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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Blues' Different Shades : Festival in Dana Point Showcases Regional Styles and Vibrant Local Scene


DANA POINT — Any questions about having room for another blues festival in Southern California were answered Friday and Saturday during the premier edition of the Orange County Blues Festival.

The answer from the well-attended first two days of the Orange County Blues Festival is a resounding yes.

Coming close on the heels of the Long Beach Blues Festival, the first-ever O.C. fest, held in Heritage Park overlooking Dana Point Harbor, lacked the array of headliners that the 14-year-old Long Beach event offered earlier this month but was no less heavy with strong performances.

Here, a handful of top-name performers on two stages, Canned Heat and Johnny Copeland on Saturday--shared the stages with a roster of lesser known but respected names as well as a good sampling of Southern California-based blues musicians. This billing strategy served to focus attention on the vibrant local scene, a scene the Long Beach festival seems to have forgotten over the years.

The blues, more than any other musical form, is defined by its regional styles and plenty of ground was covered during the fest's first two days. Texas, New Orleans, Chicago and the Mississippi Delta were all represented. Country-flavored acoustic guitarist Will Brady played solo on one stage while guitarist Randell Young's funky electric band was delivering a hip, urban set on the other. For good measure, onetime Queen Ida member Al Rapone gave the proceedings a decidedly bayou-flavor with his Zydeco Express band.

Even the stages provided contrast, the main venue situated in a beautiful, grassy bowl overlooking the harbor, the second stand set a good quarter-mile away in a stark, dirt-, straw- and wood-chip-covered vacant lot surrounded by chain-link fence. In between, an array of vendors sold crafts, blues-related items and an assortment of ethnic foods. Preschool-age children danced in the grass at one site while the denim and T-shirt crowd clutched their drink cups and shook bootie to the sound of flashy guitar licks and wailing mouth harps at the other. The walk out of the bowl from the main stage to the second bandstand got the blood pumping as well as any boogie-time number.

A crowd that swelled to an estimated 1,500 covered the hill in front of the main stage when Houston-based singer-guitarist Johnny Copeland went on promptly at 9 p.m., closing out Saturday's well-run, mostly on-time festivities.

Riding high on the release of his first major-label recording, Copeland and his four-piece band hustled through an enthusiastic, one-hour set that saw only an occasional pause between numbers.

Sporting a guitar strap emblazoned with the word "TEXAS," Copeland stomped and waved, letting his instrument swing free from his neck while extolling the crowd to "catch up with the blues."

His gravel-toned voice, prone to break unexpectedly into shouts, was his most effective tool.

Though he occasionally broke out with bold, startling lines, his guitar work seemed reserved in comparison to his vocals as he played in a narrow range, seemingly content to air mostly predictable riffs.

Before Copeland's closing set, Canned Heat re-created a number of its hits--"On the Road Again," "Going Up the Country," "Let's Work Together"--as well as new tunes from a forthcoming album. The familiar, almost falsetto pitch of drummer and longtime member Adolpho (Fito) de la Parra's voice as he intoned those hits of 25 years ago brought a strong reaction from the crowd.

But the group's strength continues to be its skill with John Lee Hooker-styled boogie numbers, with guitarist Junior Watson adding the needed improvisational spark to keep the riff alive.

Midway through the set, Canned Heat was joined by keyboardist Ronnie Barron for some New Orleans-inspired piano romps. Another guest, Laguna-based guitarist Jodi Seigel, added some tough slide guitar sounds and assertive vocals to the Heat's mix.

The newest member of the band, bassist Ron Shoemake who, fittingly enough, hails from Dana Point, added funk on both electric and upright bass.

The day's only disappointment was the appearance of harmonica player and vocalist Latelle Barton, said to be a cousin of Chicago legend Little Walter Jacobs.

Backed by the five-piece Taildraggers band, Barton seemed uncomfortable with his support and did only three tunes. Though his voice lacked the spunk of his well-known relative, he came up with strings of unpredictable harmonica lines that steered away from riff and repetition.

The Taildraggers, with vocalist and harmonica man Randy Chortkoff, fared better on their own, and while backing New Orleans-born, Chicago-styled singer King Ernest Baker. Dressed in bright red pants and jackets, Baker brought enthusiasm to "Sweet Home Chicago" (the third rendition of the old standby aired that day), singing intensely while crouched over the mike.

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