Last Weekend: Doheny Blues Festival

Last Weekend: Doheny Blues Festival

Better Than: A cloudy day at the beach without alcohol.

As mentioned in the brief preview, I don't know anything about blues music. High-brow critic types like to say that pop and rock are where "The Culture" is centered at the moment, and if that's true than I guess I'm a drone of The Culture. But I can hear the Doheny Blues Fest from my house; the last time I went, I was probably 15 -- but I do vividly remember the delicious concession stands.

So I went into this festival thinking about it more as a learning experience. I also went into it as a chance to eat garlic fries. Mmmm.

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To be honest, it all sounded the same to me. Two days of the same riffs, the same rhythms, the same duh-da-duh-da-duh-da-duh, the same parched vocals about a "baby" or "woman" leaving -- that's what, overall, this festival was to me. But that's ok...

Because as far as I can tell, that's the point. This was a common refrain from the guys on stage: "Now that's the blues!" You don't hear that line at Coachella -- "Now that's indie pop!" The blues is a target, a tradition, a schematic, and so even while the performers appeared pretty diverse -- you had white dudes in horrible trench coats, a Swedish guy with sideburns, african-American delta fogies -- they all seemed to be reaching for pretty much the same thing.

That's not to say all the performances were equal. What made some stand out over others had something to do with the relationship between the performance and that blues blueprint. First show I saw on Saturday didn't raise my hopes for the rest of the festival: Whiteboy James -- the guy in the aforementioned horrible trench coat --  just grumbled over the most boilerplate of blues backings. I guess his schtick is in his lyrics, but it's probably not a good sign that I don't remember any of them other than from one song about "big butts" (which, turns out, is a blues cliche in of itself),

But the great, enjoyable performances came from the crews that took the tropes and bullked them up with all that stuff that makes good music good: dynamics, passion, energy. By my count, the two best performances came from at roughly similar timeslots both days. Elvin Bishop's band on Saturday and the Legendary R&B Revue (a rotating ensemble performance featuring Tommy Castro Band, Kenny Neal, Janiva Magness, and Magic Dick) on Sunday essentially just jammed, but they jammed well, with blasts of rock-like riffs and snatches of winding pop melodies propelling the sets forward.

The headliners delivered, too. Brian Setzer sounded as tight as he must have in the 80's, with "Rock This Town," "Stray Cat" and a bunch of rockabilly odes to classic cars getting the mostly dads-and-moms audience out of their beach chairs and into swing dance mode. B.B. King's set was at least 50% comprised of the enormous 82-year-old telling stories from  his chair while his band pulsed behind him. But they were good stories. At one point, the blues legend wondered why people kept calling him a "legend," and at another he endorsed Viagra. Funny stuff.

Critics Notebook

Personal Bias: My parents may or may have not been at this festival. I'm not talking about it here.

Random Observation: The True Religion jeans vendor that was there kind of speaks to one of the target demographic of the festival: People who want to shell out $90 ($30 if you don't care about being anywhere close to the main stage) for a dose of inoffensive but theoretically edgy entertainment. A.k.a. aged OC hippies and post-hippies. Nothing wrong with that, mind you.

Also: If you're looking for more blow-by-blow sort of coverage, I Twittered the damn thing.


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