DANA POINT — Lying and cheating. Longing and loneliness. Love and redemption.
It was amazing how many different ways these affairs of the heart were so eloquently expressed during the third Orange County Blues Festival over the weekend at Doheny State Beach.
Using a two-stage setup before a weekend crowd totaling an estimated 20,000, 20 wide-ranging acts--a mix of local groups and nationally touring performers--served up gospel and soul to oldies and zydeco to traditional and contemporary blues. The performers shares at least one common ingredient--a reverence for the musicians they cited as inspirational.
Band after band has pointed to many of the same sources, including Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King and T-Bone Walker. One of Saturday's younger-generation groups, the Rhythm Lords, even cited fellow festival participant Rod Piazza as one of its primary influences.
The ability to draw from the past to help define and shape the present and thereby put one's own stamp on the blues landscape was in abundance throughout this musical marathon.
Still, no one touched Saturday's sensational performance of Chicago blues guitarist Luther Allison. Complementing his ferocious, searing licks with gritty vocals, the 56-years-young musician squinted, twitched and grimaced as he launched notes out into the night air to dance with the spirit of Robert Johnson.
His one-hour set smoldered early with his spooky soloing during "Soul Fixin' Man," built momentum with the rocking "Middle of the Road" and finally threatened detonation with the devastating indignation of "Cherry Red Wine," in which Allison sang with angry bitterness: "Even the grass that grows on your grave . . . will be cherry red."
Allison's was a tough act to follow, an unfortunate task that fell to the Texas-style blues and rock of Saturday's headlining Jeff Healey Band. Well-played but anticlimactic, Healey's set did showcase the blind guitarist's unusual technique of fretting the neck from above, rather than around, the neck while bending the strings. But his playing, although widely admired for its innovation, disappointingly failed to connect on a deeper, emotional level.
Offering a well-timed break from the dominant, guitar-drenched blues that surrounded him Saturday, Lafayette, La., zydeco musician Terrance Simien marries white Cajun music with the black Delta blues. The result is an infectious, energized sound blending accordion, \o7 frottoir \f7 (rubboard), guitar and a pulsating rhythm section.
Performing barefoot and wearing black, knee-length shorts and a Grateful Dead T-shirt, Simien used his silky, Aaron Neville-like vocals to great effect during the plaintive "Don't Cry No More," the spiritually tinged "The Maker" and the Acadiana standard "Iko Iko" (which Simien dedicated to the late Jerry Garcia).
Sunday's closer, the ageless Wilson Pickett, rejuvenated a tiring but faithful crowd with his ever-so-smooth vocals. And although he did little more than belt out a string of his soulful hits from yesteryear, on this night, for this mass of singing and dancing fans, it was more than enough.
Overall, Saturday's lineup was the stronger and most satisfying. Not surprisingly to those who follow the Orange County music scene, several of the hottest sets came from three local acts--the Mike Reilly Band, the Rhythm Lords and the Walter Trout Band.
Melding fiery guitar licks, sassy-sounding horns and Sean Finnigan's delicious Hammond B3 organ fills, Silverado Canyon's Mike Reilly Band punched out 50 minutes of Southern-accented (not fried) blues rock. As the sun peeked through the clouds, the group's well-received performance ended memorably with a reworked "Turn On Your Love Light" that was more rollicking than on its recorded, gospel-tinged version.
Following Reilly and his band, excellent new material formed the core of the Rhythm Lords' offering of roots rock, rockabilly, and swampy blues. The harmonica-driven "Java Headed Woman," high-speed "Fender Bender" and ironic twist of "So Many Women" provided a tantalizing glimpse of the Long Beach quartet's next album, scheduled for release in February.
Longtime Huntington Beach resident and ex-Canned Heat, ex-John Mayall Band guitarist Walter Trout electrified the afternoon crowd with his dynamic presence and blistering solos. Sometimes unfairly overshadowed by his guitar-playing is Trout's songwriting, which he showcased with a love song ("Surrounded by Eden") dedicated to his wife, Marie, and a gripping tale of heartbreak and betrayal ("The Reason I'm Gone").
Two other Southland-based performers turned in impressive outings Sunday, demonstrating further variations of the blues recipe.