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Santa Cruz and Monterey: A tale of two blues festivals

Kenny Neal
Kenny Neal
Kenny Neal

Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t really seem out of line for audiences to expect to hear blues and plenty of it at festivals that include the word in their title. Indeed, it seems natural enough that promoters would want to book blues performers to headline such events.
So you would think.
This is the story of two Northern California blues festivals. Both are popular summer affairs set for two of the region’s hippest coastal cities.
Only one, however, got it right.
First up is the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, which goes down Saturday and Sunday at Aptos Village Park. The lineup features plenty of blues performers, to be sure, including Saturday headliner Gregg Allman (is there a better blues tune than his “Whippin’ Post”?), Cajun guitarist Tab Benoit and up-and-comer Ana Popovic. (I saw her in Memphis this month and, while she can certainly play, to me technique tended too often to trump emotion.)
There are, however, also plenty of players on the Santa Cruz bill who, gifted as they are, are not strictly blues: Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue (give them a pass for their N’Awlins connection and get-you-out-of-your-seat performances), Jackie Greene (insightful young singer-songwriter but not exactly Son House), Rich Robinson (late of rockers Black Crowes) and Sunday’s headliner Chris Isaak (a stellar and charismatic performer but about as far from blues as you can get).
My advice? Go this weekend and support live music in Santa Cruz but, really, I think it’s time to excise blues from this event’s title.
On the other hand, Blues, Brews and Barbecue at Monterey Bay deserves that troika. Set for July 26-27 at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, its lineup is drenched in blues, the real deal. Performers announced so far include ‘Wesianna-based Kenny Neal (also saw him in Memphis; he just tore it up), Joe Louis Walker, Elvin Bishop, Curtis Saldago, Terrie Odabi and Homemade Jamz Blues Band (from Tupelo, Miss.). Now that’s a lineup that can deliver the real deal, for sure.

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