Fallin' Down Like Hail

Handicapping the Long Beach Blues Fest

Woke up this mo'nin', black snake crawlin' in m' room. Couldn't be satisfied. Rocks was my pillow, cold ground my bed. My woman been doin' me wrong (I'd rather be the devil than be my woman's man). Believed I was fixin' to die, planted 6 feets underground. So I drove down that 61 highway feelin' bad in my T-model Fo'd with a hellhound on my trail. Goin' up the country. High water everywhere, believed I was sinkin' down. Came up to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. Lawd, I couldn't keep from cryin'.

But then something really neat happened: I saw a sign saying that the Long Beach Blues Festival was taking place this weekend—and suddenly, everything was peachy-spiffy-marvy again.

A breakdown of the best of this year's fest:

SATURDAY

BEST BET: BO DIDDLEY with BILLY BOY ARNOLD. Diddley is one of the most unique performers ever to play blues or rock & roll, a trailblazer upon whose work and sound countless others—from Buddy Holly to Bow Wow Wow—have based their own hit records. Arnold played harp on several of Diddley's earliest and best sides and scored a couple of Diddleyesque blues hits of his own with "I Wish You Would" and "I Ain't Got You," which went on to become even bigger hits as covered by the Yardbirds. This pairing serves as a sentimental reunion and a chance to see history come alive. Diddley and Arnold should bring out the best in each other —don't miss their set!

RUNNER-UP: SON SEALS with SUGAR BLUE. Seals is a bit of a one-trick pony, with a limited catalog of standard blues-guitar riffs at his disposal. But his ferocious tone and attack, exceptionally clever songwriting, gravel-gargling vocals, and macho persona make him a consistent joy live. Seals is from the Otis Rush/Buddy Guy/Junior Wells/ Luther Allison school of Large-Penis Blues and is a refreshingly uncompromising performer. He'll be joined by Sugar Blue, an accomplished and versatile harp player (he has recorded with the Rolling Stones, among others) whose crafty lines sometimes stray from the expected but always retain their roots in traditional blues.

POSSIBLE SPOILER: BERNARD ALLISON. Son of Luther Allison, Bernard's guitar style seems genetically encoded from his father and the resemblance can be startling. But Bernard takes his work to places Luther never dreamed. Where Luther was a pure blues stylist, Bernard mixes elements of Sly Stone-style funk and Johnny Winter-like blooze rock into his music. This youngblood is capable of stealing the show from the very best veterans on any given night.

Also appearing: GEORGE THOROGOOD & THE DESTROYERS and THE LONESTAR SHOOTOUT, featuring LONNIE BROOKS, LONG JOHN HUNTER and PHILLIP WALKER.

SUNDAY

BEST BET: ETTA JAMES. It is simply impossible to top a Miss Peaches performance, even though she's in poor health these days (Etta, please call Richard Simmons!). But even when belting blues and soul from the confines of an electric cart, James retains the power to create dangerous seismic activity with one mighty roar of her regal throat. Bonus: lesbians love her, follow her around, and often perform lewd dances at her shows.

RUNNER-UP: THE STAPLE SINGERS. The old fave gospel-singing group features Mavis Staples, who doesn't quite possess James' sheer power levels or bravado but makes up for it with a skillful, church-born melisma so elastic that it's the vocal equivalent of a bouncing Silly Putty ball. Factor in ancient Pops Staples, whose tremolo guitar, quietly dignified singing and pure sagacious presence will indeed bring you closer to God.

POSSIBLE SPOILER: CHARLES WRIGHT & THE WATTS 103RD ST. RHYTHM BAND. The pioneering funk group's loose-limbed 1970 hit "Express Yourself" was a template for R&B throughout the entire decade, both musically and politically (the song has also reportedly been among the most sampled funk tracks for hip-hop and rap groups). Members subsequently went on to join Earth Wind & Fire. Dunno what these guys are doing booked at a blues fest, but you won't hear me bitching about it.

Also appearing: BOBBY WOMACK, JIMMY DAWKINS, and CARL WEATHERSBY with MELVIN TAYLOR.

MONDAY

BEST BET: THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND. Who knows what to expect from these guys at this point? Warren Haynes has left to play full-time with Gov't Mule and was replaced with junior guitar phenom Derek Trucks (drummer Butch Trucks' boy-chile). Recently, the band unceremoniously booted founding guitarist Dickey Betts from the group—by fax, no less—amid much resultant bad publicity for all concerned. Gregg Allman, drummers Butch and Jaimoe, and young Trucks are a potentially great combo, though. Let's cross our fingers and see what they have going on.

RUNNER-UP: ROBERT CRAY. While Cray's too-often safe, homogenized, strictly MOR brand of blues has frequently left me cold in the past, his latest album, Take Your Shoes Off, is his career best, a collection of swelterin,' Willie Mitchell-style soul and R&B. Stick to that stuff, Robert, and you can count on me not to bag on you anymore.

POSSIBLE SPOILER: HARPMASTER JAM II with ROD PIAZZA, JAMES COTTON & JOHNNY DYER, CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE and BILLY BRANCH featuring THE MIGHTY FLYERS. These guys are all great players and bandleaders—particularly elder statesman Musselwhite, one of the few white blues musicians who has rightfully never been called out for being a minstrel poseur, such are his deep roots in blues tradition. But jams of any type tend to suck hard ("I'll tell you what—a blues jam become a traffic jam," says no less an authority than Gatemouth Brown), and there's also the Harp Problem to consider: even in the best hands, too much blues harp can become really grating and send me running for the relatively soothing tones of a banjo, accordion or conga drum. Five guys jamming on the instrument at once has the potential to be as nightmarish as a WWF Battle Royal. However, if the principals show restraint and do not step all over one another's shit, well, maybe it'll be kind of fun. For an hour or so. No more than that, though, okay? Please?

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