The Big Time Blues Festival seems to get a little more small-time every year, and that's jake by me. What festival organizer BERNIE PEARL lacks in high Q-factor names for his lineup is more than made up for in lesser-known but perfectly goddamned wonderful talent. This is as it should be; this is, after all, the blues. I'll trade you three Keb' Mo's for one Corey Harris and throw in a Kenny Wayne for free. No, I'll pay you to take the Kenny Wayne off my hands.
For example, there's singer/guitarist CLABE HANGAN, a guy I'd never even heard of before catching him a few months ago at the Adams Avenue Roots Festival in San Diego. Lucky me: the veteran, Arkie-reared songster employs an old-school, country-blues method that recalls such bad studs of yore as Brownie McGhee and Big Bill Broonzy. Like those gents, Hangan seasons his tuff but folksy music and storytelling with a most dignified style and intellect; this is a guy who knows and loves the blues' history, legacy and societal import as much as he loves the music itself.
Hangan's presentation, on the other hand, reminded me of Muddy Waters' legendary performance at the Newport Jazz Fest in 1960 (no, kiddies, I'm not quite so ripe that I saw the concert live, but a video of the event has been a staple in my VCR for years). When the spirit moved him just right, Hangan, like Waters, became giddily animated, clearly in the throes of some marvelous rapture that seemed almost religious in nature. He quaked and quivered, whooped and hollered, trembled and gesticulated, stomped and danced; I half expected him to start speaking in tongues. What Hangan does is tread a fine line between blues primitivism and collegiate sophistication. For all his earthy, down-home musical charm, Hangan is also a professor (he taught humanities and folk arts in the University of California and Cal State University systems) and a minister, and he has served as a youth probation officer. Hangan is a humble old fella, too; he bills his band as the Hangan Brothers even though he's clearly the star of the show and none of his band mates are actually siblings. Pearl says the handle exists because Hangan simply refuses to hog all the glory for himself. Go see Clabe tear up the Big Time Blues Fest Sunday at Gemmrig Park in Long Beach; he'll keep ya Hangan on!
And now it's time to sing the praises of none other than the criminally unsung Mr. Pearl himself. The unassuming Bernie Boy has been a fixture on the SoCal scene for eons and is a master guitarist; one of those nice, leftist Jewish boys from the late '50s/early '60s who became obsessed with the blues many years before it was fashionable among the unwashed rock & roll elite. In his time, Pearl took lessons from none other than Brownie McGhee his bad self and has played with such late luminaries as Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi Fred McDowall, Mance Lipscomb, Freddie King and Big Mama Thornton.
I've personally seen him perform solo acoustic and back both Hangan and longtime pal Harmonica Fats, where he proved to be the perfect accompanist—tasty, unobtrusive and supportive when called for, but laying down some viciously bitchen solos when it was his turn to burn and shine. Pearl is adept on both acoustic and electric guitar in any style you please, but I've been particularly enamored of his work on electric slide. He leaves the Elmore and Muddy clichés back in the woodshed, thank God, y'all, skating and gliding over the fretboard in the princely manner of a Duane Allman—without losing any essential blues feeling and sensibility in the process. Pearl, although a longtime leader of his own band, doesn't get as much credit or attention as he deserves because he's content to fade into the background and book blues fests and play sideman and such, but he'll pick like a sumbitch when called upon to dazzle.
Blues main group: Brooks and Pearl
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Pearl will be joined by a kindred spirit in harp mensch FREDDIE BROOKS, another supermean mother of a player (and a Costa Mesa guy to boot) who's always ready to play a backing role when not leading his own very stellar band, the Dirty Crooks (although lending his formidable talents to cretinous wannabe Jim Belushi—nice mullet, dewd!—would seem to be an unfortunate matter of Pearls, Bernie or otherwise, before swine). Pearl, Brooks and their ilk are the mortar of the blues scene, the adhesive that holds the fancy-shmancy bricks with the big names together. God bless 'em and keep 'em, and please prevent Our Mr. Brooks from giving further aid and comfort to the enemy. Hey, who loves ya, Freddie? That would be me, tough guy.
Another Big Time Blues Fest highlight will be longtime Howlin' Wolf sideman HUBERT SUMLIN, whose highly unconventional tone and aggressive style sound like his guitar has been strung with rubber bands and dipped in a bathtub fulla rotgut gin. Sumlin's Mississippi-gritty, half-spoken vocal style is also oddly delightful in its own demented fashion; he's a guy who goes for the hard, extended groove rather than the melismatic melody or tasty solo, sort of like if James Brown opted to play greasy barroom blues rather than slicked-back funk. Also, unlike Brown, Sumlin won't be banging his 'nads all over the stage floor, so there's no vicarious testicular agony to concern yourself with.
Further appearing at the Big Time Blues Fest: Fabulous Thunderbirds front man KIM WILSON; LA scene fixture ARTHUR ADAMS, who's currently enjoying mighty high visibility from appearing in a national TV ad campaign for Honda—yep, he's that fat, bald guy; longtime Muddy Waters guitarist STEADY ROLLIN' BOB MARGOLIN; plus, SONNY RHODES, MICKEY CHAMPION and up-and-coming Compton guitar phenom KIRK FLETCHER. Bonus: Big Time Blues Fest's lazy, shady Gemmrig Park setting is the ideal environment for this sort of affair. Bring a lawn chair and lotsa cash for cold beer and fried catfish, which are readily available on site.
THE NINTH ANNUAL BIG TIME BLUES FESTIVAL AT GEMMRIG PARK, 7390 E. CARSON ST., LONG BEACH, (562) 426-0761; WWW.BIGTIMEBLUES.COM. SUN., 11 A.M.-7 P.M. $20 ADVANCE; $25 AT THE GATE; KIDS UNDER 12 FREE WITH PAID ADULT.