Since the Ventura City Council gonged the Grateful Dead concerts at the fairgrounds, the Bowlful of Blues in Ojai has been the year's best party. This weekend marks the eighth annual all-day musical extravaganza.
In fact, this year's affair will be a two-day event, with the traditional blues show on Saturday from 2 to 10 p.m. or so, and gospel and jazz on Sunday. Tickets are as regular as math: $17.50 per day or $35 for both days.
As usual, the show will be in downtown Ojai in Libby Park, under some old oaks, but mostly under that warm California sun. Lacking bouncer goons who hate your face and who live to tell people, "You can't dance here," the Bowlful of Blues is basic Southern California casual. Shorts, shades and tank tops are the order of the day. Actually, it's a lot like a Grateful Dead concert with no Dead or Deadheads but plenty of food, arts, crafts and blues. Lots of blues.
Headlining this year's festival will be Big Joe Duskin. Look in the dictionary under boogie-woogie piano and Big Joe's picture will be there. Born in 1921, the son of a fire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher, young Joe would switch to "Nearer My God to Thee" when his father approached.
Duskin was drafted into the Army during World War II and met many of his musical idols and played at USO gigs. When he got out of the Army, his eightysomething father asked Joe to refrain from the devil's music as long as he was still alive. Duskin's father lived to be 104. Duskin has been on tour ever since, and his infectious piano playing is irresistible to all feet within a 12-block radius.
Larry (Arkansas) Davis' watch must have stopped, or else hurry isn't in his vocabulary--three albums in 30 years. Davis made his biggest splash (and also earned a place in blues history) with his 1958 recording of "Texas Flood," a song made popular by the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. But if he's Arkansas Davis, why not "Arkansas Flood"? Davis is also a W.C. Handy award winner.
There must be a factory somewhere cranking out these guys, but Anson Funderburgh is yet another Texas guitar god. Funderburgh and his band, the Rockets, will doubtless be stars of the festival. Texas must have more guitar players than California has lawyers. Maybe we can arrange a trade, well, never mind. Funderburgh and his mates have five albums so far and have garnered a mantel full of honors, including the W.C. Handy award. Singer Sam Myers is regarded as the one of the finest blues singers/harmonica players around.
Delta bluesman John Hammond has been on the road for 20 years. Sometimes he stops. He'll be in Ojai. He also slowed down long enough to record about 20 albums, many of which you need. Hammond is a rarity these days, a solo blues performer. He plays guitar and harmonica, he sings. That's it. That's enough. Inspired by '30s bluesman Robert Johnson, Hammond also covers some of the great Chicago bluesmen such as Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon.
Wayne Toups & Zydecajun may produce more sweat than all the others. Cajun zydeco music is so infectious it would make Whistler's mother get up and dance. It's rock 'n' roll accordion that Lawrence Welk could never imagine, sung in English and/or French. It's frenzied, relentless and hook-filled direct from the swamp to you.
And there are plenty of other artists on the bill as well, from local no-frills blues rockers, the Stepsons, blues/rock guitarist Debbie Davies, Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan with their acoustic blues, the festival house band banging out rockin' blues, the Pontiax, and Rob Rio & the Revolvers playing frantic boogie-woogie piano.
Need more blues? There will be an after-hours blues show at the Ojai Art Center, 113 S. Montgomery St., beginning at 10 p.m. or after the festival ends.