The sun wasn’t the only thing that was heating things up at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival Memorial Day weekend.
A steady lineup of acclaimed guitar slingers, including Jimmie Vaughan, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Sonny Landreth, Carolyn Wonderland, J.J. Grey and yes, even Saturday’s headliner Steve Miller, whose expert guitar playing is often overshadowed by his singing and songwriting, kept the heat up for both days of the festival.
But it wasn’t just guitarists holding court in the intimate confines of the tree-lined lawns of Aptos Village Park just outside Santa Cruz. The Father of British Blues, John Mayall, still an energetic 79 years old, kept the day moving briskly along playing harmonica and keyboards and sandwiched in between Landreth’s and Vaughan’s sets.
Texas ace Wonderland started off Saturday with a typically fiery set of guitar blues, while Landreth proved he is one of the finest practitioners of the slide guitar with an unusually vigorous set. With Landreth and Trucks both playing this festival it can be argued two of the finest slide guitarists in the world were on display that weekend.
Vaughan, who could be seen chatting extensively with Miller backstage, even joined the Space Cowboy for three or four songs, to the delight of the sun-dappled crowds.
Sunday, also sunny and cloudless, kicked off with the upbeat antics of former Oakland street performers the California Honeydrops, who mixed jazzy, bluesy rhythms with a Bourbon Street vibe to the delight of the crowd.
Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers changed the vibe with a more soulful, country-rockish groove, while James Hunter Six reached back in time with a retro-soul set.
Southern blues rock and soul were the order of the day for JJ Grey & MoFro, a last-day replacement for an ailing Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. There was no explanation for her absence, but it was later learned she was diagnosed with cancer and had to cut out her touring and recording schedule.
While no replacement for Jones’ dynamic Old School soul revue, Grey nonetheless acquitted himself well with an upbeat set of soul-drenched rockers.
Sunday’s headliners, the 11-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band, which features Trucks and Tedeschi both on guitar and Tedeschi on vocals, brought the whole weekend to a wholly satsifying end with a masterful and powerful set of songs that fused blues, R&B, rock and gospel.
The band debuted here three years ago, but it had only a few shows under its belt at the time (“We were still piecing it together,” Trucks told me in an interview a week before the festival). This time the band was like a well-oiled machine, tight, in full throttle and taking curves with the ease of a high-performance vehicle.
Trucks, of course, peeled off several astounding slide guitar leads, but Tedeschi was also in fine form, not only in her gravelly, honey-soaked voice, but in her own guitar playing.
No wonder Trucks called it one of the nicer festivals the band gets to play on the road.
“A festival like this, it’s almost like a small community throwing a party with a bunch of good bands,” he said in the interview. “I was excited to see it show back up (on the tour schedule).”
Well, so do about 2,000 other people that made it that sunny Sunday on California’s Central Coast.