The City of Pittsburg, California and the Bay Area Blues Society sponsored the Black Diamond Blues Festival on Memorial Day weekend. The two-day festival was held on a downtown street and featured local groups and nationally known headliners. Although attendance was sparse, the weather cooperated with comfortable temperatures both days. Since funding was a problem for the past several years, the festival organizers were hampered by a lack of publicity for this rejuvenated effort dubbed "The Return Of The Blues." Fans were treated to some wonderful performances and it was definitely a success for those of us fortunate enough to be there.
On Saturday morning, acoustic guitarist and vocalist Guitar Mac warmed up the audience with his solo act of Delta-style blues. The group "Pure Honey" featured vocalist Alicia who has a big voice with highly emotional rendering. Her version of the lovely slow tune "Misty Blue" was a highlight. Drummer Ramsell Merritt lent a Jazz flavor to his sizzling solo of "Mean And Evil." Mofo Party Blues Band's jump-blues format combined theatrics with solid performances and was enthusiastically received by the appreciative audience. Especially intriguing was the exuberance of the stand-up bass player who danced around the instrument, lifting it into the air and standing atop it while playing. Saxophonist Bernard Anderson kept the energy flowing with his band and covered a range of material including Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye tunes. Guitarist/vocalist Shane Dwight opened his set with a couple of acoustic blues tunes and then switched to his brand of contemporary blues-rock which has catapulted him to a successful spot on the blues scene. The highlight of the day was when Sista Monica hit the stage with her fierce rendition of "The Sista Don't Play." Accompanied by her longtime producer and keyboard player, Danny "B" Beconcini, and guitarist Sam Varela, Monica Parker was off and running. Her gospel-infused soul and blues vocal delivery was stupendous. She celebrated her recent life-threatening illness by writing a heart rendering tune, "It's Good To Be Alive" with which she closed out her set. Sista Monica is living testament that music truly does heal!
Mofo Party Blues Band's bass player
The opening act on Sunday was the Ron Joseph and Steppingstone band, which featured Dwayne Thompson on vocals. Thompson delivered a powerful dose of soul blues vocals. The Caravan of Allstars, led by guitarist Ronnie Stewart, in two sets featured a host of Bay Area blues veterans including vocalists Wylie Trass, Teddy "Blues Master" Watson, Little Jr. Crudup (a vision of wonder in a blond wig and light blue suit), Little Willie John, and Willie G. Guitarist Layce Baker's set featured twelve-year old Gabriel Lambirth on guitar who is amazingly proficient and definitely someone to watch as a future star on the blues scene. One of the most charismatic performers on the scene, Alvon Johnson, excited the audience with his raunchy blues vocals and fantastic guitar skills. Ever the showman, Johnson launched into "Let The Good Times Roll" and they sure did! The headliner, Chick Willis, was backed up by the Caravan of Allstars in a dynamic display of showmanship. Willis combined his raunchy vocal material with serious guitar riffs and took to the grounds for an extended walk focusing his attention on a number of the ladies. Best known for his "only for adults" tune, "Stoop Down Baby," Willis finished out his set with a vivacious rendering of this tune.
The Black Diamond Blues Festival did the City of Pittsburg proud and it is hoped that funding will be available in the future to keep it going.
The next weekend, it was off to Sacramento for another festival. Big Mike Balma and his band of volunteers put together an extravaganza with three stages encompassing an array of music, which included hip-hop, rock, gospel, zydeco and blues. The blues stage was the center of my attention and the setting could not have been more lovely on the banks of the American River in West Sacramento with lots of trees shading the site.
On Saturday morning after checking out the various vendors, I settled into my lawn chair in front of the blues stage to get a little religion with the gospel group, Oakland Silvertones who gave a rousing performance, just the thing to get the adrenalin going. Kentucky Slim and his band featured Jackie Greene on keyboards in a set, which focused on country-influenced tunes. Keyboardist Omar Sharriff was next up and his set of boogie-woogie riffs was outstanding. His original tune about "a woman so evil they wouldn't let her on the Jerry Springer Show" was delightful. Fillmore Slim was in good form on guitar and vocals this day with his set of downhome blues. Another boogie-woogie pianist was up next and when he came to the stage, Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne asked "where's the piano?" Wayne's mix of traditional New Orleans and Kansas City flavored blues was delightfully percussive and inventive. Texas guitarist Tutu Jones (photo at left) then joined Wayne for one of the outstanding performances of the day. Jones testified with a sizzling guitar and deep blues vocals on "Have You Ever Loved A Woman" and lit into "Get Your Business Straight" with explosive high energy. Fellow Texan, Sherman Robertson had a tough act to follow and he got the audience in the palm of his hand with his soulful vocals on "Flyin' High" and scorching guitar interpretation. His version of "Skin Tight" interspersed shifting guitar tempos with funky low-down blues vocals. To keep the Texas blues theme going, Phillip Walker and his band closed the day out with a compelling performance. Walker's sensual vocal style and razor sharp approach to the guitar was well on display on the tune "I Wish I Could Sing A Love Song." Guest vocalist Frankie Lee joined the band in the finale with Lee preaching his brand of uptown soul and downhome blues.
Sunday was another beautiful day in Sacramento and the festival opened up with Craig Horton and his band which included Henry Oden on bass and Steve Gannon on rhythm guitar. Horton is a bluesman extraordinaire who pours his soul into every phrase and his spare approach to guitar styling was especially effective on the tune "Elizabeth," a slow grinding blues. His searing guitar take on "Try Me Baby" provocatively highlighted gutsy vocals. This was a perfect way to start off the day with some great deep blues by a unique performer who always puts on a solid show and this was no exception. Big John and the Chosen Few backed up guitarist/vocalist Byther Smith in his set. Smith represents the West Chicago blues style (Otis Rush, etc.). He chose to cover standards and unfortunately did none of his originals. Nonetheless, his set was enjoyable especially when he did "Messin' With The Kid." The best performance of the whole festival was that of soul singer Earl Thomas. He is just one of my favorites and can do no wrong! He was stupendous on this occasion and standing at the edge of the stage intimately talking to the audience, he bares his soul unlike anyone else. His compositions are brilliant and his set was filled with originals. He brought along a new band on this day which included the wonderful Nancy Wright on tenor saxophone. His rendering of the tune " The Bright Side Of You (Let Me See)" from his new CD Intersection was soulful and impassioned. His delivery on "First And Last Thing On My Mind" was intense and this is one of his most captivating compositions. The fiery showmanship exhibited by Thomas was matchless. Café R&B followed and vocalist Roach is a powerhouse in every way. Roach's blistering vocal delivery was full of emotional phrasing and her dynamic strutting was reminiscent of Tina Turner. At the end of the set, Roach threw the mike stand and everything in sight before landing on the floor for an unbelievable exhibition of controlled abandon.
Kudos go out to Big Mike Balma and his colleagues who succeeded in presenting an extraordinary festival which treated fans with respect. Mike commented that he wanted the fans to have accessibility to the musicians and a fun atmosphere and he delivered!
After the festival, I headed up to Folsom to the Powerhouse Pub to catch a show featuring guitarist/vocalist Lloyd Jones presented by the Sierra Blues Society since I always seem to miss Jones on his trips to the Bay Area. His pungent vocals and inventive guitar styling were seasoned with a polished performance. I was not disappointed! He lived up to all the praise and I am looking forward to catching him again soon.
Alvin Draper is a guitarist/vocalist who regularly performs at J.J.'s in San Jose and on his visit to the Sunday Blues & Jazz Club, his band presented a wonderful evening of great blues. His band, consisting of Finley Henderson on tenor saxophone, Luke Piro on drums, David Waddungham on bass, Rory Brennan on rhythm guitar and Robert Gomes on keyboards, was extraordinarily solid. Draper's gritty vocals were engaging and a rollicking version of "Turning Point" even got me on the dance floor.
Southern soulman Johnny Rawls returned to the Sunday Blues & Jazz Club on Father's Day with a dynamite show and the club celebrated with door prizes and barbeque. The electric slide dancers took to the upbeat rhythms with enthusiasm. Rawls did a raunchy version of "Strokin" that rivaled that of Clarence Carter! His Friday show at Biscuits & Blues was equally memorable and especially his sensual delivery on the standard "Stormy Monday Blues." Steeped in Mississippi soul, a Johnny Rawls performance is not to be missed!
photos and article by Dorothy L. Hill
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