Profane and Ass-Shaking

The Doheny Blues Festival has been re-named the Doheny Heritage Festival this year, and one can only applaud the inclusive intent of the new handle. But the Doheny fest has long been a comprehensive entity and one of the West Coast's finest American roots-music events. Past highlights include such non-blues artists as Junior Brown (country), Lavay Smith (swing), Solomon Burke (soul), Edgar Winter (rawk & roll) and Blues Traveler (dude!).

This year's schedule is just as eclectic, but the overall quality of the lineup hits a whole "holy shit!" height.

Saturday's geezer-heavy bill offers still-useful-against-all-odds soul legends James Brown and Etta James, "God-refuses-to-kill-us" gospel harmonizers the Blind Boys of Alabama, venerable blues monarchs Koko Taylor and Charlie Musselwhite, country/blues relative upstart Keb' Mo', and jumpin' Anaheimian guitar hero Kid Ramos among the highlights.

Incredibly, that roll call pales in contrast to Sunday's, which serves up New Orleans jazz/funk nasty-cators the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, always-reliable party-tinder Los Lobos, free jazz cornetist-cum-country bluesman Olu Dara, soul/blues standby Robert Cray, Brit blues experimentalist John Mayall, San Diego's rockabilly ravers the Paladins, plus much more, including two acts that, to me, bear particularly special notice because I only recently got hip to 'em.

Robert Randolph & the Family Band just about melted my brain when I first heard their superb Unclassified CD last year. I was unaware of something called the "sacred steel" tradition—a decades-old, East Coast-based, African-American gospel institution featuring, of all things, steel guitar—until I came across young steel wizard Randolph and his boys. R.R. & Co. mix the sacred steel custom with influences ranging from stormin' George Clinton-styled hard funk to Allman Brothers Band psychedelic blues/jazz jams, emerging with a sound unique, fiery, inspired and expert, hallowed and profane and elegant and ass-shaking all at once. An oddball, barrier-decimating unit spawned in equal measure from the church, hippie ethos, Miles style and Huggy Boy pimp-cool from the hard, cold streets of Newark, Robert Randolph & the Family Band come off like Sly & the Family Stone for the new millennium. Could one possibly cadge a cooler commendation than that? Methinks not, Outkast breath!

Then there's Lucinda Williams, whose allure I stubbornly resisted for years because (a) according to every dork-ass mainstream music writer in the world, I was morally obliged to worship her and I tend to find these critical-darling singer/songwriter types more annoying than Alan Colmes cowering in fear of a certain anus-faced Irishman and (b) that whole Courtney Love-slurring vocal style Lucinda affects smelled so strongly of me-so-wounded-by-horrible-men-people that it made my testicles wither in my shorts.

Anyway, I became a belated Lucinda-convert just last week when a friend even more stubborn than myself e-bombarded me with multiple Lucinda MP3s. Finally caving to the pressure, I was something close to astonished at all I'd been missing. I actually found myself—a person with testicles, I say again, and rather plump ones at that—getting misty-eyed/lumpy-throated over this woman's brilliantly cutting, gut-crunching, spirit-decimating pain poesy (judging by those lyrics, Lucinda must have dated Scott Peterson, Ted Bundy and Donald Rumsfeld). Then there's Williams' music: soulfully strewn with weepy country, beer-soaked roadhouse rock and a stylish, informed blues sensibility. Finally, even that hellaciously hurtin' vocal slur worked for me once I actually took in the "I'm gonna drink me a bottle o' whusky and slit muh durn wrists" context of the material. I'll be watching the woman really closely on Sunday.

The Doheny Heritage Festival at Doheny State Beach, Dana Point, (949) 493-2772; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. $38-$150. All ages.


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