Three Bay Area Blues Festivals.
Hayward/Russell City Blues Festival. July 7&8, 2012.
Bay Area radio has not been completely swallowed up by corporations. We still find great shows to listen to despite the demise of KUSF and KPIG. The San Francisco Blues Festival is gone, but we can still hear Tom Mazzolini’s “Blues By the Bay” show on KPFA. KPIG broadcast from Santa Cruz. It was a refreshing change from the computerized programming of most channels, but the station was squeezed out of the Bay Area a couple of years ago.
Kathy has been a long time listener of KPOO. She discovered the Monday night radio show “Grinder’s Grooveyard.” Rocking Jim Grigsby plays obscure Rhythm and Blues and Doo Wop classics. Every show is a music history lesson. It’s not your usual oldies show, and it’s certainly not the hits you’ll hear on programmed radio. It’s really brought back memories for us. KPOO is in serious financial trouble. Previous funding has been cut and they rely on money donated by listeners. Check out their web site: http://www.kpoo.com/
Rocking Jim was filling in for fellow DJ Johnny Brooklyn. He was plugging The Hayward/Russell City Blues Festival and announced he’d be giving away tickets to the next callers. Kathy usually wins these things, but I made the call and won two tickets! Consider this a disclaimer. Yes, we were on the house.
Hayward is in the East Bay. This would be a good opportunity to see a town we usually rush by. What was Russell City? I found a Youtube clip that was a trailer for a documentary on its history. Ronnie Lewis and the Bay Area Blues Society are trying to get it finished. The short clip gives a capsule history of Russell City. There is more information at: pastandpresentmedia.org.
Russell City was an unincorporated area near Hayward. Poor farmers found cheap land and settled there. It was around a big railroad connection. World War II brought many Black workers from the South and Russell City boomed. Many dive bars sprung up. Most of them were little more than shacks. It was a remote safety zone for juke joints and a place to let loose. It was the other side of the tracks.
There were several clubs but the main one was The Russell City Country Club. Big stars played there including Lowell Fulson, Big Mama Thornton, L.C. “Good Rocking” Robinson, and T-Bone Walker. A young Fillmore Slim came over from San Francisco to hang out. Ray Charles drew a big crowd.
Russell City became known as a place where musicians had to “bring it.” It was a competitive scene. The local sound was heavy on saxophones. Bobby “Spider” Webb was one of the regulars. He still plays gigs in the Bay Area and is a DJ at KPOO. In the documentary there are interviews with Ronnie Lewis, Billy Dunn and Robert Trout about the old days.
Local officials decided Russell City was ripe for redevelopment. They pushed the locals out by eminent domain. People were cheated on the prices of their homes. Most got pennies on the dollar.
The documentary interviews Sam Nava and his father Ernesto. Ernesto was the last hold out, “The last house.” He had built it himself and certainly didn’t want to leave. Eventually he gave in. He says that two hours after they left, the house was burned down.
Downtown Hayward had historic buildings. We could see a big farmer’s market down the street. We got our wrist bands and passed to the other side of a cyclone fence. The stage was in front of a renovated, modern City Hall. Most of the area around the main stage was shaded. Rows of white chairs had been set up. This was going to be civilized. It was a cool day for Hayward, but people still anticipated afternoon heat. Lawn chairs were set up in a ring around the plaza. Later they would be in the shade.
We got there for the last two songs of Blues Harp Explosion. Sean McGroarty, Wingnut Adams, Silverfox, Bennie Arroyo, Vinnie Flores, Junior Boogie. They were blasting Boogie. It was a great start.
The next act was a Tina Turner imitator. Keisha Wright is Tina Turner. The program told us that she had been a member of Legends of Las Vegas, a troupe of celebrity impersonators. Keisha had it going. She could really shake it. With the big Tina hair wig, she really did look like her. “I Want To Take You Higher.” It was early in the day, but Keisha was going to start a party. She wanted everyone to have a good time.
Tina insisted on audience participation. She urged volunteers to get up near the stage and dance. The first “volunteer” was a Black gentleman. He could really dance and the crowd cheered him on. Tina brought him onstage and talked to him after the song. He told us he was fifty years old and from Louisiana.
Ronnie Stewart leads the East Bay All Stars. They would be onstage all day backing up the acts. There was a great sax solo. “We call him Sweetmeat,” Tina told us.
They play some more Rhythm and Blues classics. Tina tries to start a sing a long, but it’s a little too early. They finish the set with the band pumping and Tina jumping all over the stage.
There’s some shuffling and confusion onstage. A name is called, “We have your driver’s license. So please come backstage. The police have something for you.” That sounded ominous.
It was a relaxed and friendly crowd. Most of the crowd were older Black people. There is a Russell City reunion picnic every year. Sometimes the atmosphere was more like being at a family picnic. A woman sitting in front of us heard us wondering where the “other stage” was. “Oh, it’s right down that way,” she cheerfully told us.
The theme for this year’s Festival is “Russell City: The Next Generation,” but I didn’t see many in that demographic today. There were a few youngsters with their families, but The Blues doesn’t attract many young fans today. That has happened and changed in the past. The Blues is just not a cool thing to listen to for most young people today.
There were tents set up in the plaza selling clothes and art. A booth sold festival tee shirts and programs. The Bay Area Blues Society had a tent displaying photos of local Blues nightclubs and stars. Most of the pictures are used in the Russell City documentary. Some of the photos already looked faded and it was a sunny day. The women behind the table considered getting them out of the sun.
Which of the Oakland Blues Divas would sing first? The Oakland Divas are Ella Pennewell, Xymphoni and JNeen. Pennewell goes first and starts with a lustful “I Just Wanna Make Love to You.” She follows with the Etta James song: “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Next is some great Aretha with “Rock Steady.” Pennewell leads a great version of “Turning Point” by Tyrone Davis. She’s got a great stage presence and a powerful voice.
Guitarist Ronnie Stewart acts as MC. He’s a Russell City Blues scene veteran and the executive director of The Bay Area Blues Society. He tells the crowd the festival lost two big sponsors this year. One of them was Black Oak Casino. He calls out to Olden Harris. Harris is a local politician. He had been one of the “driving forces” in getting this Blues Festival started. Stewart tells us that Harris lost the last election. “He should be OK though. He’s a nuclear scientist.”
Across from the main stage is a booth for an energy drink: Hext. MC Ronnie Stewart tries to send some business their way. He urges people to get over and try the drink. Maybe it was the cool breeze or maybe it was the price, but they weren’t seeing much business today.
We scouted out the smaller stage. It’s called the CalPine Community Stage. It was behind City Hall. Young redwoods provide shade. The Mekesmo Band was finishing up. There were about twenty people in the whole back area. Some had set up lawn chairs under the redwoods in anticipation of the afternoon’s sun. We found a couple of folding chairs under a small tree. It was like a private Blues Festival.
We stayed for Leo & The Blues Crew and heard another version of “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Etta James had passed away early in the year. You usually hear her songs at any Blues Festival. They were especially poignant this year. The sound was great. As the day went on more people found out about “the little stage.” Leo & The Blues Crew do “I’ll Play the Blues for You.”
We danced to “Sweet Home Chicago.” Wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that one. A few people hung out on the lawn outside the cyclone fence. They were getting a free show. One raggedy looking guy with long hair and wearing a red shirt danced nonstop. The BART station was right across the street. Few took advantage of the free show.
“I Should Have Quit You.” “Just My Imagination.”
Lil Jimmy Reed was scheduled for the Main Stage, so I went for the short walk to check him out. I had done a little research. Reed is from Enterprise, Alabama. He wasn’t a blood relative of Jimmy Reed. Legend has it that the original Jimmy Reed showed up for a gig too drunk to perform. The owner of the club had heard Lil Jimmy Reed play and had him replace the star act. It was a wild juke joint scene and few noticed that it wasn’t Jimmy Reed leading the band. Lil Jimmy Reed was hired to do his own gigs.
It certainly wasn’t Lil Jimmy Reed onstage right now. Arthur Adams is heavyset and bald. He was stalking the stage and ripping on guitar. He was rocking and stalking the stage. “We’re going to Roll!’ “Paying the Cost To Be the Boss.” Next was a song he recorded with B.B. King: “I Can’t Wait ‘Till I Get You Next To Me.”
Adams keeps moving. He looks like an NFL lineman. During “Funky Broadway” he makes his way to the left side of the stage. He spots a couple of his old buddies hanging out. He gives them a silent greeting and points the guitar at them. They get a big kick out of their acknowledgement from the stage.
Where’s Lil Jimmy Reed? Adams is great, but I go back to the CalPine Community Stage. Lovelight Band is playing. They are tight and solid. They open with “Turn On Your Lovelight.” They must be a popular party band.
“Tina” (Keisha Wright) is sitting with a group under some trees. She’s just hanging with some friends. It really is a festival atmosphere. After people finish their set they wander around and check out the other performers. Ella Pennewell comes back to check out the action on the “little stage.”
The singer tells us that the next song is an original. Lovelight Band is from Oakland. They play “Bang Bang.” It’s an anti-gang, anti-violence song. “Stop the killing,” the singer pleads after the song.
Lovelight Band does a great version of “Last Two Dollars.” The party continues with “Got My Mojo Working.”
I hadn’t given up on seeing Lil Jimmy Reed. Arthur Adams was more Rock and Roll than I had expected to see today. I went around the back of City Hall to the main stage. Lil Jimmy Reed was sitting on the fender of a U-Haul truck. It was hard for me to tell if he was tired, pissed off or both. Why did he switch spots with Arthur Adams? Would he play today?
Adams is still playing on the main stage. “Caledonia.” He plays the song popularized by Eric Clapton: “Farther On Down the Road.”
The next act on the CalPine stage is Hollywood & Company. They’re another great party band. There are two keyboard players. They don’t look like they belong in the band. One guy looks like he just dropped in from outer space. The other looks like a classical musician trying to make a little extra money.
The two guys who came onstage earlier with Keisha “Tina” Wright are dancing near the front of the stage. Buddy Young guests on guitar for the Eddie Floyd song: “Ain’t No Love Like My Baby’s Love.”
“Dust My Broom.” “It’s Going To Be Such a Lovely Day.”
They do a great Rock and Roll medley with “Whole Lotta Shaking Going On” and “Lucille.” The crowd gets into it. There’s another version of “Sweet Home Chicago.”
I still want to see Lil Jimmy Reed and go back to the main stage. It’s easy to get around and it is a short walk. Reed is blasting an Elmore James song. He’s playing a Rock rhythm.
Reed reminds me of Keith. He’s thin, old and has gray hair, but there’s something wild about him. He’s like a wolf. Is that some kind of rhythm guitar player thing? He plays a repetitive, but powerful riff.
Reed wears a microphone headset. I don’t think he used it during the first song I heard. Maybe we’re not supposed to hear what comes next. Right before the next song Reed gets into it a bit with one of the East Bay All Stars. “Don’t get jealous. Just sit down and play.” Maybe he was just teasing him a bit. We waited for a punch line that didn’t come. The East Bay All Stars must be commended. They were onstage all day backing up the acts.
“Rock Me Baby.”
A tall stage hand with long hair came onstage. I had noticed him working on equipment onstage earlier in the day. He sets up a synthesizer during the song and starts to play. This guy is a versatile athlete.
“It Must be Sunday Morning.”
There are some characters in this crowd. An older gentleman has a Levi jacket with a biker club patch on the back. “AARPS of Anarchy.” He climbs onstage. He has an artificial leg. He’s with a woman who makes an announcement to the crowd. Reed didn’t bring any CDs! “Let him know you want to buy some!”
It’s another short walk back to the CalPine stage for Big Cat Tolefree & Hypnotics. “Who’s Making Love to Your Old Lady?” We hear another version of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
More classics: “Midnight Hour” “Knock On Wood” “Reap What You Sow” and “Turn On Your Love Light.”
“This is the main stage!” someone yells from the CalPine stage. The bands on this stage have been exciting and professional. The sound has been great.
It’s time to head home, but on the way out, we catch some of Sonny Green on the main stage. He’s wearing a wild red jacket and has a flashy show business style. “Shine On Me” and “Monday’s All Right.”
We heard many R&B standards today. All the bands sounded great and were “party bands.” The bands on the smaller Calpine Community Stage could have competed with any of the acts on the main stage. A great little festival. Thanks again to KPOO and Rocking Jim Grigsby for the tickets!
Redwood City Blues Festival. July 27 & 28, 2012
We had a great time at the Hayward/Russell City Blues Festival, but it was good to get back on more familiar ground at Redwood City. We arrived later than we usually do, but we did get there in time for the last song of Ron Hacker and the Hacksaws. The song was a Rocker. Hacker’s slide guitar cut through the air. He waved a hacksaw as he left the stage. It’s great to see him. It brings back memories of seeing him at Bouncer’s Bar or The Lost and Found in San Francisco.
The Gary Smith Blues Band was up next. The program said that “His band was the first to grace the stage at the inaugural San Francisco Blues Festival way back in 1973.” He’s the Godfather of San Jose Blues Harmonica.
After the first song Smith talks about Blues clubs that were on the Peninsula. “Who remembers The Rhinoceros?” Some brave souls in the crowd yell that they’ve been there. “No, no way. You were too young! How about The Beer Drown?” It’s hard to believe there was a club called this. Smith says they had to change the name after someone really drowned there one night. Smith is an apostle of Little Walter. He plays a couple of Little Walter songs.
The Festival is held in the plaza in front of Redwood City’s historic City Hall. The plaza was modernized recently, but the City Hall is still a classical looking building. It’s home to a great local History museum. Chairs and tables are set out on the plaza, but most people sit in lawn chairs. There’s a big dance area in front. You can just walk up and get a better look and we do.
Smith plays a song about Little Walter. “Little Walter is still alive,” he sings. There are some tables on the side of the stage where they are selling CDs. It’s where the musicians check in. We see Johnny Ace checking in. He’s his usual cool self wearing a black beret. Smith tells us he remembers his parents rolling up the carpets and dancing to the next song. It was a big hit by Jimmy McCracken in 1956, “The Walk.”
Two special guests join. Davy Johnson is a harmonica player. Fillmore Slim is the notorious legend from the Fillmore. He looks even more emaciated than the last time I saw him, but he’s ready to Rock! Fillmore’s vocal delivery is a Rap style. He’s not playing guitar. The guests join for one song, a great version of “Dust My Broom.” As Fillmore Slim leaves the stage Gary Smith says he’s “an indigent Bluesman.”
Smith and the band do the old Chuck Berry song, “Memphis.” Parts of it sound like The Faces version. They finish with “Don’t Let Go.”
We had caught some of Sista Monica’s act at the Fillmore Street Fair. She’s a big, powerful woman who gets the crowd going. She starts with a Gospel song: “Lay My Burden Down.” Next is an ominous, Rocking Blues song: “Living In the Danger Zone.” It’s the title song from her new CD.
Sista Monica asks the crowd for a show of hands, “How many have never seen Sista Monica before?” Sista Monica assures us we’re in for an experience. It’s party time! They play a long song she calls “James Brown Funk.” During the long jam she instructs us to, “Put it in the crock pot!”
Sista Monica tells us about the night she sang with B.B. King at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz. She says that B.B. was a late surprise guest, so her name was above his on the marquee “for one night.”
We take a break in The Little Fox. It’s the small club next to The Fox Theater. It was the site of the Johnny Nitro Memorial. (http://worldfest23.blogspot.com/2011/04/johnny-nitro-memorial-redwood-city.html) A younger band is doing a sound check. They’re playing modern Rock. Are they the U2 tribute band playing here later tonight? It’s an odd billing with the Blues festival wrapping up later.
Sista Monica had the crowd up on its feet. We found a table near the door where we could see and hear better. They were doing “River Deep, Mountain High.” She tells the crowd that, “I’m going to carry the baton for Koko Taylor! I’m going to carry the baton for Etta James!” The crowd loves her and there are big cheers after the last song.
The last act is billed in the program as: “Blues Power with Harmonica Blow Off Grand Finale.” The band is a group of North Beach Blues scene regulars. Some are veterans of the Sunday afternoon sessions at The Saloon with King Perkoff. There are two saxophone players. This gives the band a powerful sound.
Johnny Ace is his usual boisterous self. Bass players are not known for being entertainers. Ace bops around the stage to the beat. He always delivers a show. In the band: Doug Rowan, Terry Forgette, Applejack Walroth, Michael Peloquin, Ron Butkovich, Rick Sankey.
“Part Time Friends”
They play a song about Canned Heat. Canned heat was a cheap drug made from Sterno. “It’s like morphine. It gets in your bones.” It’s a hard core song and a bit surprising even for these North Beach veterans. Johnny Ace has been clean and sober for some time, but he sure looks like he’s enjoying singing this song.
Between songs Johnny Ace points at the marquee of the Fox Theater across the street. A Beatles tribute band will play there next week. “Appearing Wednesday night! THE BEATLES!” Ace’s eyes bug out with sarcasm.
“I’m Gonna Talk About You.”
It’s great to see a little of the old North Beach action happening in Redwood City.
The Redwoood City Blues Festival is another great little local festival. The crowd is not massive and you can relax around the plaza and hear some great Blues.
Polk Street Blues Festival. September 29&30.
The San Francisco Blues Festival was usually held on the last weekend in September. It’s gone now, and Polk Street has a Blues Festival on that weekend. It’s a free event that is as unique as the neighborhood.
Polk Street cuts through some interesting parts of the City. There is still some hustling going on at the end of the street near The Tenderloin. It ends near Fisherman’s Wharf with views of the Bay. I didn’t live far from Polk Street when I first came to San Francisco. There are many apartment buildings in this area. Cheaper apartments still draw people who are new to the City.
The festival is set up like the Polk Street Fair. We showed up later in the afternoon. We caught the end of The Brown Brothers. They played Jazz and it sounded more like a spoken word performance. We walked around and didn’t hear much Blues. Maybe it’s just an excuse to have a street fair.
There have been changes in the neighborhood. Most of the restaurants have changed. There’s still a line waiting outside Swan Oyster Depot. Mayes’ Oyster House became an Irish restaurant, The Holy Grail. Chicken Cordon Bleu closed. It was one of the first restaurants I went to in San Francisco.
The Royal movie theater closed long ago. The Lumiere showed art films. It just closed. Will there be a movie theater left outside the mall? Polk Street was the original home of San Francisco’s wild Halloween celebrations.
There is new life on the street. McTeague’s is a relatively new bar on Polk Street. Painted panels above the bar honor deceased icons. Mayes’ Oyster House has reopened. The Log Cabin has been there for years, but I don’t remember seeing it jammed before. Young people lined up to show IDs.
The main act today is Bobby Spider Webb and the Smooth Blues Band. Webb is a DJ at radio station KPOO and the producer of The Polk Street Blues Festival. It’s his baby.
The band starts with a hot instrumental, “Put It Where You Want It.” “Anyone know the title?” Bobby asks the crowd. It’s a Crusaders song, he tells us.
“Do you know who I am?” Bobby asks the crowd. “I’m going to tell you in a minute.” They play Bobby’s signature song. Webb spells out his name to the beat: B-O-B-B-Y! “Now do you know my name? What’s my name?”
Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” quickly follows. Webb shines on sax.
The crowd loves the next one, “Let’s Stay Together” the smooth Bill Withers song. We spot some regulars in the crowd. There’s the old Dancing Lady that we’ve seen for years at these events. Another regular is an Asian man who hops up and down to the music all day. A Hippie Couple dances through the crowd wearing carnival masks. They do the old Grateful Dead dance with their arms flowing about. They look like veterans of the Summer of Love.
The guitar player takes the spotlight next for “Memphis.” Paul Fair is the bass player and he’s featured on a Blind Willie McTell song: “Statesboro Blues.” The buildings on Polk Street echo to the song that was covered by The Allman Brothers.
They play a party medley that includes “Love Light” and a Sly and the Family Stone song. The crowd loves the old favorites. A guy walks around filming with an iPad. The footage will be on Youtube soon. “That’s the salt on the potatoes,” Webb says.
It’s five thirty. The rules are pretty strict. Most outdoor shows have to end at six. The special guests won’t have much time to play. Fillmore Slim, Guitar Red and Vinnie Perez come onstage.
Vinnie Perez is thirteen years old. He solos on the opening song. The crowd gives him loud encouraging applause. He is good and it’s stirring to see a young Blues musician.
Fillmore Slim has a new CD out, “Blues Player.” During a raucous version of “Dust My Broom” Fillmore praises Etta James. “I asked my baby for a glass of water and she brought me gasoline!” Fillmore sings.
Stone Crazy: I asked her for a glass of water and she gave me a glass of kerosene.
Fillmore Slim struts his stuff at center stage. He’s wearing a bright orange pimp suit. He tells us he’s now seventy-seven. “Everything works! And I don’t take pills or anything!” A Black woman in the crowd disagrees: “We know he’s lying!” she yells. They play “Hootchie Cootchie Man.”
Fillmore is not playing guitar today. He says that “the media says I don’t play guitar anymore.” “There’s already a guitar player in the band!” Having another guitar player would be a waste. “When we tour in Europe I play guitar!” He tells us about traveling the world and meeting the Queen of England. He says he gave her the Blues.
Slim has a large, expensive looking watch on. Snoop Dog gave him the watch. Snoop Dog will star in the biopic that will be made soon. We’ve been hearing about the film for years. There is at least one documentary film about him. A Sixties period piece about an Original Gangster starring Snoop Dog sounds like it would work.
Bobby Spider Webb tells the crowd that he and Fillmore Slim started playing together in 1955. Fillmore tells us that he really does have the Blues today. His girlfriend, “Since we were 17” passed away that week from breast cancer. It’s a sad moment onstage before the band starts their last song, “Night Train.” Bobby Spider Webb tells us to start making plans for next year’s festival.
Next weekend will be Eventageddon! There will be many events in the Bay Area, including Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.