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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : After Solid Beginning, Blues Fest Fizzles in Dana Point


DANA POINT — After a full day of predominantly solid and gratifying blues, the second annual Orange County Blues Festival limped to an unsatisfying finish Saturday evening.

Instead of building to a rousing climax, closing sets by James Cotton and the Brian Setzer Orchestra were sabotaged by uneven pacing and mismatched instrumentation, respectively.

But overall, the first installment of the two-day, 20-band event showcased a variety of worthwhile local and national acts and was a relative bargain. Held at Doheny State Beach on two stages, the opening day went smoothly, with each band performing as scheduled for about an hour. A VIP weekend pass went for only $25, or one-day tickets were available in advance for $10.

An estimated crowd of about 6,000, including families with small children, were seen wandering freely, checking out a variety of arts and crafts. The food offerings--including catfish, barbecued meats, pizza, burgers and cuisine from Jamaica, India and Lebanon--sent a wonderful aroma floating through the air.

There was good music in the air, too, especially from the Long Beach-based Rhythm Lords.

Celebrating the release of its excellent debut CD, the band delivered an inspired afternoon set of roots-rock, blues and rockabilly.

Offering a mixture of Los Lobos, the Wild Cards and Cadillac Tramps, the quartet--led by songwriter-guitarist-vocalist Dale Peterson--brought a large crowd to its feet, dancing and singing along from the opening, "Wait on Time" through the set-closing "Can't Deny the Past".

Sporting a plain white T-shirt, goatee and wide grin, Peterson projected a modest, unassuming presence as he reeled off his spirited guitar licks.

Drummer Max Bangwell and his self-titled three-piece band played an aching set of straight-ahead Chicago blues, highlighted by gritty versions of "Spoonful" and "Kill the Rooster." When hearing his coarse but emotive voice, one could practically feel the veins bulging in his neck as he reached for each note.

Bangwell's band was joined around mid-set by Mississippi Millie McLaine, a Delta blues singer who added some sassy sensuality with her charismatic strutting and dancing. Her elastic, booming vocals during "Done Somebody Wrong" and Jimmy Reed's "Shame, Shame, Shame" created a rush of excitement both on stage and in the attentive audience.

While Mississippi Millie burned up the stage, pop-jazz-blues artist Maria Muldaur was equally enchanting but more relaxed in serving up a warm, enriching set of both new and old blues-based material.

Particularly effective from her earlier albums were J.J. Cale's "Cajun Moon" (in which Muldaur's evocative crooning was complemented by guitarist Jon Woodhead's sharp but eerie licks) and Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love" (a slow-burning ballad of longing and desperation).

A couple of songs drawn from her new "Meet Me at Midnite" release, the Bonnie Raitt-ish "Trouble With Love" and the title track (no, not that other "midnite" song, which she bypassed this day), emphasized a demanding but earnest lover's call for respect and tenderness. Even though Muldaur now strains to sing the high notes, she has lost little of the fire and grainy texture that makes her voice so valuable.

Second-billed James Cotton, the 59-year-old Mississippi native and premiere harpist, was a big disappointment. His singing, robust and focused throughout his new "Feel the Blues" release, was rambling and muddled on this night. His normally emotionally charged vocals were undecipherable at times, and were particularly frustrating during his old favorite, "Rocket 88."

Also problematic was the set's full-throttle, take-no-prisoners pace. Racing through their set, Cotton and his band rarely downshifted during songs requiring slower nuances, such as "Oh Baby, You Don't Have to Go." Cotton's guitarist, Reco McFarland, didn't help matters either, by constantly reeling off rapid-fire licks void of emotion and imagination.

Only briefly, during his signature song "Mojo", was Cotton able to capture the magic for which he's known. Full of emotional intensity and flair, his harmonica came alive, sending notes skyward to the heavens above.

Closing the first day's performances, the Brian Setzer Orchestra deserves points for effort and experimentation, but received failing grades for delivery and execution.

Combining rockabilly with big-band swing, Setzer now plays guitar and sings while fronting a 17-piece band, known as his "Rockin' Big Band." While the former Stray Cat's passion for this musical style is admirable, he may want to retool his sound in search of more complementary interplay among the players.

On stage, the native New Yorker's stinging guitar leads frequently overpowered the softer shadings of the horn and rhythm section. Once, during "Sittin' On It All the Time," the disparate sounds collided, resulting in a shrieking collage of out-of-sync noise.

Also appearing on Saturday were the King Brothers, Barrelhouse, the Lifters, Robert Lucas and Tyrone Anthony.

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