Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Doheny Blues Festival 2018 review feat. Buddy Guy, Beth Hart, Eric Gales, Larkin Poe, more, in Dana Point, Calif.

photo: George A. Paul

The Doheny Blues Festival returned to Orange County, Calif. last weekend with two dozen acts on three stages encompassing blues, classic rock, funk, Americana and beyond.

For the first time, it was held in a new location, Sea Terrace Park in Dana Point, which provided a fresh atmosphere along with familiar elements that have made the event so successful for 21 years. Below are the five most memorable performances I caught over two days.

photo: Robert Kinsler
One of the most buzzed about artists on the festival bill was Larkin Poe. The female sibling duo from Georgia definitely didn’t disappoint, either, packing the intimate Backporch stage area Saturday near several food vendors.

Although they’ve put out three albums and several EPs under the current moniker since 2014, the ladies’ profile has risen steadily lately, thanks to the popular “Tip ‘o the Hat” YouTube covers series.

“I can’t believe y’all are missing Jimmie Vaughan to see us,” exclaimed lead singer/guitarist Rebecca Lovell, in reference to their direct competition on the main Dana Point stage.

Larkin Poe’s take on traditional song “Black Betty” (off last year’s solid Peach release) was an early set highlight, with some sizzling lap steel playing by Megan Lovell.

Rebecca Lovell gave plenty of sultry attitude to “Look Away,” while the heavy hitting “Run for Your Money” recalled early Heart (a good thing). Son House’s “Preachin’ Blues” was pure excitement and original tune “Freedom,” about “exercising inner demons,” had some fine vocal interplay. Other stunners included the dense, racing rocker “Wanted Woman – AC/DC” and slinky groove-laden “Blue Ridge Mountains,” inspired by the place near the Lovells childhood home. The seated audience gave the gals several earned standing ovations.

photo: Bob Steshetz/Doheny Blues Fest
The next day, another musician made a mighty strong impression on the Backporch: Quinn Sullivan, a 19-year-old Massachusetts protégé of Buddy Guy. I don’t know how he bypassed my music radar, but I was sure pleased to made this new discovery at Doheny Blues.

Clad in a John Lennon t-shirt, Sullivan was backed by a tight band including several members of Guy’s band – notably Quinn and Buddy’s Grammy-winning producer Tom Hambridge on drums. The guitar wiz/singer did the searing title track off 2013’s Getting There, which namechecks several cities and featured a fast, squealing guitar solo. 

Sullivan made a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” his own with some weepy axe sounds and brief wailing vocals. The crowd ate it right up. “She Gets Me,” from third album Midnight Highway, was an appealing slice of John Mayer-styled pop/rock. Elsewhere, the laid back “Midnight Highway” was bolstered by sweet organ swells and riveting Sullivan solos and the funkier “Got to Get Better in a Little While,” with another nimble fretwork display, were highlights. We’ll surely be hearing much more from this young talent in the future. 

photo: Bob Steshetz/Doheny Blues Fest
Eric Gales’ powerhouse performance Saturday afternoon on the Dana Point stage was like a religious experience - for both the audience and the musician himself. Gales admitted as much in a spiel before the set started, talking about how he spent 20 years “in a dark hole” addicted to drugs and “almost killed myself.” Now nearly two years sober, Gales was ready to “play his ass off.”

That he did at Doheny Blues, tearing things up on and smiling broadly during Buddy Guy’s “Baby, Please Don’t Leave Me,” Freddie King’s fiery “Boogie Man” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile,” featuring nods to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”

Then there was the instrumental “Swamp” (from last year’s Middle of the Road), where Gales was accompanied by wife percussionist LaDonna Gales frantically playing tambourine as he squeezed out riffs, all the while kneeling on the stage floor. 

Beth Hart was pleased to have more time onstage than her ’15 appearance here and return home to SoCal after touring in Europe. The subject of a “Front and Center” special that recently aired again on PBS-TV stations (there’s also a companion album), this gracious Los Angeles native was a real force to be reckoned with on the PCH stage.

Walking out while clapping and doing plenty of shimmying, her sultry version of the Lucinda Williams recording “Can’t Let Go” included ample slide work by longtime guitarist Jon Nichols. Hart added some sexy quavering vocals to the slow ‘n’ slinky “Close to My Fire” from German electro duo Slackwax, yet another tune she’s done on her series of albums with Joe Bonamassa.

photo: Bob Steshetz/Doheny Blues Fest
Reaching back to 1999, the soulful rocker “Delicious Surprise” (co-written with ex-Styx member Glen Burtnik) was an early standout. Hart sat down, then played piano for awhile, but was no less tame in her delivery - especially “Love Gangster,” off the most recent solo album Fire on the Floor, and the spirited music hall-tinged “Bang Bang Boom Boom.”

Sharing personal details behind her songs, Hart explained that the exuberant “Bottle of Jesus” was written while trying to stay sober, which she finally did three years ago. The blazing “Lay Your Hands on Me,” taken from the same 1993 album Leave the Light On, left nothing to the imagination as Hart channeled Janis Joplin.

Both Hart and Nichols got to shine some more on the sumptuous soul/rock groove of Al Kooper’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” (a top 20 R&B hit for Donny Hathaway in 1972). The classic 1940s R&B of “Why Don’t You Do Right” was a nice change of pace.

Later in the 90-minute performance, the brutally honest “Tell Her You Belong to Me,” inspired by the infidelity of Hart’s father, saw her sing it with intensity on the edge of the stage. The breezy Sheryl Crow-ish older tune “Is That Too Much to Ask,” where Hart and Nichols were seated and playing acoustic guitars, was another highlight.

Day 2 headliner Buddy Guy, 81, was quite a character during his set. The blues legend mused about why radio doesn’t play this music anymore, gave examples on where some hip-hop hits samples came from, was surprised about the dreary overcast weather and sounded baffled about changes in consuming music these days. At one point, he did Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” then said, “Don’t look at me like I’m a dirty old man. I didn’t write the thing!”

Guy kicked things off with the title track from his Grammy-winning 1991 release Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, did some scorching licks and the first of many humorous hip thrusts.

photo: Bob Steshetz/Doheny Blues Fest
The veteran musician also playfully rubbed against his guitar, bowed it and coaxed sounds out of the instrument in assorted ways you wouldn’t expect during songs like Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” and John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.” Then he got some fun call and response action going with the crowd during Johnny Taylor’s R&B classic “Who’s Making Love.”

There were moments of soulful tenderness (Derek Trucks’ “Skin Deep,” John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain”) and examples of his still-amazing guitar skills (Hendrix, Cream snippets). Toward the end of the night, he brought Sullivan onstage to trade licks on a couple songs. It was a satisfying end to another highly enjoyable Doheny Blues Festival. Here's to 2019!

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