The Ninth Annual Redwood City Blues Festival. Sponsored by Redwood City’s Police Athletic League. 7/26/2014.
The Bay Area was in a heat wave. The temperatures were in the nineties, but the sun was the real problem. It was still a beautiful day. I arrived a little after noon and missed the first act, Deeva and the Blazers. Onstage I saw a familiar face, Noel Hayes, the radio station KPOO DJ. (89.5 FM) He spins great Blues songs on Wednesdays between nine and noon. Hayes introduced Taylor P. Collins.
The program told us she was coming back, “After a two year absence from performing due to a serious health issue.” The band played a hot instrumental to get things going. Taylor came onstage. She does have quite a powerful stage presence. She wore white and the front of her head was shaved. Long braids hung down her back.
The band was great. Eight pieces laid down a real R&B sound.
One great thing about the Redwood City Blues Festival is that usually you can walk right up to the stage for a close look. Today’s crowd looked smaller to me than in years past, but it was early. I watched a couple of songs from up close: “A Change Is Coming” and “Ain’t Doing Too Bad.” Sounded like “Ain’t” was Collins’ song now.
The stage is in the town plaza. The stately San Mateo Courthouse looms behind it. People lounged in lawn chairs. Some looked beaten down by the sun already. The hard core did stir a bit and came to the front and danced. The sun was already getting to me. The plaza is nice, and there are a few shops along the sides, but there isn’t much shade.
I wandered a bit when she started working the crowd. “This won’t work unless everyone stands up.” “After you stand up, make the person behind you stand up... Now hold hands!” Most of the crowd got up and did it.
She has a powerful voice and the band was sounded great. Yeah, she ain’t doing too bad. They do “Give Me One Reason To Stay” a Traci Chapman song. Then the band did an instrumental. It sounded like the pace was slowing.
The big movie theater across the street wasn’t open this year. You used to be able to go in and take a look. The Fox Theater is still used for music events. Next door is The Little Fox nightclub. I’d been there a few times for Blues shows, including the memorial tribute to Johnny Nitro. It was great to cool off and I could still hear some of the music from the stage until they started blasting some kind of mainstream Heavy Metal from the back of the club. It was all right, but I’d still rather have heard some of the live sound. In years past you could sit inside and still hear.
“What time is Mark Hummel on?” a guy asked the bartender. I pulled out my program. Two o’clock. He asked for a rundown so he could plan his day.
The next act was doing a Howling Wolf song, and I wandered up to the stage again. Frank “Tebo” Thibeaux was in a black and silver shirt and pants playing an acoustic guitar. He was accompanied by a young white guy with a large Afro. The program said that Thibeaux opened for John Lee Hooker Jr. on his tour with this tribute to Howling Wolf. He really did sound like the Wolf. He sure had the voice for it.
I had pulled out the San Francisco Blues Festival tee shirt for this occasion. It’s a black tee shirt with “San Francisco Blues Festival” in psychedelic letters across the front. An old Blues fan recognized the shirt. “That was a great festival! Too bad it’s gone.” We commiserated on the demise of the San Francisco Blues Festival. He was a bit hyper and went on his ways looking for someone or something in the crowd.
Tebo did a couple more great Howling Wolf songs. “Sitting On Top of the World.” “I Should Have Quit You.” After “I Ain’t Superstitious” Tebo sounded ominous as he said, “Maybe I’ll go to jail.” It was part of the introduction to the next song, “Mr. Officer” which is from their new CD, Swamp Man. “Mr. Officer” told the story of a domestic disturbance. “But I’m the one who called you,” the narrator says as he’s being arrested. The poh-lice tell him it doesn’t matter.
Some of the same people were still dancing in the heat and the sun, and I had to hand it to them. There were a few that danced up there all day. One bald black guy was putting on quite a show. He was thin and shirtless. I’m not sure if he was homeless, mentally ill or just whacked on some drug. (“I’ll have what he’s having.”) He had a different intensity to his dancing. He did what I guess were ballet moves, or maybe he thought they were ballet moves. He wiggled his fingers in the air. He acted oblivious to the other dancers and danced across the plaza in bigger and bigger arcs. He would do a slow swan dive and lie down on the pavement, which could not have been very comfortable. It had to burn. Don’t make eye contact.
I lost another round of the endurance contest with the sun and wandered around downtown Redwood City. It was nice in the shade. Much of the town is new and modern. The newer buildings have a plastic pre-fab look. The Century 20 movieplex may be the heart of the town now. This had to be a great weekend for the smaller businesses. They had to be making money this weekend.
Cops were walking around, but they looked friendly. This was their event, a fund raiser for the Police Athletic League. (PAL) I wondered if they were so friendly the rest of the year.
There were chain stores, but many places looked like old businesses. There was an “Old Spaghetti Factory.” I’d been to the one in Jack London Square in Oakland. Years ago I had gone to the “real” Old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach. Many of the Beat writers and artists hung out there. It’s still weird to see it’s a chain restaurant.
After the break from the sun I went back to the stage for the “Golden State Lone Star Revue with Anson Funderberg, Little Charly Baty and Mark Hummel. These were some familiar names from the North Beach days. Little Charly Baty was the bandleader of Little Charly and the Nightcats. Anson Funderberg is a transplanted Texan who has been playing the Blues in the Bay Area for years. Mark Hummel always blows some great Blues harmonica.
R.W. Grigsby was on bass and “famed Texas drummer,” Wes Starr rounded out the revue. They started with “What Is That She Got,” a Muddy Waters song. “Lay It On Me.” After a couple of songs it was time to retreat from the sun again. I found some black iron benches on the side that were at least close to shade. There was a partial view of the stage and most of the crowd in the plaza. People sunk into their lawn chairs.
Hummel praised Tebo’s Howling Wolf tribute, and they do a Wolf cover of their own, “Shake For Me.” “We’ve got two great guitarists and we’re going to let them go.” They play a long Blues Rock jam. Little Charly Baty and Anson Funderberg have a friendly guitar duel. The black psycho ballet dancer walked off for a break. I didn’t see him again.
The next song “Blues Stop Knocking At My Door” is from their CD, “The Hustle Is Really On.” Hummel tells the crowd they love the festival but that, “We’re playing the El Campanile in Antioch tonight. We have to make a sound check at 4:30. Doesn’t leave us much time.” They play the title song from the new CD.
During the break I decided to visit the Court House Museum. It was a great chance to cool off. The court house and museum were right behind the stage. A female security guard watched me closely as I went up the steps. That was her mission today. Keep those stairs clear. The backstage view from there was tempting and people would block entrance to the museum. The young lady at the ticket desk had a great view of the stage. She was friendly but had to warn me, “We close in an hour.” I entered the cool of the museum.
The Renaissance Revival courthouse was built in 1910. It’s circular inside and the biggest skylight this side of the Mississippi is overhead. The skylight is made of antique stained glass. There’s an old carriage downstairs. Up the marble steps is the history museum.
Redwood City is near the Bay. It was remote enough to encourage smuggling even before prohibition. There’s an old picture of the docks. Looked like it must have been a tough town.
Upstairs is the San Mateo County Sports Hall of Fame. There’s a big picture of Barry Bonds, who went to Serra High School. It’s amazing how many sports stars and influential figures in sports came from the Peninsula. Many of them are baseball stars: Eric Byrnes, Don Mossi, Keith Hernandez, Dick Stuart, Moises Alou and many others including umpire Ed Montague. There are also great coaches including John Madden and Dick Vermeil. Tom Brady. Jeff Clark who was one of the founders of the surf scene at Maverick’s. The back office is represented too, with a surprising number of administrators in professional and college sports.
The wall is covered with plaques and this is more than just local hype. I wondered how so many sports figures came from this relatively rural area. The gene pool is just smaller than in the big city. Was there something in the water? Was it the weather?
There were very few people upstairs. I found a side room with an exhibition about Maverick’s, the historic surfing spot. There was a surfboard in front of a big screen. It was virtual reality surfing. There was no one around, so I could give it a good shot. I stood on the surfboard and tried to navigate one of the breakers. I’ve been at the beach near Maverick’s many times, and I could recognize the shoreline. I’d make it to the top of the digital wave, but then come tumbling down, wipe out! It was well done on the virtual reality screen. I could see the bubbles, but I didn’t get wet.
Oh yeah, the Blues Festival. The music was starting again outside. On the way out I stopped in the Court Room. It was even cooler than the rest of the museum. An empty court room can be a spooky place. Bad things must have happened in here. There was a glass case with a “Gloria Ball Swing Clock. Ansonia Clock Co.” It didn’t have an estimate or price tag on it.
One room has a great exhibit about crime, vice and the lawmen who struggled to keep order. I was about to leave when I noticed some prints hanging in a back hallway. They were about famous duels on the peninsula. San Mateo was remote back then, and was a good, out of the way place to settle affairs of honor. One print showed “W.D. Howard trying to stop a duel between A.E. Smith and H.B. Truett. Howard is running out at the last second to halt the carnage. It looked like it was not going to turn out good.
There was a print of the Broderick vs. Terry duel, probably the most famous duel in California. It was held on the outskirts of San Francisco. The print shows them nearly ready for the standoff. A nearby glass case had an ancient looking dueling pistol that was found at the site of the Terry/Broderick duel.
It was time to get back outside for “Danny Caron’s Good Hands Organ Trio featuring Wayne de la Cruz.” Caron dedicated a song, “Promise” to Ernest Ranglin, a Jamaican guitar player. Ranglin had been present at the birth of Reggae, and had played on many historic tracks.
“In Louisiana they call it Cajun Boogaloo, or Zydeco Boogaloo. Here we call it Redwood City Boogaloo.” The crowd perked up a bit during the spirited number. De la Cruz is a master of the Hammond B3. A few guys angled for the keyboard view. It was a great chance to see the master at work.
Marina Crouse joins and belts out a powerful “Why I’m Crying.” “You’re with her, but I still love you.” They do “You Can Have My Husband, But Don’t Mess With My Man.” “I Idolize You.” “Deep In My Heart.”
Most of the crowd was older. Most people bopped or swayed to the music in the heat, but some people really danced. A grizzled guy came up to me and gave me the knowing grin. He was missing most of his teeth. Yeah, we were there in the old days. In fact, we’re still here now. Now we’re Rhythm and Blues geriatrics.
The equipment turnovers were done quickly. The sound was very good all day too. No major problems. The festival is very well run. Each act gets about an hour. Some acts went over their time, so things got a bit behind schedule.
The next act is Aki Kumar. He’s from Bombay, India. Someone talked about him in the Little Fox earlier. “He’s Indian, and the guy is great!” He opens with a rocking “I Gave Her All My Money.” Every time he goes onstage he has something to prove. The program says that he has the “electric Chicago sound.” “Yes, I’m Coming, Open the Door.” After the song Kumar says, “Welcome to Redwood City!” Yes, an Indian can sing the Blues. They did some lively jump songs.
During another break the MC pushes raffle tickets. “There are girls with big cans walking around. Oh, I didn’t mean it like that!”
People drifted out holding their lawn chairs. There was still the main act coming up, but they were getting out of here. Getting away from the sun. There was a bit of a breeze as the day went on.
The main act was Rick Estrin and the Nightcats. Rick Estrin, with his long face and stylish suit is a walking hipster caricature. They open with “Don’t Bite” and then do a fast paced song about getting a cool suit for “a party.”
“I’m Tired.” Estrin blows a great harmonica and the Nightcats are cooking on “Barefooting.” Estrin blew his harmonica into what looked like a vintage microphone. It was certainly big enough to be technologically obsolete. I’m not sure how it changed his sound, but it sure looked cool.
I started wandering towards the train station. It wasn’t far, but I didn’t want to miss the 6:41. There was a bench in some shade about a block from the stage, and in striking distance of the train. Downtown Redwood City is cool in the shade. Estrin and the Nightcats did a song that sounded like an old Hippie jam from the Sixties. I couldn’t place the familiar riff.
It had been a smaller crowd than in years past, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of those there. It seemed less crowded. It was great to hear the Blues live again.