tone for the strong day to come. Armed with a powerful voice, the San Diego-based songstress and her backing band used their 45-minute slot to play a powerful mix of original and classic covers. Highlights included the Chicago blues-flavored "Put Your Lovin' Where It Belongs" with Hensley's potent soprano front and center, and a erstwhile take on Big Mama Thornton's "Big Mamas Coming Home," the latter featuring the singer holding out notes to dramatic effect and some flashy guitar work courtesy of Steve Wilcox.

The teaming of virtuoso blues guitarist Monster Mike Welch and singer Mike Ledbetter provided a good shot of vintage blues to the blues bash. Featuring live selections from their new collaboration, Right Place, Right Time (released on Delta Groove Music in April 2017), the two top-tier talents seemed to be having a genuinely great time sharing the stage; soulful performances such as "Down Home Girl" were the beneficiary of the magic. 

Janiva Magness on May 20, 2017.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
Janiva Magness' 75-minute outing was my favorite set of Saturday. An artist whose recordings and concert appearances seem to get better and more compelling as time goes on, songs from her latest disc Love Wins Again were particularly affecting on the intimate Backporch Stage. The full set was terrific, with "Love Wins Again" and "As Long As I Can See the Light" showcasing Magness' amazing voice and artistry.

A fun-filled battle pitting Northern California blues hero Rick Estrin and the Nightcats against Inland Empire favorite Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers was really just a great excuse to get both artists playing on the PCH Stage for a satisfying 90-minute showcase of great harmonica-centered blues. 

While the world forever waits for another Led Zeppelin reunion, Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience continues to offer concertgoers an authentic-sounding trip down memory lane. Performing on the Doheny Stage, the son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and his talented troupe of players (including singer James Dylan, who is able to deliver Robert Plant's memorable stylings to the live setting in spades) delivered a dozen versions of Zep classics, including "Dazed and Confused," "Good Times Bad Times" and a blistering set-ending "Rock and Roll." 

Rocker Joe Walsh in action.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
Joe Walsh brought his unique brand of blues-rock to the Doheny Stage, backed by a large ensemble including two drummers and four backup singers. His witty lyrics are a trademark and go over well live. Classics such as "Ordinary Average Guy" and "Life's Been Good" and the timely "Analog Man" were delivered effectively to cap Saturday.

Sunday's run of sterling performances got off to a quick start via a memorable parking lot set from the Mighty Mojo Prophets, with the Chicago blues-heavy "Lucky Man," and speedy "West Coast Girl" thrilling a good-sized audience catching the quartet.

The Backporch featured two must-see performances on Sunday. 

First up came Junior Brown blending his wry style of original songcraft and dazzling guitar chops (all delivered on his two-neck guit-steel instrument which features an electric guitar on top and lap steel guitar below) for a 70-minute crowd-pleasing set. Armed with his bass-baritone voice, the Cottonwood, Arizona native unleashed a mix of country, blues and surf-flavored originals. Favorite "Highway Patrol" and several new songs were simply outstanding; Doheny is the rare festival willing to feature seminal artists so early in the day.

Junior Brown killing it on the Backporch Stage.
Photo: Bob Steshetz

Following was groundbreaking Kansas trio Moreland & Arbuckle. The band's fiery 80-minute performance came in the midst of the threesome's farewell tour. Singer-harmonica virtuoso Dustin Arbuckle, guitarist Aaron Moreland and drummer Kendall Newby attracted cheers and standing ovations as they tore through a fast-moving set of originals and select covers. Highlights included "Mean and Evil" with Moreland's great slide work, a lovely reading of Lee McBee's "Woman Down in Arkansas" showcasing the trio's grace and Arbuckle's potent vocals, and the blues-rocker "When the Lights Are Burning Low."

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Samantha Fish.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
The Doheny Blues Fest is a great place to discover new talent, and singer-guitarist Samantha Fish made plenty of new fans on Sunday. Her 70-minute showcase was anchored by her top-tier talents as both blues singer and lead guitarist. Blending soul, R&B, blues and rock 'n' soul skillfully, the Kansas City, Missouri native attracted a huge crowd to the PCH Stage via dazzling performances of "He Did It," "Chills & Fever," "Either Way I Lose" and other songs. The infectious blues-rocker "Wild Heart" was a grinding blues rocker as powerful as anything delivered all weekend.

Chris Isaak is that rare performer who could perform at Coachella, Stagecoach, KAABOO and Doheny Blues Festival and attract an adoring crowd, Performing on the Doheny Stage late Sunday afternoon, the singer-songwriter-actor delivered a set that now only featured his greatest hits ("Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing," "Somebody's Crying," "Wicked Game," the latter particularly effective), but also rollicking covers of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" and Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman."

Southern blues were celebrated fully with JJ Grey and Mofro, an ensemble able to tap into singer/multi-instrumentalist JJ Grey's Florida and Georgia roots with affecting performances of "Country Ghetto" and other works celebrating his roots and the lives of his family in the Deep South. 
Melissa Etheridge on May 21, 2017.
Photo: Bob Steshetz

Capping the weekend event was a full-length set from Melissa Etheridge, who featured material off her latest full-length disc Memphis Rock and Soul at the event. Backed by a large ensemble including a full horn section and backing singers, the fast-moving set featured Etheridge's fine and powerful voice in the service of classic soul burners such as "Hold On I'm Coming," "Memphis Train" and "Born Under a Bad Sign."

Review by Robert Kinsler

Photos courtesy of Bob Steshetz

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