Thursday, June 24, 2004
With 56 acts over three days, this year’s Monterey Bay Blues Festival features all different sorts of takes on the blues. Performers like Nitecry play straight-ahead bar-band blues, Keb’ Mo’ puts his own spin on traditional acoustic blues, and Ashford & Simpson are primarily known for pop R&B numbers like their 1984 hit single “Solid.”
Though Nitecry has performed on the festival’s Garden Stage a couple of times during past years, this will be the first time that the San Jose blues band has ever played in the festival’s Main Arena. The band’s breakthrough came this past November when Nitecry won the 2003 Monterey Bay Blues Festival “Battle of the Blues Bands.”
Lead guitarist Rene Solis says the competition was the group’s first public performance in four years.
Originally formed in 1985, Nitecry was where Bay Area blues stalwart Tommy Castro got his start in the blues as the band’s lead singer. After Castro’s departure, the band gigged with a revolving group of vocalists, including Jackie Payne and Gary Smith, until Steve Siacotos joined the band in 1990. With Siacotos behind the microphone, the band recorded two albums, Run For Cover and Too Cool To Be Blue, and played around the Bay Area extensively.
In 1999, Siacotos’ doctor presented the singer with a dilemma: Keep singing and submit to throat surgery or avoid the operation by putting your music career on hold. “I basically didn’t sing for almost a year,” Siacotos says of his decision. The rest of the group threw in the towel a year and a half later.
A month before the Monterey Bay Blues Festival’s “Battle of the Blues Bands,” Solis and keyboard player Richard Palmer talked Siacotos into giving the band a second shot. Within a month, the group had written nine new songs and became adequately prepared for the competition. “We wanted to really move forward,” Siacotos says.
The group’s hard work has paid off. On Saturday, in addition to playing on the Main Arena Stage, the band will be performing later that day on the festival’s Garden Stage and that night at Sly McFly’s. Siacotos already has a plan to deal with Saturday’s hectic schedule. “I am going to get a lot of rest,” he says. “Also, I am going to get inspiration Friday night by seeing Solomon Burke.”
Though Keb’ Mo’ began his career playing country blues in the fashion of Robert Johnson, the two-time Grammy Award winner now has a sound of his own, featuring a mix of the blues, gospel, country and adult contemporary music. The first song on his latest release, Keep It Simple, starts out with country blues guitar and harmonica before becoming a contemporary sounding blues number. After the song titled “France,” Keb’ Mo’ tackles a mix of pop music and gospel on “Let Your Light Shine.” “Closer” is basically a pop song made interesting by Keb’ Mo’ playing bluesy guitar, banjo and mandolin. With female background singers and mandolin courtesy of Sam Bush, the lyrics of “House In California” confront this state’s outrageously priced housing market over music that sounds like a slick mix of country, gospel and blues.
After recording everything from jazz tunes to rock numbers over her amazing 61-year career, Etta James returned to the blues with her 2003 album, Let’s Roll. Now, the Blues Hall of Fame inductee and winner of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award just released a new album of blues material aptly titled Blues to the Bone. The CD features James doing her own versions of blues classics written by Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson and others.
In a recent interview, James explained why she remade songs like “Lil’ Red Rooster” and “Crawlin’ King Snake” on her latest CD. Inspired by watching Martin Scorsese’s PBS Television series The Blues, the singer rediscovered the artists responsible for creating the genre of music. “As I started reaching deeper I realized that most of the blues of that day was done by men,” she says. “Women just didn’t have the nerve. So I thought it was about time to show them what these songs might sound like coming from a whole different point of view.”
One act well known for its R&B stylings is the duo of Ashford & Simpson. After meeting at the White Rock Baptist Church in New York City, the couple started to write pop songs “for fun.” The duo’s career began in earnest when the songwriting team penned “Let’s Go Get Stoned” for Ray Charles.
Before launching their own career in 1973, Ashford and Simpson wrote hit songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” for Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrel.
In 1984, the pair scored a huge hit with the R&B classic “Solid.” Their latest CD, 1996’s Been Found, is a collaboration with poet Maya Angelou.
Nitecry plays the Monterey Bay Festival’s Main Arena at 11:30am on Saturday; Keb’ Mo’ performs there at 12:50pm; and Etta James plays at 10pm. Ashford & Simpson play the Main Arena on Sunday at 6:40pm.