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July 6, 2006


Goosebumps by the Bay


I remember the old wooden sidewalk. There were only a few left in Eureka, but this one was on the road that went around the Carson Mansion, right above Humboldt Bay. The timber baron Carson's mill site was below, on the edge of Humboldt Bay, a daunting jungle of concrete slabs, blackberry vines and strange-looking equipment. For a kid on a bicycle, Eureka had plenty of mysterious destinations, and the Carson Mansion and the ruins of the old mill topped my list.

In 1997, the first Blues By the Bay music festival took place on the edge of Humboldt Bay, where the sawmill's remains once rusted. A well-groomed lawn and idyllic view welcomed concert-goers to what has become a 10-year tradition.

This year's Blues By the Bay sports a killer lineup of some of the very best stars in the world of Blues and Soul music.

Left: Jackie Payne and Steve Edmonson.

Opening Saturday is a real Humboldt County favorite, Joyce Hough, backed by her husband Fred Neighbor and long-time accompanists Gary Davidson and Jeff Landon. Joyce has been singing on the Redwood Coast since the late 60s, playing in several long-running aggregations — she's a true local treasure.

A top interpreter of acoustic Delta blues follows. Rory Block has been captivated by the country blues since 1964, and played for Blues legends Son House and Mississippi John Hurt when she was 14 years old and living in Greenwich Village. She can hold her own with any picker in the world, and brings the skill of four decades of performing, with vocals that match her playing for intensity and drama.

Son of 60s folk singer Leon Bibb, Eric Bibb has forged a refreshing style that is both gentle and urgent, part folk, part blues, all original. He follows Rory Block and is slated to join her for some duets. This pairing is sure to be a highlight of the weekend, as they've recorded together recently to great effect.

Steve Edmonson played Eureka before, as guitarist with the Dynatones, but for the last few years he's been performing with veteran soul singer Jackie Payne and a tight band. Anchored by Johnny Otis' son Nick Otis on drums and West Coast bass vet "Col." Bill Singletary, the band boasts a sax/trumpet combo who've been playing together for 24 years. For me, these fine musicians are essential to properly support the perfect performance of Jackie Payne, who is as much a showman as a singer. There's a wide arsenal of vocal and stage mannerisms that are part of a soul music show. These are employed subtly and enhance the enjoyment; you feel like someone's working to entertain you. Another treat.

Coco Montoya apprenticed with Albert Collins, then spent 10 years with John Mayall. His fiery attack balances thunder with nuance, and invariably brings roaring approval.

Roomful of Blues closes Saturday's show. Formed in Rhode Island 37 years ago, there've been many different Roomful lineups. But they've always had the same horn-driven spark that marked the band, founded by Duke Robillard and Al Copley, with great vocalists (Duke, Sugar Ray Norcia, Curtis Salgado) and guitarists (Duke, Ronnie Earl) passing through. Longtime trombonist Porky Cohen played in the big bands of the 30s. Now, singer/harmonica player Mark DuFresne continues the Roomful tradition of power vocalists, with a three-and-a-half-octave vocal range, and the smarts to get the most out of it. I call it goosebump singing. Longtime Roomful guitarist Chris Vachon also writes and produces, and his wild playing enhances the controlled fury onstage.

Certainly Saturday's lineup stands itself as a great blues festival, but day two of Blues By the Bay sets this weekend apart.

New Yorker Ayanna Hobson opens on Sunday morning. She was a protégé of the late soul bluesman Little Buster, which gives her enough credentials in my book. Expect a whole lotta soul.

The Alameda All-Stars have been together for 25 years, but their career really took off when they met Greg Allman in 1990 and became his working band. This looks to be a hard-working bunch of professionals who like to have big fun.

Following the All-Stars, Lydia Pense and Cold Blood would be sure to raise the roof, if they had one there. I was in San Francisco in the '60s heyday of Janis Joplin, and I've always thought Lydia Pense deserved a lot more recognition, that hers was a case of true talent eclipsed by sensationalism. Always a great band, Cold Blood is like Tower of Power with a lady singer.

Shane Dwight follows, a young blues lion with high-energy, soulful vocals and great skill on the guitar. He's been touring up and down the West Coast for a few years, and his charismatic stage presence has been tearing up audiences.

Tommy Castro played the first Blues By the Bay (as did Roomful of Blues) and secured a loyal following in the redwood region thereafter. Tommy's guitar and vocals are front and center, but his band is just as good. Bassist Randy McDonald keeps everyone smiling with an impish persona, and horn man Keith Crossen continues to be one of the best sax players I've ever seen. Chris Sandoval took over on drums a few years ago, and has smoothly joined with McDonald to create a tough, propulsive rhythm unit.

I spoke earlier of what I call "goosebump music." Sunday closer Shemekia Copeland "rules" in the category of spine-tingling; she brought the Eureka crowd simultaneously to chills and tears in her 2002 appearance with an outdoor a capella version of "Ghetto Child," a song by her father, the late greatTexas bluesman Johnny Copeland. I have seen her several times since her debut in 1997, and she always delivers. She's really the best.

The wooden sidewalk's as much history as the old Carson mill now, but there's some great history coming up, and it's going to be made on the shore of Humboldt Bay this weekend, July 8 and 9. For ticket info call 445-3378, or check Can't make it both days? Tune in to KHUM radio: The whole festival will be broadcast live both days.



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