Thursday, June 22, 2006
Look up “blues” in the dictionary and you’ll find a definition that says something about a 12–bar musical form using minor intervals that expresses a mood of yearning and woe. Obviously Webster didn’t hang out at too many nightclubs or juke joints, ‘cause the essence of the blues is not lamentation but communal celebration. Sure, the blues is preoccupied with pain, usually of the romantic variety, but a blues musician’s role is to transform heartache into pleasure with “a disposition,” in the words of Albert Murray, “that is both elegantly playful and heroic in its nonchalance.”
Anyone who doubts the ecstatic nature of the blues should come on down to the 21st Annual Monterey Bay Blues Festival, which runs from Friday through Saturday at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. The three-day party features some of the finest blues practitioners in the world, as well as a bevy of artists representing other musical styles, but who nonetheless draw sustenance from the music’s verdant soil. From jazz, funk and pop to R&B, rock and soul, the blues is the emotional bedrock that supports the glorious edifice of American popular music.
The festival provides a tangy taste of all those styles, with three stages offering simultaneous performances. There are far too many acts to describe each one in detail, so I’m offering a highly subjective overview of my favorites, proven entertainers who embody the power of the blues “to wash away the dust of everyday life,” a phrase that Art Blakey used to describe jazz, though I’m sure the late drum maestro wouldn’t mind me borrowing it.
Friday kicks off with a jolt of energy on the Presidents Stage, where the Delta Wires, a horn-laden seven-piece rhythm-and-blues outfit from Oakland, led by vocalist and harmonica player Ernie Piñata, will be focusing on material from their upcoming album Them That’s Got. Headlining on the Main Arena stage, the Texas-born roadhouse poet Delbert McClinton gets things started with his fiery vocals and torrid harp work. At 65, McClinton is at the top of his game, reveling in his recent successes after a roller-coaster career marked by record label snafus and brushes with fame (he improved John Lennon’s harmonica technique during an early ‘60s UK encounter, leading to the defining sound on the Beatles hit “Love Me Do,” and penned the 1978 Emmylou Harris chart-topping hit “Two More Bottles of Wine”). Los Angeles-based drummer Warren Hagood’s Sai Whatt Band, a festival favorite, opens for McClinton.
Saturday’s gloriously diverse program features numerous highlights, starting with the accordion master Buckwheat Zydeco, a protégé of the legendary Clifton Chenier. With his mix of zydeco and funk, Buckwheat is a superlative showman who helped popularize the music of southern Louisiana’s creole people. Vocalist Clarence Carter, still strokin’ at the age of 70, is a time-tested crowd pleaser whose gleefully bawdy performances always include his hit “Strokin’” and its sequel. While she’s not a household name, Denise LaSalle came out of the Chicago scene in the 1970s and made her mark with the hit “Trapped By a Thing Called Love.” With her big, warm, pliable voice, she earned the appellation Queen of the Soul Blues, a reputation she cemented with a series of strong albums for Malaco.
The exalted smooth groove royalty known as the 4 Kings of Rythmn & Blues close the show on the Arena Stage. The sheer numbers that reflect their R&B reign hint at the power their songs have long held in shaping the country’s musical culture—Jerry Butler, Ben E. King, Lloyd Price, and Gene Chandler have collectively sold more than 100 million records—but it’s the song titles they’ve performed that really remind fans just how powerful their legacies are. Butler recorded hits like “Moon River” and “Only the Strong Survive”; King fronted The Drifters on such classics as “There Goes My Baby” and “Stand By Me”; Price made a name for himself with “Stagger Lee” and “Personality”; and Chandler, the baby of the group, is the man behind “Duke of Earl” and “I Only Have Eyes For You.”
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When it comes to soulful nourishment, Sunday’s program offers an unsurpassed repast. From the historically encompassing repertoire of Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir (see pg. 24) to the spiritually charged blues troubadour Eric Bibb (see pg. 26), the festival concludes with an appropriately sanctified turn. No one better captures the confluence of blues, gospel and contemporary grooves than Yolanda Adams, one of gospel music’s most beloved stars. While Adams knows her gospel history, she’s built her career by embracing new sounds and expanding the music’s possibilities, which has helped bring gospel to new audiences and venues.
Adams first introduced her R&B-powered sound on the 1995 album More Than a Melody, which includes the hit singles “Gotta Have Love” and “Open Arms.” The album earned her a Grammy nomination and a Lady of Soul award, which she collected after an incandescent live performance on the 1996 Soul Train Music Awards telecast. Some gospel purists criticized her for blatantly borrowing secular sounds, but Adams’ fans have stuck with her. “I haven’t strayed from who I was,” Adams said in a recent phone interview from her home in Houston. “I’ve always had a heart for jazz, for more contemporary music, and my fans understood that’s who I was in the beginning.”
Adams’ reputation as an innovative force was cemented with 1999’s Mountain High...Valley Low, an album that crashed through gospel’s gates and established her as a pop star. Her success has helped dissolve resistance to her music in gospel circles, as other performers have followed her lead in incorporating elements of hip-hop and R&B. For Adams, bringing gospel to blues and jazz festival feels perfectly natural, because she sees how her music washes over her listeners, filling people with hope and delight.
“When you do the music that’s inside of you, you always stay true to yourself,” Adams said. “When you’re trying to conform to the box that people are trying to put you in, then of course you have problems. I think what I do is effective, and it gets people to a place of joy, and it makes them think about where they are in their lives. Once I finish that song, I want them to contemplate where they are, and how the song took them to a better place.”
With all the praising going on, I should note that Sunday’s program also features a stiff shot of the blues, Chicago style. Almost 40 years after keyboardist Barry Goldberg and vocalist Nick Gravenites helped turn the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival into an epochal event with the psychedelic blues of The Electric Flag, they return to the fairgrounds with the Chicago Blues Reunion, a band of veteran players who helped spark the music’s 1960s revival. In addition to Goldberg and Gravenites (who went on to form Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin), CBR includes guitarist Harvey Mandel, harp master Corky Siegel and vocalist Tracy Nelson. They all met as teenagers in the early ‘60s on Chicago’s Southside, where they snuck into clubs and learned the music at the feet of their heroes.
When they migrated out to San Francisco, they helped open doors to venues like the Fillmore to legends such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and Otis Rush, introducing Chicago blues to a white audience that had been largely oblivious.
“The people were ready for it, just as they are now,” said Goldberg. “They’re craving and asking for something better than what the music industry is putting out.” Fortunately, anyone craving and asking for the real soulful deal can find it in a myriad of styles this weekend at the Fairgrounds.
FOR MORE INFORMATION on Monterey Bay Blues Festival events and ticket prices, visit montereyblues.com.