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The Blues Is Back At The Redwood Coast Music Festival

There’s a kind of vitality I feel on the coast. It must be the nearness of the sea, something about ions or charged particles. And it extends to music; during a Eureka visit in 1983 I caught the legendary Roomful of Blues at a great venue and immediately began to plan a return to Humboldt County. In the next 20 years I witnessed an explosion of music in the area. 

The Humboldt Folklife Festival, which began in the ’70s, had become a rich and varied institution, and clubs in Eureka, Arcata and Blue Lake were presenting touring pop, funk and blues acts, as well as world music. Patterned on the Old Sacramento Dixieland Jazz Jubilee, the Redwood Coast Dixieland Festival began holding yearly multi-venue productions in 1991. Their non-profit mission donated funds to local senior citizen programs and promotion of music education for youth, which continues today. Soon, Zydeco and blues music became part of the 4-day festival, and swing dance contests became a prime feature. In 1997, a weekend Blues Tent with Pinetop Perkins and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown was such a hit that “Blues By the Bay” was spun off that same year, and became a two-day destination fest for a decade and a half.

As has happened to so many other blues festivals, the economics didn’t add up, and it’s been a few years since the last Blues By the Bay. The Redwood Coast Music Festival has continued to include blues in its roster every year, and this year a major comeback for the blues is bringing me back to the coast again.

By 1986 I had returned to Humboldt State University, inspired by their blues radio programming, and have been a blues DJ ever since. Thirty years of messing around with the blues has brought a lot of music my way, both recorded and live, and I confess to having some favorites I’ve enjoyed over the decades. And this year they’ve booked almost all of them on the coast!

While musical diversity in their bookings has lined up a lot of variety, two nights of a blues-specific venue really mark a welcome swing back to the blues. Friday, March 31, is loaded with talent at the venerable Eureka Municipal Auditorium, at the PG&E Blues Legends show from 5 to 11 pm, starting with Sacramento’s Two Tone Steiny and the Cadillacs. This is high energy, west coast blues led by veteran harmonica/vocalist Mark Steinmetz.

Nathan James and the Rhythm Scratchers follow, and here’s one guitar player who truly lights things up. Accomplished in several blues stylings, from ragtime to Piedmont to Memphis to Chicago, he’s earned the respect of some of the best in the business. And while James excels at electric guitars of the Fender or Epiphone persuasion, he also makes his own, incorporating a washboard with an axe handle and three strings to make the Tri-Tar. In speaking with Nathan recently, he noted that he’s “extremely honored to play the Redwood Coast Music Fest with my band the Rhythm Scratchers and also with the James Harman band. I’m sure we will have our friend Carl ’Sonny’ Leyland play with us. One act I’m really looking forward to seeing is Cajun Fiddle Legend Michael Doucet because I recently picked up the violin and have been trying to learn some old Cajun and old country tunes!”

Keyboardist Carl “Sonny” Leyland has also mastered many styles of music, from ragtime and early jazz to boogie woogie to rockabilly. The British-born piano pounder moved to New Orleans in 1988, and later toured with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets as well as Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys.

Nathan and the Rhythm Scratchers are also part of blues harp legend James Harman’s band, The Bamboo Porch Revue, which follows the Rhythm Scratchers at the Muni for another trip to the deep well of the blues. Harman’s history runs from his native Alabama, through Chicago, New York, Miami and New Orleans. He settled in southern California in 1970 and has released 33 albums. Nathan has been his guitar player since 1997 (when he was 19), and the musical stew they brew is both hip and hypnotic.

Closing the Friday blues blowout is one of the finest blues guitarists of all time, Duke Robillard. First achieving prominence in 1967 as one of the founders of Rhode Island’s Roomful of Blues, he’s gone on to tour the world and thrill thousands with some of the most scintillating string work ever heard.

The “Blues Weekend” aspect continues at two venues on Saturday, April 1: At the historic Eureka Theater, it’s “Roots & Blues” from 10:30am to midnight, and from 5pm to midnight at the Municipal Auditorium, the “Saturday Blues Headliners Show” is another can’t-miss cavalcade of cool. Fiddler Tom Rigney’s band Flambeau includes Carolyn Dahl on piano and the excellent guitarist Danny Caron; they’ll be joined by Cajun fiddling great Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil. Flambeau has received three Grammy nominations for their recent collaboration with Doucet. The Kenny Neal Family Band is also on the roster Saturday night. This Baton Rouge swamp blues mainstay has two brothers and a nephew in the band, and his many awards and recognitions were earned by the compelling power of his music, from the heart. He’s been nominated for a Grammy this year as well, for best contemporary blues album.

Rick Estrin and the Nightcats are closing the Saturday show. I never miss a chance to see this band. Original guitarist Little Charlie Baty retired from the group to play Gypsy Jazz, and the exciting Kid Andersen joined up, continuing the tradition of high-octane high-jinks. Estrin’s another master among many this weekend, not merely replicating but inhabiting the harmonica styles of both Sonny Boy Williamsons, Little Walter and others, while writing his own songs with whimsy, wit and wisdom.

But it’s surely not ALL about the blues, though there’s one tie-in that sounds spectacular—Flambeau guitarist Danny Caron has put together a tribute to his old boss, Charles Brown, the smooth-voiced keyboard crooner who gave us the immortal “Merry Christmas, Baby.” Caron led the Charles Brown band for over a decade, and has enlisted one of my favorite pianists, John Cocuzzi, in the ensemble, and one-time Humboldt resident Jeff Ervin on sax. I remember Jeff’s virtuosity at the Wednesday blues jams at Arcata’s Jambalaya Club.

The swamis of swing dance, San Francisco’s Stompy Jones returns with Ervin on sax, and the Gypsy Jazz of The Hot Club of San Francisco promises another fun musical aspect. Other featured bands include Bob Draga and Friends, Gator Nation, Dave Stuckey & the Hot House Gang, and the Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir.

And there are many more. You can check out the Redwood Coast Music Festival site for particulars. I’m exuberant about the lineup, and I can already smell the ocean air. Viva!!

Derral Campbell is host of Rollin’ the Blues and The Blues Show on JPR’s Rhythm & News Service and www.ijpr.org.

After a 15-year career as a logger, "Good Rockin' Derral" Campbell went back to Humboldt State University with the goal of becoming a Blues DJ, which he's been now for over 30 years.