Great Meadow Fort Mason is one of the most beautiful and natural settings anywhere for outdoor music. The park has a gradual sloping hillside of the thick green grass, the a five to eight degree slope providing a perfect view from almost anywhere you sit. Making this particular location so attractive, the stage sits at the bottom of the hill with the abundance of mature palm trees serving as the foreground for the spectacular Golden Gate Bridge. Both days the weather cooperated nicely, with Sunday serving as the better of the two. Sun and breeze important for comfort, but a necessity for the fifty or so sailboats slow dancing in the bay added to the overall ambiance of this beautiful location. The only thing to top the breath taking view of course was the music.
This year Tom Mazzolini and staff really put together an outstanding lineup of talent, capping the two day schedule with Steve Miller's Chicago Blues Reunion featuring Charlie Musselwhite, Elvin Bishop, Barry Goldberg, Harvey Mandel, Nick Gravenites, and Marcy Levy. Kicking off the show on Saturday local favorites from Fresno, the MoFo Party Band got everyone up and loose early on.
Following the MoFo's, country folk-blues at it's finest was provided by Reverend Rebia and her fine harmonica soloist Virgil Thrasher. The duo brought everyone back in time to the day of 1930's, and 40's, with some very special acoustic blues. Reverend Rebia's father also a reverend cautioned his daughter at a young age that "the blues was the devil's music." After the first couple of songs, and in response to her father's warning she asked the audience, "well I think I've done pretty good so far, wouldn't you say?" The loud approval developed a reassuring smile as she continued on with her set.
North Carolina native Toni Lynn Washington was up next, heavily influenced by gospel and 60's R&B this beautiful young women with a voice to match was certain to be a hit with the ever increasing crowd. The Tone-Cool Recording artist whose 95 release of "Blues at Midnight" earned her a W.C. Handy nomination, and has set her career on the path of no return. Toni Lynn has toured extensively, and now calls New Orleans home where she has a big following. After this performance she could easily call San Francisco home too.
Otis Taylor brought his songs of substance to the stage next. This was my first exposure to Otis Taylor and had no idea what to expect. To begin, there was no drummer in the band as I scanned the stage. Keeping an open mind I waited patiently, and then came the "sound." It was not just the fact there was no drummer that made this band unique, (they really didn't need one) it was the blend of the social conscience of Otis Taylor's lyrics and the exceptional slide guitar work of Eddie Turner. Turner uses a Jimi Hendrix style feedback to help create and augment the often "haunting sound" of an Otis Taylor song. It is "the sound" and "the message" that Otis and his band bring with them. Don't expect to get up dance if you catch a live performance, I recommend you sit back and enjoy.
To smooth out the changeover between performances Tom Mazzolini would conduct brief live interviews with each artist's after completing their sets. This was an excellent way to keep things moving, and gave the show a non-stop feel. In all cases this worked very well with the exception of Otis Taylor, who tells it as it is. Tom asked Otis "being from the state of Colorado, have you been able to draw from this beautiful area in writing some of your songs?" There was a momentary pause…Then Otis leaned to the microphone and said "No." Well I burst out laughing so hard I didn't get to see the look on Mazzolini's face, but this was the only backfire. It was priceless just because it was unexpected and truthful. Thanks Otis.
Another first for me was Jody Williams, what a story this man is. Jody belongs in the who's who of the Chicago / Chess days having played and recorded with Howlin' Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, Memphis Slim, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Billy Boy Arnold, Otis Spann, Elmore James, and Charles Brown. Get the picture? When Jody wasn't taking it easy recording with these folks you could find him on the road with the likes of Clyde McPhatter, Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, and Bill Haley and the Comets to name a few. Jody gave it all up for the security of a day job in the early 70's, from which he has just recently retired. It was as if he had never put his guitar down, and the crowd let him know it. Thus began an hour or so of give and take that kept Jody smiling and getting' down into some good old blues. Highly recommend to see Jody if you get the chance.
Arguably the most underrated guitarist on the weekend bill, and perhaps the best fingers in the business since Chet Atkins, Little Charlie Batty and the Nightcats was just the band to have kept things heated up. This band (always on tour it seems) can get any crowd on their feet in a mater of minutes, well the dancers' for sure. With Charlie's outstanding fret - work and master crooner Rick Estrin's vocals and harp these guys offered an ample serving of some fine blue's and boogie. Always a good band to see live. Rick told me after their set that the S.F. Blues Festival has been a personal longtime favorite, Rick calls Sacramento home which as he says is just a quick ninety minutes away.
While the din once again became your neighbors audible voice, and a quick run for refreshment or relaxation was the order of the moment, nobody could have predicted the next words from Tim Mazzolini. "Ladies and Gentleman, Elvis Costello." Once the thunderous applause settled down, Elvis told the crowd that just the night before he had seen Howard Tate at a local club, and was so taken by his performance that he had to come today and hear him again. With a seat in the wings waiting, Elvis proudly said, "ladies and gentlemen please welcome Howard Tate." What a great surprise (for me personally) from what I could tell everyone in attendance Howard hit the groove running. I've been around these shows long enough to know when someone with the style and presence of a Howard Tate takes center-stage, you stop what your doing and listen. This Philadelphia native started out in a vocal group called the Gainers and ended up as singer for Bill Doggett. He was only getting started and after some dues found himself with several hits on the Verve label in the late 60's and early 70's. Howard's career seemed to all but end during the 70's, but was not overlooked by his peers. Many of Howard's songs were covered by likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and B.B. King. For close to 20 years Howard stayed out of the music business and sold insurance to make ends meet. After an additional ten-year's Howard talked into a comeback by his friend and longtime producer Jerry Ragovoy, and as they say "the rest is history." Howard has, according to many recaptured his old form and is once again pleasing audiences everywhere.
Robert Cray capped the day's performances in typical blue-collar fashion. This serious and talented artist always delivers an uptown show with his workingman's ethic. Backed by one of the finest bands in the business they were an absolute hit with the crowd.
Sunday's performance schedule began with the Stars of Glory a five-member female gospel group that changed the definition of inspirational. Goose bumps were the order as this delightful group of women from Richmond California greeted the day's early arriver's. Several people I spoke with after the performance said it reminded them of church. If that was church, I've been missing out.
Up next Mississippi born Big Time Sarah, who for the most part calls Chicago home these day's, has been a staple at Chi-town clubs for some time. Sarah's booming voice was backed by Steve Freund, himself no stranger to the Chicago club circuit. Together Sarah and Steve along with the band were able to slowly pick up speed and take the crowd into the early afternoon. As the sun was providing for it's second consecutive day of warm temps for the hot sounds, the audience was preparing for a blues legend.
Robert Jr. Lockwood often touted as the stepson of Delta-Blues legend Robert Johnson, and virtually the last link between the past and the present, began by shooing away the local television cameraman, saying " no video camera's, don't want no video." After a brief stare-down and a good laugh in the first few rows the cameraman politely left. Blues purists were happy to get on with it, and Robert didn't disappoint. The co-founder of the King Biscuit radio show with Sonny Boy Williamson brought everyone back to a much simpler time with his fine renditions of his favorites. The only thing missing of course was Sonny Boy's harp.
Up next another blues legend Mississippi native James Cotton. A one- time member of Muddy Water's band still blows a mean harp. Unable to sing any longer due to throat problems, he can still find plenty of air in those lungs. Picking up the vocal duties as he has many times in the past was Daryl Nulish, himself an accomplished harmonica player, and a perfect substitute voice. Rounding out the group the on-again, off-again (mostly on-again) keyboardist David Maxwell. Probably the most under-rated blues piano player in the business provided several crowd-pleasing moments of his own.
Otis Rush, another "legend in the making" rising out of Chicago's west side with the like's of Buddy Guy and others put a new spin on the ever changing Chicago blues scene. Otis was on hand to prove that nothing's changed, at least not Otis. A definite hit with Sunday's throng it was clear to see how Otis could be the influence and inspiration for so many including Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and John Mayall. Like Jimi Hendrix this upside-down left handed guitarist, without a doubt left everyone wanting more. Otis and his band served as the perfect set up to the Blues Festivals headliner "Steve Miller's Chicago Blues Reunion"
Although Steve Miller is well known in San Francisco's bay area his reunion troupe may have needed a little introduction. Judging from the crowd's response as each of the musicians was brought up it was clear they knew "who" they were there to see. After a couple of rather slow numbers Miller hollered back to pick it up and they did. Then a surprise, at least for Steve Miller fans when the first few notes brought many to their feet with the beginning of 1976's title track from Fly Like an Eagle. The slightly jazzed-up and extended version was just the invitation for many to stand up, dance, sing, and enjoy the rest of the show. As the set progressed and each member was introduced the show slowly evolved into a party. Marcy Levy (former Clapton vocalist), Electric Flag keyboardist Barry Goldberg, and original Blues Breakers bassist, Harvey Mandel were only the beginning, and obviously happy to be on hand. Goldberg and Mandel, both early pillars of Charlie Musselwhite's band in Chicago, and according to the event's program it was Goldberg on the organ at Dylan's controversial Newport Folk Festival performance and on Mitch Ryder's smash hit "Devil with a Blue Dress". Next we have Charlie Musselwhite a student and now a teacher of Chicago style blues harmonica, with Nick Gravenites, the pen behind the Paul Butterfield's "Born in Chicago". I was beginning to understand, but had no idea how much I was about to learn today. Bloomfield / Butterfield, these were the white guys along with Duane Allman that so desperately sought the truth, the heart, and soul of so many black musicians, and American Roots Music. Elvin Bishop said it best, "You know this Chicago all star thing, well we might as well be called, The Lucky Boys, because that's what we really were". "We were just a small group of musicians that happened to be in the right place at the right time." "On any given night (in Chicago) for two bucks you could see Hound Dog Taylor, Magic Sam, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, and on and on." "What happened next was just natural." Yes in deed, what happened next was natural, it was a celebration of Chicago Blues.
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