Thursday, May 26, 2016

Doheny Blues Festival - Day 1 concert review: Dana Point, Calif.

Heading into my second time covering Doheny Blues Festival - one of the best events of its kind in Southern California - on May 21, I was anxious to see several acts for the first time. Chief among them was Aaron Neville.

It was a rare treat to see the music legend, now 75, perform on the Doheny Stage late that afternoon with saxophonist brother Charles in tow. Though the 80-minute show was hampered by a muddled mix at times, Aaron’s trademark heavenly vocals mostly shone though.

The wide-ranging, soulful selections traversed several decades. Concertgoers particularly went wild for his hits “Tell it Like it Is” (from 1966) and the idyllic “Everybody Plays the Fool.” He even danced a little jig amid "When the Saints Go Marching In" as Charles soloed. There were some sweet dual spotlights on Bob Marley ("Three Little Birds," "Stir it Up") and Bill Withers ("Ain't No Sunshine," "Use Me").

During the former pair, a bunch of people rushed to the area in front of the stage to hoist their drinks and sing along top of their lungs. Aaron also covered Dobie Gray ("Drift Away"), Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions ("It's Alright") and closed with a brief "Amazing Grace."

James Hunter Six’s brand of classic R&B was a wonder to behold on the Sailor Jerry Stage. The British namesake boasts a unique singing inflection that often brings to mind Otis Redding or James Brown and an equally distinct electric guitar playing method.

Having caught a bit of Neville's performance with his wife, Hunter said she teased him about his attire. This led to a running joke throughout the early evening set and other unabashed quips like "you ain't seen nothin' better."

The tight band totally fascinated fans with the title tune from their great new Bosco Mann-produced, Daptone Records album “Hold On,” not to mention the stellar doo-wop-styled “Jacqueline,” call and response guitar/sax action on “The Gypsy,” The 5 Royales' "Baby, Don't Do It" (featuring some amazing piercing notes by Hunter) and Northern English soul strains in “Stranded.”

As Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers prepared to take the Sailor Jerry Stage, they were mistakenly introduced by longtime Doheny emcee Bubba Jackson (a DJ at Long Beach station K-JAZZ/88.1 FM) as "The Gamblers."

The faux pas inadvertently made sense because the Bay Area Americana band was a sure bet (I’d already been impressed by them at Stagecoach ’14). The engaging 75-minute mid-afternoon set here proved even stronger. Clad in a tan fringe jacket, Bluhm and company made the 1970s SoCal album rock sound seem fresh again, especially during harmony-rich winners from last year’s “Loved Wild Lost” album - “Waiting on Love,” “Heartache” and a dramatic “Queen of the Rodeo” (inspired by her “simple life” stint working with animals in OC's Rancho Santa Fe).

"Deep Water" recalled Edie Brickell as Bluhm vigorously banged on a tambourine. A frequently played live take on the Linda Ronstadt-popularized “You’re No Good” fit perfectly and the infectious "Little Too Late" found Bluhm belting out the vocal to much applause.

My day began with a morning performance on the Back Porch Stage by John Long & Friends. The veteran St. Louis bluesman was initially a one-man-band of sorts, singing, playing guitar and harmonica and stomping on a suitcase for rhythm. Specializing in a traditional sound straight out of the 1920s and '30s, he opened with "Pressure Cooker ('Bout to Blow)," which got a strong response.

For "Suitcase Stomp" (the first of several songs from the just-released "Stand Your Ground" on Delta Groove Music), the audience spontaneously clapped along without any prodding.

Then he was joined by the three musicians who helped on the album: pianist Fred Kaplan, upright bassist Bill Stuve and drummer Washington Rucker. Their laid back blues version of "Baby, Please Set a Date" (by Long mentor Homesick James Williamson) and the CD title track both fared well.

A version of this review originally appeared at
All photos by Bob Steshetz. See more at or

No comments: