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MUSIC : VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : Bowlful of Blues Brings Eclectic Talents to Ojai : The daylong event brings together a wide range of performers from the zydeco, roots and boogie woogie traditions.

October 05, 1995|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Playoff watching couch potatoes might think of climbing out of their Barcaloungers and into their dancing shoes, at least for this Saturday, when the 13th annual Bowlful of Blues unfolds at Libbey Park in beautiful downtown Ojai. As usual, it will be an eclectic, wide-ranging spectrum of American roots musical styles featuring a tribute to Buddy Smith, followed by Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan, Rob Rio, Carl (Sonny) Leyland, Big Joe Duskin, Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys, Long John Hunter, Kenny Neal and finally, Oscar Brown Jr.

The venue allows for dancing in front of the stage, bench seating under the large oaks and festival lawn seating behind that. There will also be all sorts of munchies for sale. As for the soundtrack, Buddy Smith was a local blues guitarist who played locally from 1962 until his death last spring. He was in a zillion bands, some of which, like Captain Speed, were survivors of many a Jim Salzer-produced gig at the Earl Warren Showgrounds during those silly '60s. Also, Smith blazed away on guitar for a variety of bands such as the Bombers, the Pontiax, the Ex-Husbands, the Signifiers and the Buddy Smith Trio. A veritable horde of local blues men from his various bands will open the festivities by playing a selection of Smith originals.

Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan, the former on vocals and harmonica and the latter on guitar, are a pair of virtuoso musical Santa Barbarians who perform acoustic blues, or as they call it "good time blues." What else would you call songs such as "Who Drank My Beer?" or "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?" They've been making albums for 15 years and definitely know the way to Ojai, where they are making their twelfth appearance.

Rob Rio and Carl (Sonny) Leyland are new generation practitioners of the boogie woogie piano, which is rock 'n' roll and blues played on a keyboard. To say boogie woogie is "conducive to dancing" is an understatement; in fact, there will scarcely be a foot untapped when these guys crank it up. After the crowd is warmed up, one of the legends of the style, Big Joe Duskin, will perform for the first time in Ojai in six years. Since his father thought boogie woogie was "the devil's music," Big Joe had to promise not to play until his father was in his grave. Big Joe, who practiced in secret, built up a sizable repertoire but had to postpone his debut until the early '70s because his father lived to be 104.

Zydeco music is rife with royalty and promotions are rapid--Queen Ida went from bus driver to queen. Though not a queen or even a princess, Rosie Ledet will build her musical career from a not uncomfortable perch. She is known as the "The Zydeco Sweetheart." She plays traditional zydeco and Cajun music, and she has the right home address--Louisiana.

Long John Hunter, a sixtysomething West Texas blues man, will be making his Ojai debut this year. Performing since the late '50s, Hunter ran a nightclub in Juarez, where he played seven nights a week until sun-up. After that, everything must seem like blue skies, green lights and downhill.

Oscar Brown Jr. is a Chicago-born composer, singer, actor, playwright and director with over 50 years of experience as a performer. He has enough material to play the entire day, but he'll probably just wait until the end.

Waiting almost as long, but not quite, is Louisiana guitar whiz Kenny Neal, who just released his fifth album, "Hoodoo Moon." Neal, the son of blues harp legend, Raful Neal, learned the blues from his father and a number of his famous friends such as Slim Harpo, Buddy Guy and Lazy Lester. He joined his father's band when he was 13 years old, became Buddy Guy's bassist four years later, then switched to guitar in 1980. In such an environment, Neal's accomplishments are not surprising.

Before heading out for yet another festival, Neal discussed what's what from his Louisiana home.

It seems like there's some sort of blues festival every weekend. What is the festival connection to the blues?

These festivals are important because people go to them that wouldn't ordinarily go to a blues club. Since festivals are often family outings, we open ourselves up to a broader audience.

Do you play in your hometown often?

I usually do from 200 to 260 gigs a year, but I only play in Baton Rouge about once a year. But my dad owns his own club, the Starlight Diamond, and a lot of college kids come and hang out and drink beer and do shooters. Over the years, we probably flunked out a lot of LSU students.

Is it unique to the blues that the old guys seem to help out the young guys, unlike rock 'n' roll?

I think that's because there's more of a blues tradition. The older guys don't mind sitting down with the younger guys. I know all the old guys in Baton Rouge are proud of me and I tell them, "I got it all from you guys."

With your upbringing, there didn't seem to be much hope that you'd end up as anything but a blues man.

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