LONG BEACH — One of the earliest record labels to tap into the thriving post-World War II blues scene was Chicago-based Chess Records; its roster included such legendary artists as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the label, and to celebrate the occasion, the organizers of the 18th annual KLON-FM Long Beach Blues Festival decided to dedicate the three-day event, which kicked off Saturday at Cal State Long Beach, to Chicago blues.
"We used to be one of the only festivals in the area, but as interest in blues grew we decided to try and make it unique from other festivals," explains Ken Poston, producer of the event for the last 10 years.
"For the last four or five years we've worked in different themes--stylistically, blues covers a lot of ground. Not all the artists playing this year are from Chicago, but each contributed to the electric blues sound associated with it."
Technically, James Cotton's ensemble played the warmup slot on Saturday, but the people filling the athletic field (upward of 11,000 by early afternoon) were primed for a day of blues from the outset, and by the time Cotton closed his rousing set with Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" they were singing along under the baking midday sun.
After a dynamic, percolating set by Son Seals, Little Milton took the stage, filling in for an ailing Junior Wells. Milton's husky voice and fluid, trebly guitar work often evoked B.B. King, though immersed in smooth, proto-Motown grooves. Otis Clay's set was even more soulful, with stronger gospel undercurrents fueling the sweeping melodies and insistent rhythms.
Though crowd response was hearty throughout the day, Buddy Guy had his own standards for enthusiasm. His charismatic stage presence and the band's fervent playing were hard to resist, and before long he had most everyone dancing and chanting along to standards by Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley as vigorously as his own recent works, such as "Feels Like Rain" and "Slipping In."
All told, Saturday was an auspicious opening for the festival; it was also a reminder that although it's fortunate that labels like Chess captured so much seminal blues on tape, it's even more fortunate that we can still experience so many of those blues artists onstage.
* The Long Beach Blues Festival, with Chuck Berry, Etta James, Bo Diddley, Ike Turner, Joe Louis Walker & the Boss Talkers and the Chess All Stars, continues today at the Athletic Field, Cal State Long Beach, 11 a.m. $28. (562) 985-1686.