Ray Charles' 2003 performance just may have been the Blues Festival's high point so far. (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty)
I’ll never forget what it felt like to be backstage just before Ray Charles took the stage at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival in 2003. There was a crackling electricity in the air as the man himself stood waiting to be called up to play just a few feet from me. He was bobbing to the music and smiling his famous broad smile, but even so he couldn’t hide his intensity. His chin was slightly raised and his head cocked a little to one side—he was listening. Surveying. No matter how many thousands of times he had done this, no matter that he had to lean hard on his other senses to compensate for his lack of sight, he was not going to let a single detailabout what was going on around him escape his attention. Whatever he was measuring—the mood of the crowd, the tightness of the band, the distance up the stairs—he seemed to lock it in just as his name was called, taking the stage to thunderous applause with the confidence of a musical legend.
That was my favorite Blues Festival moment. To the surprise of no one who saw Charles’ show that day, his appearance was also a triumphant moment for Bill Welch, the festival’s co-founder.
“That was my favorite thing of all time,” says Welch.
This year’s Santa Cruz Blues Festival will be Welch’s 20th. Did he have any inkling it would last this long?
“Not a chance,” he admits. “We were only going year by year. The first year we were amazed that we sold out with Albert Collins and Pinetop Perkins. It was amazing that we did this little festival and it sold out. So let’s do two days, and do this and do that. We had no idea it was going to last for 20 years.”
In two decades, Welch has plenty of favorite moments, but we asked him to pick just 20 performances. Some of them were heightened by the alchemy of certain artists together on one day, and have been indicated by such. They are arranged in chronological order, with a brief summary of Welch’s thoughts on what propelled each selection into his top 20. Most of all, though, he remembers how this area has embraced the festival.
“The reception from this community has been incredible for 20 years. It’s a testament to Santa Cruz and how unusual it is. I don’t want to say weird, but the eclectic tastes and their support for the arts. It’s incredible in this town, with KPIG and UCSC and Cabrillo and our own cast of characters that lives here,” he says. “Being able to do a festival for 20 years is as much a testament to Santa Cruz as it is to us. I feel so thankful.”
Coco Montoya May 27, 1995
BILL WELSH: “Getting Coco that first time was like, ‘Man, where is this guy coming from?’ He’s such a great player and dynamic guitarist, and exudes this energy on the stage. For [co-founder] Phil [Lewis] and I, he’s always been like our big brother. He kind of sets the tone for what we’re all about at Moe’s Alley and the Santa Cruz Blues Festival. That magnetic energy of music. He always says, ‘If I’m not playing this year, I’m going to come up and bartend.’ He’s just part of the family, in the best possible way.“During the festival, I’m usually running around with my head cut off. Then every once in a while, I’ll just hear that guitar in the background and go, ‘Goddamn it, that’s Coco up there.’ So I’ll take a break and go up there. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s played Moe’s Alley more than Coco, or the festival more than Coco. There’s moments when I hear him and I just smile and think, ‘Thank God for what I’m able to do for a living.’”
John Lee Hooker May 26, 1996
“When he got up on stage, I was sitting backstage doing something, the band was doing their intro, and all of a sudden I could tell John Lee Hooker just walked on stage. The crowd went bananas. It was like a rock & roll show. I go, ‘What the heck is going on?’ There he was walking on stage in this perfect outfit he had on, and people went crazy. You know, with B.B. people went crazy, or with Bonnie. It’s always really good. But this was just like everybody jumped up and screamed and yelled. I just went ‘Wow.’”
Charles Brown May 26, 1996
“Charles Brown was the best storyteller I’ve ever met in music. He could spin a yarn like that. I go, ‘Geez, let me know if I need to get my feet up off the ground here.’ ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ is still one of my all-time favorite songs that I grew up with.”
Clarence Gatemouth Brown May 24, 1997
“One of my favorite guys of all time. Another character who was bigger than life, and he wasn’t just a guitar player. He was a musician’s musician. He was one of these guys who could play anything he picked up. He had this stuff in his head that always amazed me. He would come up with these arrangements, it was like big band kind of stuff, but also with this guitar sound or playing his violin, or his other instruments. He always captured something that would take you back in time, but also brought you into where he was. It was a style of music he crafted himself. There was nobody else like him.”
Luther Allison May 25, 1997
“He was one of my favorite guitar players, who left us a number of years ago. He would play and play and play and play, but he was also so influential on the next generation. He’d get there early and he’d talk to Tommy Castro or Jimmy Thackery or Coco Montoya, give them advice, put his arm around them. He was one of these guys who would try to help. He wanted to pass on his knowledge, of the mistakes he’d made and the answers he’d found to the questions in life. That day he played, Phil and I were in the motor home talking to him, and it was like hearing the Messiah. He was a guy who had all these answers and wanted to share them.”
Nina Storey May 29, 1999
“She was another one who opened my eyes up. We got a copy of her CD, and I’m usually pretty finicky about who I’m going to put on this thing. I make them jump through some hoops. But I listened to her CD and just thought, ‘Wow, this is some great stuff.’ I fell in love with her music and her. Her parents are still great friends of mine to this day.”
Indigenous May 25, 2002
“When Indigenous came on, I had not seen them before but I loved their music. They’re from North Dakota and they were a little shy at first. It took me about a half hour before I was able to get them having fun. Then they got it right away.
“You take some chances sometimes on people who you don’t know, but you love their music and hope it’s going to translate. Mato Nanji now is one of my favorite guitarists of all time. He’s one of these extremely gifted human beings. The first time I watched him play—well, everybody wants to compare him to someone else, but he’s got that thing that Stevie Ray Vaughn had where the music just flows through him.”
Ray Charles May 24, 2003
“I was in heaven that year. I’d met him before, but being able to meet him at a show that we were producing, and to make it right for him. Have him get up there with his what, 22 other people on stage with him, and let him do what he does. For me, it was spectacular. If we didn’t do the festival after that, I would have been fine. He was the ultimate artist I wanted to do. He said, ‘I hope we played well enough that you’ll have us back next year.’ I go, ‘Well, we’ll have to see.’ He got a chuckle out of that.”
The Ford Blues Band with Chris Cain May 25, 2003
“I was talking with Pat Ford from the Ford Brothers and he goes, ‘Dude, we got this project.’ I said, ‘Say no more, let’s do it.’ He goes, ‘Wait, you gotta hear what it is!’ I said, ‘I know if you’ve got a project going, it’s something I’m going to want to do.’ So he goes, ‘It’s going to be a tribute to Mike Bloomfield and the Electric Flag. It’s going to have three guitar players, three horns, two keyboards players, and three background vocalists.’ I go, ‘Let’s do it, it sounds great.’ And he’s still saying, ‘But Bill! But Bill!’ It was one of those things that was like, ‘This is going to be one of the defining moments of what we’ve done.’ And it was. That day was one of my favorite, favorite things. There was this 13-piece band up there playing music from 40 years ago that was still vital today. I was looking up going, ‘Goddamn, this is cool.’”
Holmes Brothers May 30, 2004
“They have a sound that’s unlike anybody else. They’re going to open up Sunday morning again this year. Sunday morning, gospel blues. I think it’s kind of a perfect fit. They’ve got a new record that Joan Osbourne produced, and once I booked Joan, it was like, ‘OK, the Holmes Brothers would be really cool, too.’ It’s getting that little bit of a theme in what you book. There’s a great feel when they open up.”
Solomon Burke May 29, 2005
“He was a character. He had a couple lines that were just classic. Another incredible storyteller. Cause he was a preacher, and a mortician also. So one of his lines was that he could ‘marry ’em and bury ’em.’ Who’s going to come up with a line like that? That day, he came from Los Angeles, from his church, and he had three vanloads of people. And I think 16 or 18 of the people in the vans were his kids or grandkids. It was this huge family of people, it changed the whole vibe backstage when they got there. It was like, ‘Oh my God, Solomon Burke’s here.’ He was 400 pounds probably at that point, just a big, big man with an even bigger heart, and an attitude of making sure people had a great time.”
Los Lobos & Dave Alvin May 29, 2006
“We had Los Lobos, John Hiatt, North Mississippi All-Stars and Boneshakers, and I needed somebody to fill in there. Something we had booked fell out, which happens a lot. When you start the booking process in October, and the festival’s in May, you get to where you say, ‘OK, this is going to be the perfect lineup’—and I must say that two or three hundred times every year. So I’m sitting at home one night writing the bios for the press release, and I’m listening to Los Lobos and I go: ‘Somewhere in Time.’ Bingo. Dave Alvin. That’ll work perfectly. They know each other really well, they wrote this song together, and Dave will be the thing that ties it together.”
Etta James May 27, 2007
“She was great. Another really special, special person, who I worked with on several other festivals. Finally we got her at our festival, and it was just like a history lesson. Her band was a mixture of musicians that had been with her for a long time, and two of her kids were in the band. She had a very unusual approach. She was charming on stage, and nasty and sweet, this mixture. A great entertainer.”
Bonnie Raitt May 24, 2008
“That was a spectacular year. We knew it was going to be, because of Bonnie, so I thought just for the thematic basis I’d put on Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Willie Big Eyes Smith and Mike Schermer’s All-star Band. She’s always been a big proponent of the original blues guys, so I thought, ‘This will make her smile.’ It worked, and they all got up on stage and played with her that day. That’s the magic of putting on a festival, I think, is to get that chemistry backstage and in front of the stage, too.”
Trombone Shorty May 25, 2008
“It was amazing the reaction he got when people saw him. I’d heard his stuff some, but I’d never really seen him, and most of the bands on our festivals I see them before we book them. I want to make sure they fit in to the vibe of what we’re doing. With Shorty, I didn’t know that much about him, but it was like, ‘Wow. So much energy.’ And we had him really early. Shorty’s taking the world by storm now. He played at the White House.”
Joe Cocker and Leon Russell May 23, 2009
“Most people that aren’t as old as me don’t realize that Leon was one of the biggest artists in the world for about three years. He had one of the biggest selling live albums of all time. Leon was around, he’d played the club about six months before the festival. I thought, ‘This would be really cool to see if we can get them both.’ Joe Cocker and Leon Russell on the same day, I had to smile inside: Leon put on a fantastic show, and Joe Cocker’s show was off the charts. He did like 20 songs in his set, and I think they were all hit singles. He put everything he had into it.”
B.B. King May 24, 2009
“B.B. King was another dream come true. We tried for years and years to get him there, and he always had something scheduled. We finally got him, but it took us 8 to 10 years. B.B.’s just one of these guys who’s your best possible scenario of a grandfather. He’s a wonderful man, warm. He starts off a conversation asking how are you and how’s your family. That just doesn’t happen a lot of times today in the world of entertainment.”
Ben Harper & Taj Mahal May 29, 2010
“I love what Ben does—as an artist he’s at the top of his game—but it was a little bit of risk for us to put him on a blues festival. We had Taj on right before him, who’s an old buddy of his. He played in Taj’s band early on, one of his first gigs. I like to tie it together like that, so there’s that camaraderie. A lot of these guys tour so much, they don’t get to hang out with their peers or their friends that much. That’s one thing at our festival, we’ve always tried to get it where people are going to have a blast backstage. Where it’s like, ‘There’s going to be all kinds of lies being told back here today.’”
Eric Burdon and the Animals May 30, 2010
“He struck me as an artist who had an amazing story to tell. All those songs he had in the ’60s are timeless. And they’re his songs. If you look through the list of all the acts we’ve done over the years, it’s that way. They’re the artists who really have something to say and have their own way of saying it.”
Experience Hendrix May 28, 2011
“That was an incredible day. It was like herding cats, there were so many people in that group and that whole entourage. They weren’t used to doing festivals, they were used to performing arts centers. But I explained to Janie Hendrix that this was a way I think we can get Jimi’s music exposed to a lot of new people out there. And people really did embrace it last year. It was incredibly special for me, because it crossed generations of musicians and fans at the same time, which is what a promoter’s job is, to open people up to new music, old music—good music.”