Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Wide range of artists thrill at Doheny Blues Festival

Blues Traveler performing on the PCH Stage at the Doheny Blues
Festival in Dana Point, CA, on Saturday, May 19, 2018.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
Artur Menezes in action.
After two decades, the Doheny Blues Festival moved from Doheny State Beach to its new home at nearby Sea Terrace Park in Dana Point this year. The annual blues bash  held Saturday, May 19 and Sunday, May 20  was staged under mostly overcast skies. But neither the move nor an early case of June gloom dampened the spirit of those attending the fest or the artists who performed mostly memorable sets across three stages (four, if you count the "breakfast sets" that played out for folks waiting to get inside the venue).

Nearly two dozen artists performed and I had the good fortune to catch the majority of all, or part, of the sets across the two days. What follows is my recap of my favorite performances.

Day One - Saturday, May 19
Artur Menezes bringing musical magic to The Backporch stage
(and nearby tables!) at the 2018 Doheny Blues Festival.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
I had never heard of singer-songwriter-guitarist Artur Menezes before I caught his early morning appearance on the Backporch Stage. In my notebook, I jotted down "Gary Clark Jr. meets Alvin Lee," meaning Menezes' smooth and passionate vocals draw comparisons with Clark's contemporary style while his ability to thrill with speedy fretwork reminded me of the late Ten Years After guitarist. But make no mistake, the Brazilian artist who now calls Los Angeles home is a talent who must be seen. Backed by a four-member group, Menezes' set combined Chicago-styled blues, heavier blues-rock and even a Robert Cray-styled soulful cut. A key point to recognize about Menezes is that there was purpose in his lead guitar solos extending beyond merely being flashy. Make sure to get a copy of Menezes' new Josh Smith-produced LP Keep Pushing, set for release on May 28.

Eric Gales thrilling the Doheny
Blues Fest faithful.

Photo: Bob Steshetz
Performing on the Dana Point Stage was Eric Gales, whose hour-long set showcased the artist's powerful blues-rock style via stellar guitar work and great first-rate vocals. 

Showcasing both his own work and several covers (including Freddie King's "Boogie Man," a track featured on his 2017 Middle Of The Road album), the Memphis, Tennessee native's approach was all about explosive power but never over-the-top bombast. His Hendrix-inspired guitar work was thrilling in the expansive outdoor setting, but there was an emotional epicenter that insured the material connected with the crowd on a deeper level. One of the clear standouts of his set was a cover of Buddy Guy's "Baby, Please Don't Leave Me," complete with poignant vocals and nuanced guitar work that grew mightier and the use of a DigiTech pedal to bolster his lead with some screaming effects. Nice!

Larkin Poe's Rebecca, on left, and Megan Lovell.
Photo: Bob Steshetz

Larkin Poe delivered an incredible set that drew a packed crowd at the Backporch Stage. The Georgia-based duo (sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell) were backed by a simple rhythm section, but there was nothing simple about their astonishing 75-minute outing before a packed and awe-struck audience. Featuring tracks off their most recent album (2017's terrific Peach), the siblings performed with the kind of power and authority that Doheny audiences recall with The Record Company's set in 2016 and Vintage Trouble's killer turn in 2014. Larkin Poe's reworkings are undeniably a great way to bring in new fans (a version of Lead belly's "Black Betty" was simply epic), but the originals showcased were also special. The intoxicating "Look Away" and "Freedom" were early favorites, with Rebecca's work on electric guitar and Megan's deft handling on a lap-steel guitar bewitching. 

Larkin Poe performing at The Backporch.
Photo: Bob Steshetz

In addition to their power as singers, musicians and masters at fusing blues, Southern rock and roots music together, the Lovell sisters just seemed to be having a great time. Indeed, earlier in the day I spotted them on the side of the stage enjoying Gales' set. "What a fantastic festival," Rebecca Lovell said about mid-way through their fast-moving set. " Larkin Poe is scheduled to perform at a number of high-profile festivals this summer. Check out their tour page for upcoming performance dates.
George Thorogood in Dana Point.
Photo: Bob Steshetz

Blues Traveler delivered a decidedly different vibe with their freewheeling jam style on the PCH Stage. The group's "Run-Around" remains one of rock's most catchy singles from the '90s, and the performance here got a large crowd moving and dancing to the blues-rock groove.

Closing out day 1 was legendary classic rockers George Thorogood and the Destroyers, whose set of rowdy, party-minded Chuck Berry-inspired rockers included "Who Do You Love" and "Night Time," the latter a terrific cover of The Strangeloves' early 1960s classic.

Day Two - Sunday, May 20

Singer-blues harp player Curtis Salgado and guitarist Alan Hager joined forces for an inspired set on the Backporch Stage for an early morning set of traditional blues. My favorite selection was a moving version of Little Walter's 1954 hit "Last Night." In addition to Salgado's tasty harmonica playing, Hager was featured on a long solo celebrating Chicago blues. Salgado  who recently received the award for Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year at the 39th Annual Blues Music Awards  recently teamed up with Hager on the Alligator Records-issued release Rough Cut.
Kim Wilson in action.
Photo: Bob Steshetz

Kim Wilson has been such a fixture at the Doheny Blues Festival over the years, it's easy to take the talented singer-harmonica virtuoso for granted. Having performed at the festival many times in the past (as both a solo artist and with his Fabulous Thunderbirds), his performance here with the Blues + Boogie Revue was a wonder. Highlights of his hour-long outing included a fiery version of Chuck Berry's "Back in the U.S.A." and a high-octane run with the Chicago blues Elmore James classic "Shake Your Moneymaker."

John Nemeth and the Love Light Orchestra showcased a different side of the Northern California-based artist. A past visitor who had previously wowed crowds with his top-tier soul vocals and stellar blues harp work, this time Nemeth's vocals still thrilled courtesy of a five-man horn section and full band sans his harmonica. Highlights included the classic-styled original "Poverty" and soulful take on Bobby Blue Bland's 1961 classic "I've Been Wrong So Long."

Also based in the Bay Area, The California Honeydrops came to Dana Point on the heels of the release of a terrific new album (Call It Home: Vol. 1 & 2). Like Larkin Poe's set a day earlier, the California Honeydrops secured a full 75-minute slot and that allowed the group to really explore a myriad of sounds that make the group so exciting. Blending R&B, New Orleans jazz, funk, blues and soul, the ensemble performed with an infectious spirit; the performance was bolstered by fantastic musicianship, the mix of three lead vocalists and stunning harmonies.

Nikki Hill at Doheny Blues Fest.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
The 3:45-5 p.m. slot featured simultaneous performances from Eric Burdon & The Animals on the Dana Point Stage and Nikki Hill at the Backporch. I found Hill the stronger of the two artists, particularly her rock 'n' blues foray "Struttin'."

Making a highly-anticipated return to the festival was singer-songwriter-keyboardist Beth Hart, whose blues ballads and rockers connected powerfully with a huge crowd gathered in front of the PCH Stage. With long-time guitarist Jon Nichols adding firepower everywhere, this must-see set featured favorites the piano-anchored "Love Gangster" and gospel-tinged blues rocker "Bottle of Jesus" and a cover of the blues ballad "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know."

Closing out the strong two-day affair was legendary Buddy Guy, 82, who thrilled with a 90-minute set of hard-edged Chicago blues, compelling stories and great sense of humor. While the entire 90-minute set was great, I was floored by a short but rousing cover of "Hoochie Coochie Man" (complete with Guy playfully rubbing his electric guitar  on various parts of his body for comedic effect) and a true masterpiece from the artist, "Feels Like Rain" (the latter a song penned by John Hiatt).
Buddy Guy at Doheny Blues
Photo: Bob Steshetz

He later brought on teen guitar virtuoso Quinn Sullivan, who thrilled the crowd with hard-rocking jams centered around Hendrix and Cream tracks. Guy reached another thrilling high mark with a performance of "Skin Deep," a timeless blues ballad he has made his own. 

The good news for those who missed the Doheny Blues Fest this past weekend, Buddy Guy is scheduled to headline at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. 

Review by Robert Kinsler

Photography courtesy of Bob Steshetz

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