Naturally I arrived early to get a great VIP table and have my complimentary fresh fruit breakfast (Frank Harvey had the carrot). For the early-comers the sponsors, KKJZ 88.1 FM splashed upon the jumbotrons some classic blues folk that are no longer with us. It passed the time until the free beer bar opened, and taught most of us a thing or ten about where we all came from (except for the Transylvanians in the audience, which may have been many).
The show-proper began at about 11:00 AM with The King Brothers. Not exactly newcomers, these guys were one of the featured performers at the first ever Long Beach Blues Festival way back in 1979. Guitarist and Lead Vocalist Lee King set the tone with his welcome of "It's eleven in the morning. Somebody said it's too early to dance! Bullshit!" From that point Lee and drumming brother Sam King along with their full band performed a brand of electric blues that is both classic and progressive. All of the band members seemed excited to be there, and undoubtedly thankful to be on their own side of the Proscenium Arch. Naturally the title members of the band were both noteworthy at their chosen instruments. Sam kept time wonderfully while Lee showed his skill with both rhythm and leads on his big red Gibson. His voice was silk and steam as he belted out some sweet, sweet blues! Alternately humorous and direct The King Brothers were both entertaining and proficient performing primarily their own works as well as a few tributes. They're a must-hear for traditional and progressive blues fans, but by the self-same token they are pretty standard in their approach. This isn't a bad thing whatsoever, but it does make for a certain same-ness during a seven hour show. Make no mistake, they're great, but not necessarily experimental. YYY1/2
After a thirty minute break featuring more Jumbotrons filled with classic blues performances the Jumbotron and the stage were filled with a rare treat of a super-group known as the BluesMasters Jam. Essentially these cats are the next best thing to the resurrection of Muddy Waters as three of the five featured masters are veterans of Muddy's band. Rather than a full on Blues assault (not their style) the BluesMasters took to the stage a few at a time until they built up to an educational whole. Whether Muddy Veterans or not the boys all played nice and none let ego get in the way of Harmony. Equally notable is that all five men could sing, and sing quite well as they took their turns on the classics of blues and early rock and roll. Carey Bell's harmonica (the "Mississippi Saxophone") didn't start the show, but sure as shootin' completed the show. As a very young Carey Bell's original goal was to play Sax it's easy to see why his Harmonica is more than just a humming side piece. Bell works so hard at leading with the Harmonica (while still not overpowering the other members) that the other songs by comparison felt almost boneless.
Hubert Sumlin, Jimi Hendrix's favorite guitarist (not kidding) showed why he's become so influential over the years with crystal clear solos and ice-blue vocals the man could headline all his own. As a career side-man (he spiced up Howlin' Wolf's band for 20 years), headlining is clearly not his goal, but his skills attracted not only Hendrix as a fan, but also no less than Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith (of the Muddy Waters Band) performed the drums of the set with a fiery passion that held the music together like double sided tape. Some Drummers merely beat out the temporal connections for the other members like an adjustable Metronome, but few are truly able to play solo drums and have the listener say "Now that's the Blues!" Willie can do that, and God Bless him for it.
When good old Pinetop Perkins took the stage and the keys no one was really sure what to think. He was no spring chicken when he played with Muddy Waters in the '70's, and since Perkins himself is well passed his own '70's he looked more apt to need a walker than a piano chair. Well the greater fool am I because if Pinetop Perkins has lost a bit of clarity, speed or skill then he must once have been the best key man in history. Here I had to thank the good people of KKJZ for springing for the Giant Screens, because only these were able to show just how fast this man's hands could go. Up one side of the keyboard and back down the other the arthritic hands went with the speed of a cheetah on amphetamines, but every note was clear as a bell and not a single mistake was registered on the screen or by the speakers. Pinetop Perkins is amazing and I am grateful for having seen him at some great point in his life.
If I had to say that anyone on that stage could equal Perkins I suppose it would have to be the final member of the Jam, Fellow Muddy Waters Vet Bob Margolin. Like Sumlin, Margolin is a guitarist, but in such a different vein they might as well have been playing different instruments. Margolin was hired into Waters' band out of need years ago, and he kept his job because he could play Muddy's leads with flawless accuracy, fooling just about anyone. Looking more like Jerry Garcia than John Lee Hooker, Margolin took to both string and Mic in an accurate retrospective of Muddy Waters on many songs. He also distinguished himself as his own man by showing what the years of experience have given him. He's no mere ape of Muddy, but a respected heir to the throne able to do Muddy's work as well as his own. Happily none of these guys fought for the limelight and as good as each one was, the band as a whole was even better. It was amazing to see so many types and so many skills forming one almost symphonic bluesy whole. YYYY
Another Beer and BBQ break followed before Charlie Musselwhite and his Continental Drifters took the stage. Looking for all the world like actor David Niven and sounding like a cross between Tito Puente and B.B. King, Musselwhite sat down in the dead-middle of the stage with a two microphones and a harmonica and sang and played the blues like the master he is. Like Bell, Musselwhite doesn't merely play the Harmonica, but instead he lets the Harmonica become a real texture within the multi-cultural music he brings to the stage. What's more, Charlie is not "just" a blues man and proves it with his additions of Cuban Folk, African Rhythms and more Latin influence than Shakira guest starring on a Santana album. It was striking how original and full the experimental music of the Continental Drifters really was, and how across the board the music got. There were times of straight blues and times during which the music was almost anything but the Blues. The silky smooth voice of Musselwhite held a constancy to the music which helped the changes be palatable to some of the unsuspecting masses. I personally loved it and one could tell that the guys on stage (this incarnation consisting of Kid Ramos, Johnny Blas, Francisco Aguabello, Bobby Matos and Tiki Pasillas) were both proficient and having a great time. Charlie Musselwhite and his Continental Drifters did overstay their welcome just a little bit. It's a forgivable crime when the music is this good, but it was notable. YYY1/2
Anyone familiar with Keb' Mo' (or my review of the last show I saw him play at) can tell you that for contemporary Blues there's just about no one like him. In that last review of him I compared Keb' Mo' to Frank Black in his ability to take a minamalist approach and still provide a rich and full sound that leaves the listener completely satisfied. Like Frank Black again Keb' Mo' (born Kevin Moore) appears to be adverse to doing exactly the same show twice. When Keb' took the stage I suppose I expected a repeat of the other show with an acoustic guitar, mic and strap-on harmonica (with an occasional accompanist on Banjo) and not much else. Instead Keb' took the stage with a fully electrified band of backing vocalists, drummers, enthusiastic Bass and even more guitars. In his straw fedora and dark South Louisiana suit Keb' smiled as he played the guitar and sang with incredible heart and clarity. There's More than One Way Home was possibly the best performed song, not just of his set but of the entire day, and that song wasn't alone in its greatness. Keb's set was the first to get a great, great number of people out of their seats and dancing in the front rows. I didn't think the last time I saw Keb' Mo' could have been improved upon, but this was it! This is the kind of "sweet Blues coming from a Black Man's Soul" that poet Langston Hughes would have been oh, so proud of! The energy, real showmanship, and love of the craft really showed in each syllable and each lick of the pick on the strings of his constantly changing guitars. From Steels to Fenders to big, red Gibson Jazz guitars, Keb' practically had an axe for each tune, and he never sounded the same twice. On Conga drums was a young man whom Keb' introduced as "Mister Kevin Moore." I sure hope that kid knows how lucky he is to be playing up there with such a genius in the blood line! YYYYY
A very striking thing about seeing them live was just taking a look at Aaron himself. Although Aaron passed his sixty-second Birthday the previous January he was the most physically fit human on that stage (the whole day). Picture this guy... Black Tennis Shoes, tight Jeans, a black skin-tight T-Shirt with hugely muscled arms extending outward with dark Tattoos all over them and a backwards cap topping off his angry-looking face with yet another tatoo on the cheek. I thought he might have been a Hell's Angel on wheels. That's not to say he didn't appear to be having a great time... he did, with his dancing and his percussion accompaniment, but it's not the look you'd expect of one with one of the most recognizable romantic voices of the 1900's! And let me tell you Brothers and Sisters, he hasn't lost a Note! Thirty-Seven years after it became a Hit Aaron belted out Tell it Like it Is with the accuracy and Pathos it had way back then. Biker looks or No, Aaron's voice simply sailed the silky seas of soul and quite probably moved everyone in the entire field (my Rabbit friend included).
This was no mere showcase for a hit maker though, as the Brothers united in 1977 for a reason. When each Brother wasn't featured as the front-man he played backup for the rest of the family. Perfectionist Charlie Neville rarely sang but played the Cow-Bells commonly to supplement the vast percussion (more on this later), but it was Charlie's Saxophone that stole the stage whenever he played it. Charlie's sax rivaled Aaron's voice as the most silky and memorable thing on stage. Never was there a sour note, and never was there a miss, and Charlie played two different saxes both lightening fast and lounge-slow. Art's keys and lead vocals as such Earth-Shaking Neville classics as Fire on the Bayou (AKA Fiyo on the Bayou) were a big surprise as his voice is as different from Aaron's as it is from Linda Ronstadt's. However, it's a perfect Blues-Funk voice and is as excellent as his keys. Cyril's drums hold the whole thing together like you wouldn't believe. There's more than just a drum set up on that stage, but a veritable militia of percussionists (including Aaron and Charlie) all led by Cyril the conductor. I haven't seen this many varying percussion instruments since Robert Plant's Now and Zen tour (which was a lot)! The Neville Brothers as drummers could practically hold a show all their own. This was remarkable!
Like most of the crowd there I learned a lot about the Neville Brothers and they seemed happy to be Teachers (especially Charlie). The music was impeccable and not by any means some top 40 cop out set. I can say that especially when Aaron sang the ambient pot smoke seemed to increase (for which I wasn't thrilled) showing Aaron's ability to play Roger Waters in a field of Muddy Waters. Regardless the set was the kind of dream set music fans pray for, and it was a delight to see the home-state boys so popular. The band even threw out Mardi Gras beads to the crowd when they were done. Party favors weren't needed though because these guys could have played behind a black curtain and charged us for each song and they still would have been worth their Five Stars! YYYYY
All in all it was an incredible day with incredible music and more beats in seven hours than a Rodney King reenactment! If the Emperor of Austria had been there I'm sure he would have said that there were just "Too many notes, Sir!" Four Stars for day one of the Long Beach Blues Festival. It's the most fun you can have in the sunniest state in the union being Blue. I just hope I'm as tough as Aaron when I get to be a Grandpa! Hully Gee!