The Big Time Blues Festival is an odd name for a gathering of wonderful lesser-known artists who play alongside name-brand acts. This year's fest includes the low-profile HOLMES BROTHERS, Harlemites by way of rural Virginia who mix heavy-duty gospel into their blues, soul, and rock & roll. Sanctified shouting la the Reverend Gary Davis and gospel harmony (which owes a tip of the brim to acts like the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Staples) exist side by side with Chuck Berry guitar solos, serene piano-ballad work and rip-your-face-off, Texas-style blues struts. Their rhythm section is among the tightest, most powerful you'll hear anywhere. Haven't seen them in concert before, but the guess is that the Holmes' very-much-alive sound is even better onstage than in the studio. Prepare thyself—and watch for Bourbon Jones checking them out somewhere nearby.
Also starring at the fest is truly big-time singer/ pianist PINETOP PERKINS. Perkins is blues royalty, even if he's something less than a household name. This pushin'-90 old geezer is one of the last living links to the original Mississippi Delta scene—the man actually saw Blind Lemon Jefferson perform live. He earned his rep as a sideman by doing time with the likes of such late legends as Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker and, most notably, the divine Muddy Waters in a stint that lasted from 1969 until Waters' death in 1983. That's when Perkins finally emerged as a bandleader in his own right. Perkins' piano work can be as loose and simple as Otis Spann or jumpin' mad like Jay McShann. His laid-back vocal style, hallmarked by a rich, slow vibrato, emits the urbane cool of a T-Bone Walker. He's a genuine American classic, not to be missed. Try to weasel your way backstage and ask him for advice on cheating death.
Perkins will perform with OC's own JAMES HARMAN, who's often neglected locally due to his omnipresence in area clubs (familiarity may not breed contempt, but it sure breeds apathy). If Harman isn't working in town on any given night, it's either because he's on tour or he failed to take Perkins' advice and croaked. Such is the workaholic nature of this former Alabamian. Of all the West Coast blues harp players, Harman sounds the most authentic—both because of his genuine symbiosis with the blues and because of his surprisingly long track record (he's been at his shit since 1962!). With his deeply soulful vocals and fleet-but-gritty harp work, Harman can drag you through the cold, slushy streets of Chicago with his Little Walter-influenced playing or swing thrice as hard as any zoot-suit poseur. God bless and keep ya, Mr. Jimmy.
COCO MONTOYA is among the most critically praised blues guitarists on the scene due to his formidable chops and pedigreed breeding—he played drums in Albert Collins' band and then switched to guitar, becoming a member of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers for many years before finally emerging as a front man with his 1995 solo debut, Gotta Mind to Travel. Yes, Coco's a monster player, but he needs some disciplining—his road crew could do their boss a tremendous service by hiding his wah-wah pedal. I suppose everyone has their own terms of what defines the blues, and in my case, I find Montoya stepping over into the realm of gauche blues-rock too readily.
There's another "look-at-me-shred!" cookie on the bill who I find more intriguing than Montoya—local guy ERIC SARDINAS. A Blue Cafe regular, Sardinas looks more like a refugee from Motley Crue than a bluesman, with his long hair, Stevie Ray hat (now stop that, goddamn it!) and skin-tight leather pants (niiice package, Goth boy!). But if he resembles Tommy Lee, Sardinas plays like the second coming of Johnny Winter—and by that I mean that no matter how much he overplays, his music still sounds imbued with real blues heart and soul and is always musically and emotionally involving. I'm particularly enamored of his solo bottleneck work, which features all the intricate nuances of guys like Robert Johnson and Bukka White, but snarlier, with a fuck-off-Jack rock & roll attitude. With Winter lost somewhere in methadone land and unlikely to return to form, Sardinas just might be my favorite blooze-rocker.
Also appearing will be 15-year-old JEFF SIMO, who's billed as coming from the Jonny Lang-Kenny Wayne Sheppherd School—we can only pray he plays hooky and never graduates; a group of LA inner-city teens calling themselves THE SIR CHARLES BLUES LAB ALL-STARS; country blues and gospel singer/picker BROTHER YUSEF; and Long Beach's MAYA THE STORYTELLER, who spins tales of the African and African-American experience.
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The eighth-annual fest begins July 23 in Long Beach's well-shaded Gemmrig Park, the ideal setting for a day of live blues in the hot July sun. Factor in food concessions featuring Southern barbecue, fried fish and Cajun eats; many varieties of delicious, festive drinking alcohol; and hard-to-find blues CDs, and you must start planning to attend now. In fact, I insist—it's the perfect, low-key antidote for a Hootenanny hangover.
LYLE LOVETT, who plays the Sun Theatre on July 23 and 24, was one of my favorite artists of the '80s, but he damn near bored the BVDs off me when he began dabbling in gospel and Spanish music in the '90s, neither of which was his forte. For years, Lovett all but abandoned his idiosyncratic brand of Texas country and jazz/swing, wherein he alternated literate, dryly amusing ballads with big-band bitchenness that he somehow made Southern-sounding, often without recourse to fiddles or steel guitars. Of course, he started to sell many units once his albums began sucking, and he became a bona fide big-shot superstar celebrity bore. Then he married catfish-faced Julia Roberts and was seen in the Enquirer every week with a new bim on his arm, and I decided we'd lost another great one to the altar of the unholy mainstream.
Then the boy atop whose head a muskrat seems to have crawled and died roared back last year with his career-best Live in Texas album, an exciting reprisal of much of his best material, performed even more passionately than on their studio releases. It was among the most surprising and heartening comebacks of the decade. And suddenly, the drawers on my fine, fat ass were nice and snug and purty again.
THE EIGHTH ANNUAL BIG TIME BLUES FESTIVAL AT GEMMRIG PARK, 7390 e. CARSON ST., LONG BEACH, (562) 426-0761; WWW.BIGTIMEBLUES.COM. JULY 23, DOORS OPEN AT 10 A.M. $20 ADVANCE; $25 AT THE GATE; KIDS UNDER 12 GET IN FREE; LYLE LOVETT AT THE SUN THEATRE, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700. JULY 23, 8 P.M.; July 24, 8:30 p.m. $56.50-$65.