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Open Up and Say ... Aptos

The 12th Annual Santa Cruz Blues Festival goes down smooth--mmm, mmm good!

Sure, we like to support the underdogs, but that's only part of the point of highlighting the Santa Cruz Blues Festival openers this year (see our stories on the Holmes Brothers and Jon Cleary). Festival coordinator Bill Welch prides himself on opening every festival strong, and this year is certainly no exception.

Since its inception 11 years ago, the Santa Cruz Blues Festival has attracted some awfully big names in blues, wrapping up its first installment with Albert Collins and including over the years acts like John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Charlie Musselwhite, culminating with last year's legendary headliner, the inimitable Ray Charles. Other acts such as Little Feat, Candye Kane, the Iguanas and Nina Storey have kept the festival varied and interesting.

London-born soulmeister Cleary keeps the tradition alive, kicking off the party on Saturday, followed by Angela Strehli & Tracy Nelson, Bernard Allison, Shemekia Copeland and headliner Jonny Lang. On Sunday, the Holmes Brothers warm up the day, followed by Michael Burks, Tommy Castro, Coco Montoya and headliner Buddy Guy & Double Trouble.

Gates open at 10am each day, Saturday, May 29, and Sunday, May 30, with music from 11am to 7pm. One-day passes: $37 general admission, $20 children 12 and under, $62 Gold Circle. Two-day passes: $64 general admission, $30 children 12 and under, 114 Gold Circle. Here's a closer look at this year's players.


Jonny Lang
Look what happens when a 12-year-old starts going to live shows. He used to play the saxophone, but after seeing Bad Medicine perform, Jonny asked for a guitar for his next birthday. He couldn't be stopped. After just a few months of lessons from Bad Medicine's guitarist Ted Larsen, Li'l Jonny was already fronting Larsen's band with his name--Kid Jonny Lang and the Big Band--and blistering guitar chops. But long gone are the days when a 16-year-old Jonny blew minds with his debut solo album, Lie to Me. Now, at the ripe ole age of 23, Jonny Lang's already legendary, and he has continually proven that he ain't no one-hit wonder. His old-school guitar work and vocal skills are simply amazing, and he delivers his style with humility and poise. He's played with greats like B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Blues Traveler, rocking the socks off just about anybody in the biz. And did I mention that he's also extremely easy on the eyes? Whew, I mean, what a babe! Kid Jonny is blessed with many talents and will no doubt be in the blues biz for decades to come. (Claudia Buchsbaum)

Shemekia Copeland
She's the woman Robert Plant has called "the next Tina Turner." Although he meant that she is an electrifying performer with ample amounts of both charisma and talent, when I read that all I could think of was wanting to see a sequel to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. I think Shemekia could pull it off. Born in Harlem in 1979, Shemekia is the daughter of Texas guitarist Johnny Clyde Copeland. Johnny started off his daughter's career at 16 by hiring her to open up his tour. Thanks to the exposure that her father gave her, she was soon signed to Alligator Records and established herself as a solo act. Described as having a blast-furnace voice, Shemekia is one of the more powerful performers on the circuit today, frequently closing shows without the aid of amplification. Although she is following in the great tradition of powerful female blues artists like Aretha Franklin and Koko Taylor, Shemekia's music has a tougher, more urban flavor that reflects her upbringing in New York City. She performs, she says, for two reasons: the first is to honor her father and his legacy, and the second is the physical need to express herself. "Nobody wants to listen to someone singing just to earn some money," she says. "You've gotta sing because you need to do it." (Peter Koht)

Bernard Allison
This guy is proof that even if you are born into a musical family, you still have to pay your dues. The son of the legendary Luther Allison, Bernard grew up surrounded by the music. Unfortunately, his father was a bit too occupied with his touring schedule to school Bernard on his knee, so the younger Allison taught himself to play using his father's records. For three years, he worked his way through his dad's record collection learning how to get around the guitar neck. Impressed by his son's ingenuity and talent, Luther invited Bernard to join him onstage for the first time at the age of 13. After Bernard escaped--er, graduated--from high school, he joined up with Koko Taylor's band as the leader of her Blues Machine. He stayed at that gig for three years until his dad invited him to move to Europe to lead his backing band. Finally the younger Allison was able to connect with his father. "We were like brothers," Bernard explains. We shared and played on each other's projects and wrote music and lyrics together." Despite this closeness with his father, Bernard has defined his career on his own terms. Now a well-established solo act, Bernard regularly tours the world with his own band. Although rooted in the blues, his music incorporates strains of Sly Stone, Marvin and even Grand Funk. (Peter Koht)

Angela Strehli and Tracy Nelson
Voted Austin's favorite vocalist five times, Angela Strehli has sat in with some of the blues' best players over the years, and fronted her own bands as well. Born to be a bandleader, her years of experience heading the Club Antone house band in Austin and, more recently, the Rancho Nicasio house band in Marin County have brought her together with legends, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton and Marcia Ball. Meanwhile, Tracy Nelson's 50-year career has been a long and winding road. A powerful singer with a character to match, Nelson started with the blues--Charlie Musselwhite, to be specific--and traveled on through the summer of love with her popular band Mother Earth, before settling down on a farm in Tennessee where she lives still. Live from Cell Block D, her newest release full of early blue-influenced songs, was recorded in a Tennessee prison--a feat for which she should get some kind of Most Courageous Yet Underappreciated Blues Singer/Songwriter award. Still going strong after all these years, these two powerful blues vocalists will be backed up by Strehli's band, with none other than "Mighty" Mike Schermer on guitar. (Meribeth Malone)

Buddy Guy and Double Trouble
He's inspired several generations of blues guitar players, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and as any fan will attest, Buddy Guy is still rippin' it up on stage at 67. And speaking of Stevie Ray Vaughan, as the headliner of Sunday's show, Guy will be sporting Vaughan's legendary band mates, Double Trouble. Now recognized as a living legend and a link to a rich heritage of past bluesmen including the late Muddy Waters, Guy was virtually unknown before his breakthough 1991 album, Damn Right, I've Got the Blues, even though he had been on the Chicago scene since the '50s playing with Waters and other greats. He's sold millions of albums, toured the world many times over and won four Grammys, including one this year for his latest album, Blues Singer, an acoustic tribute to the greats. Guy is still a fiery force to be reckoned with onstage, and with Double Trouble behind him, well, there's bound to be one hell of a feeling in that oceanic Aptos redwoodsy air. Look out for squirrels wearing dark shades disguised as small children. Don't squash them, but don't give them your wristband either. They don't handle alcohol very well. (Adam Cotton)

Coco Montoya
In his seventh Blues Fest appearance, Coco Montoya is this year's resident veteran. It's been a quirky musical evolution for Montoya. A formidable blues guitarist whose performance history includes a 10-year stint with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, he got his start in the music scene as a drummer. That was back in the mid-1970s, when Albert Collins called Montoya up from the minors to lay down the rhythms for his touring band. Montoya stayed with Collins for five years, learning guitar from the legendary blues master in the band's off-hours and then going on to play with Mayall in a role held previously by such people as Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor. Since 1993, Montoya has toured his own band, releasing three critically acclaimed albums and pulling down four W.C. Handy Award nominations. A natural-born entertainer, Montoya gives off nonstop energy and all-out emotion when he plays. His show is usually full of surprises--the time at Moe's, for example, when Montoya first startled and then delighted the crowd by hopping off the stage and playing his way across the dance floor. (Barbara McKenna)

Tommy Castro
Oh, Tommy. What can we say about you that hasn't already been said? Yes, we've heard about you touring with B.B. King, and about all the awards you won for Best Bar Band in the Bay Area. We know all about your unassuming, yet slightly gritty vocals and your chunky chops on the Stratocaster. What's that? YES, we know about the Blues Review Readers' Poll deeming your album Right as Rain one of the 40 best of all time. Seriously, dude, can't you embroil yourself in some kind of scandal for us? Pleeeease, do something crazy and then come back and tell us about it. It doesn't have to be anything illegal, but we know you'll make sure it's something sexy, won't you, Tommy? (Steve Sanchez)

Michael Burks
Michael Burks is a hard-working man onstage. While some bluesmen are content to sit and strum, Burks is, shall we say, more active onstage, conjuring up the kind of revival-like atmosphere that performers like Albert King and Freddy King have given in years past. His live act includes passionate screams, grunts, pleas to heaven and a healthy dose of "guitar face." This man has been sweating it out onstage for over 30 years. However, in the great tradition of awards shows being behind the curve, he was only nominated for Best New Artist at the W.C. Handy Awards in 2000. Now signed to the legendary Alligator Records, Michael has been reaching a wider audience of late. He is a regular on the summer festival circuit and is rapidly building up a legion of rabid fans drawn to his showmanship, passion and musicianship. Though his career is now quite established, Brooks isn't slowing down and keeps up a grueling schedule. As he says, "I don't play music for my health." (Peter Koht)

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From the May 19-26, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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