It displeases me to report that this year's DOHENY BLUES FESTIVAL—Saturday and Sunday at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point—is a relatively weak and predictable affair following a couple of years of glorious and surprising lineups. Among the treats and surprises at Doheny Fests 1999 and 2000 were Wilson Pickett, Gatemouth Brown, Koko Taylor, Etta James, Bo Diddley, Junior Brown, Johnny and Edgar Winter, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. But the best they could come up with in the way of headliners this year are ROBERT CRAY and fucking BLUES TRAVELER?? Oy!
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I sometimes (sometimes, I say!) feel a twinge of guilt whenever I go about the motley business of Cray-bashing. Here's a guy whose guitar, vocal and songwriting talents are undeniable, a guy who brought young people back to the blues 15 years ago with his hit album Strong Persuader, and a guy who is always pleasant enough when I interview him. Unfortunately, much of his post-Persuader output has been as bland as Laura Bush in a G-string, with the exception of 1999's Take Your Shoes Off, which was a welcome return to early form. Cray's just-released Shoulda Been Home finds him back home all right—in the same old rut, sounding for all the world as if he's been dosed with Thorazine. True, Cray is never actually painful to listen to, and he's always tasteful, but good taste isn't always desirable in a blues musician. Cray's problem has always been that he's too sophisticated for his own damned good. Such limited primitives as Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and Hound Dog Taylor were god-awful technical musicians, but let's face it: the throbbing authority of their work made them inimitable American classics. Give Cray a dose of the ignint genes that possessed those stinky old gents, and you'd have one mean motherfucker on your hands. As it is, Cray, for all his gifts, sounds like he could use a heavy dose of Viagra. Or, God help us all, Barbara Bush in a G-string. Whatever it takes. Wotta waste.
As for Blues Traveler, well, I've already admitted to being a teenage hippie in these pages, so I understand what these guys are trying to pull off. Unfortunately, the patchouli shtick just doesn't work in 2001 (nor did it in '91 or '81, for that matter), and it wouldn't have worked for them in '71, either, because this group just does not have the requisite creative weight to be an effective jam band in any era. The Grateful Dead possessed a one-of-a-kind psychedelic spirit that propelled them into the stratosphere when everything clicked; the Allman Brothers Band possessed chops so ferocious that they were capable of making heaven and hell tremble. Blues Traveler, on the other hand, are a better-than-average bar band whose ambition far outpaces their aptitude. I will, however, give you this: John Popper is an amazing musician—he does things on the blues harp that seem physically impossible on so limited an axe, and I admire every ounce of adipose tissue on his amusingly corpulent frame (okay, okay, I know the guy lost a lot of weight recently, but it's still great fun to make sport of fat people). It's fashionable in the blues-harp community to dis Popper's playing, much in the manner in which I dismiss the Jonny Langs of the world, but I recognize professional jealousy when I encounter it. Popper's work is astonishing, case closed; too bad he plays in a band that can't carry his sweaty man-truss.
I can recommend without caveats many other acts appearing at Doheny this year, but I've already written about most of 'em recently, and so we'll just have a little roll call here: be sure to check out TAJ MAHAL, SHEMEKIAH COPELAND, THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA, ANSON FUNDERBURGH & THE ROCKETS WITH SAM MYERS, AND LAVAY SMITH & HER RED HOT SKILLET LICKERS. (To me, it's kinda sad when a skinny little white broad like Smith is one of the highlights of a blues festival, but there you go.) Blues harp god JAMES COTTON will also be on hand, but sadly, throat cancer has robbed him of his singing voice—that won't stop him from trying to sing, bless his soul, but you don't wanna hear it—trust me. As for JOHN MAYALL, I approve of his blues experimentations theoretically, but his wheezy, Skip James-wannabe vocals piss me off after about 15 minutes even without the throat cancer. KEB' MO' is a musician who showed great promise before morphing into the Stevie Nicks of the blues in recent years—talk about selling your soul to the devil at the crossroads. Also appearing over the course of the two-day festival: MAMA'S BOYS, KNOCKOUT GREG & BLUE WEATHER, 2,000 LBS. OF BLUES, some kinda TALENT SEARCH WINNER or other, THE SIR CHARLES BLUES LAB YOUTH ALL-STARS, and lots of other bands I've never heard of whose names appear in teensy little print on Doheny promo materials. Have fun, kiddies!
The 2001 Doheny Blues Festival at Doheny State Beach, Dana Point, (949) 262-2662; www.omegaevents.com/html/doheny_blues/db2001_index.html. Sat.-Sun. Doors open at 10:30 a.m. Several ticket packages are available, but the basic rate is $30 per day.