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Organizers Move Blues Festival to Greener Pastures


NEWPORT BEACH — Leaving behind Doheny State Beach in favor of the palm trees, sand traps and putting greens of the Hyatt Newporter golf course, the Orange County Blues Festival was transformed into the Dos Equis Blues Festival over the weekend.

The change of site and name were made for monetary reasons. According to Eric Jensen, who has promoted the event since it started in 1993, returning to Doheny would have meant paying 10% of the gross receipts to the state, a deal he didn't like.

Yet even with the move and the new name saluting its corporate sponsor, ticket prices jumped for the two-day event this year. Single-day admission increased from $15 to $20, with two-day tickets up from $30 to $35. New this year was a two-day VIP pass, including seating in front of the stage and backstage access, for $70.

The best increase was how the new venue allowed fans greater enjoyment of the music.

In past years, performances alternated between two main stages with no break between sets. Although this produced a briskly paced show with little downtime for equipment changes, it required fans to trek back and forth, with kids, blankets and chairs in tow. And the flat, grassy areas used for viewing both stages provided frustratingly poor sight lines beyond the first few rows.

This year, the most appealing improvement may have been how the hotel's sloped golf course created a cozier atmosphere with better viewing angles.

Fans could focus on the main stage for the primary acts instead of jockeying for position in front of two stages as in the past. A second stage was also used in Newport, but fans could easily wander over to catch the single band that played briefly during the short breaks. (More to come on this pleasant surprise.)

A sampling of members of Saturday's predominantly laid-back, late-arriving crowd, which event organizers said peaked at about 5,000, indicated that most people were happy with the new surroundings and the lineup, which featured the Jive Kings, Millertime Blues, Barrelhouse, Brody Buster, Maria Muldaur, Bluestime (featuring Magic Dick and Jay Geils) and Etta James.

"I like this location better than Doheny because I live near here," whispered Dave Ricketts, a 45-year-old engineer residing on the Balboa Peninsula. "Actually, I am really here for the music. I'm a big traditional blues fan, and I want to hear it all."

Purists might have scoffed at the presence of a youngster such as 13-year-old Buster, or a pop-jazz singer such as Muldaur on the bill of a blues festival. Yet each performer Saturday brought something substantial in the way of American roots music, whether it was Muldaur's self-described "bluesiana" music, Magic Dick and Jay Geils' interpretation of traditional swing and blues numbers or Etta James' steamy, sultry, often X-rated blues.

While Ricketts was eagerly waiting to hear James, he found joy from an unexpected source: Fuzzy & the Bluesmen. The San Diego band was that lone act playing on the second stage, which was scenically located on a hill overlooking Newport's Back Bay.

"Man, they really groove, and they're spicing things up," Ricketts said. Performing during breaks on the main stage, Fuzzy and his mates inspired a small but enthusiastic crowd to dance to the beat of their slinky, infectious blend of funk, rock and R&B.

Lake Forest resident Iris Anderson, who attended the last two festivals at Doheny, said she likes the more intimate surroundings in Newport. She added that each year she looks forward to discovering some local blues talent.

On Saturday, for her that meant Barrelhouse, a Huntington Beach band that played a fiery set of soul and R&B, highlighted by a scorching version of "Rattlesnake Blues" plus several excellent new songs. The group's second album, entitled "Peach," is scheduled for Nov. 9 release.

The festival also drew many first-timers who had their own reasons to soak up some tasty variations of the blues.

Eager to experience the blues live, one young college student ventured south with her date mainly because she's too young to get into the 21-and-over blues clubs in Los Angeles. Camille Cardinale, a 19-year-old dance major attending Santa Monica College, complimented the "clear sound system and . . . relaxed atmosphere."

Musically, both Cardinale and her companion, Scott Smith, were further impressed with Brody Buster, the teenage harmonica-playing sensation from Paola, Kan. Fronting a five-piece blues band, the youngster proved a confident, solid player whose 45-minute set not only included respectable covers of B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone" and Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," but a promising original entitled "I Come To Play."

"I think he's for real, and he seems inspired up there," said Cardinale, as Smith nodded in agreement. "He was obviously born with a talent or gift, and it's nice to see him using it."

The day also attracted numerous families. Finding shade under a sprawling pine tree, Steve and Louise Cukrov of Irvine listened while keeping an eye on their two kids--3-year-old Allison and 1 1/2-year-old Jeffrey.

"We've been to other blues festivals on the East Coast, and we wanted to see what this one would be like," said Louise, a John Mayall fan and New England native who moved with her family to Orange County five years ago.

As Louise watched her daughter making a sandbox out of a nearby sand trap, she added, "We found a nice spot here where the kids can play and Mom and Dad can still see and hear all of the music. It's pretty ideal, isn't it?"

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