Thursday, November 18, 2004
California’s incredible diversity includes both the lush, green woodlands of the Northern California coast and the arid wasteland of Death Valley. In addition, the Golden State is home to a wide-ranging variety of folks—from the brie-eating, wine-sipping residents of the Bay Area to the steak-and-potatoes farm hands populating the Central Valley.
Fittingly, our state also has an incredible diversity of musicians performing wildly different variations of the blues.
This year’s Battle of the Blues Bands, where 10 bands will be performing in competition for a spot on the Main Stage of the 2005 Monterey Bay Blues Festival (MBBF), is a prime example.
Glenn Maxon of the MBBF believes that there is a broader range of talent due to the fact that bands from all over the country applied to perform in this year’s contest. He says that despite the fact that bands from far-flung states like Washington and Florida applied to be contestants, all 10 bands in this year’s competition hail from California.
This year’s batch includes groups from up north by Chico all the way down to San Diego. “The bands that applied come from a much larger area than past years,” Maxon says.
From Paradise near Chico, Big Mo, whose real name is Maurice Huffman, will be performing with a five-person backing band including talented guitarist Volker Strifler. Big Mo is one of a handful of acts in this year’s competition that has a sound that could easily be embraced by both blues fans and rock music enthusiasts. On an original titled “Down South,” Big Mo sings about southern rock artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchett, ZZ Top and the Allman Brothers over music that would be right at home on one of Skynyrd’s albums from the ‘70s. On the other hand, tunes like “Blues For Me” validate why Big Mo is performing in the Battle of the Blues Bands.
Another band with crossover potential is Santa Cruz’s Rock Bottom Blues. Looking like half a dozen young surf punks, the band plays straight blues numbers like “Empty Pockets” and songs like “Standin’ Dry,” a bluesy rock number that would also appeal to jam band fans.
Despite their youthful appearance, the band has already opened for blues heavyweights like Taj Mahal, the Robert Cray Band and Norton Buffalo.
Another performer—who could hardly be called only a bluesman—is Bay Area and Sly McFly’s regular Marvin Banks. Banks performs spirited versions of soul classics like Sam & Dave’s “Hold On I’m Coming” along with more meditative numbers like the Marvin Gaye hit, “What’s Going On.”
After a third place finish in the 2002 competition and a second place win in last year’s contest, Banks is clearly hoping to advance one more position in this year’s Battle.
One of the bands that will probably appeal most to blues purists is Southern California’s Michael John and the Bottom Line. The six-piece group—led by lead vocalist, harmonica player and rhythm guitarist Michael John—tackles blues classics like Willie Dixon’s “My Baby’s Sweeter” and originals like “Blues Party.”
Even though John’s harmonica playing is not always up front on his band’s CD Good Thing, blues harp fans have no reason to fret with San Francisco artist Big Bones competing in the contest. Big Bones, who won the 1991 Bay Area Blues Society’s Harmonica Player of the Year, plays the instrument over bluesy and funky numbers.
Like Michael John, Lara Price, a Bay Area-based vocalist, also performs straight blues originals and blues classics—B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and Buddy Guy’s “Can’t Quit the Blues.” Her band includes guitarist Laura Chavez.
A female vocalist fronts San Diego’s The Cee Cee James Band too. Former funk artist Christina Fasano, now known as Cee Cee James, does Etta James hits like “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” and a blues version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with her four person backing band.
The Monterey area will be well represented this year by a trio of blues bands with ties to the area, including the winner of this paper’s Best Local Band Award for the past nine years, Red Beans & Rice. With new frontman Bishop Mayfield, expect a new sound for this 11 year-old group.
Local vocalist John “Broadway” Tucker will be lending his vocals to the Dave Workman Band’s attempt to win the competition. In addition to Tucker, guitarist Workman will be joined by Bay Area boogie woogie piano player Wendy DeWitt. Monterey resident Lauri Hofer will also be trying to score a spot on the 2005 Monterey Bay Blues Festival’s Main Stage by performing with guitarist Terry Hiatt and backing band Big Science.
The Annual Battle of the Blues Bands will begin 2pm Sunday at the San Carlos Ballroom in the Monterey Marriott Hotel, 350 Calle Principal in Monterey. $5. 394-2652.