This year's Long Beach Blues Festival boasts a new location, having moved from the Cal State Long Beach campus to the city's scenic Shoreline Aquatic Park. But the big move may be in the lineup for Saturday and Sunday.
While in past years the bookings usually reflected a strict definition of the blues, the two headliners this year are rock cornerstone Chuck Berry and R & B godfather James Brown. The fest also pushes the boundaries of blues a bit with gritty R & B singers Irma Thomas and Etta James and the gospel group Mighty Clouds of Joy. The lineup also includes blues acts Joe Louis Walker, Sunnyland Slim, Honeyboy Edwards, Snooky Pryor and John Nicholas as well as this year's blues talent search winner, the Popa Chubby Band.
The diversity suits blues man Walker just fine. "For my way of thinking, there's nothing like the old good-feeling styles of blues, but you can always improve on it, make it your own in ways and put it in a different light. James Brown did plenty of blues when he started, and it was Muddy Waters himself who got Chuck Berry his start, so who is anyone to say they don't know blues? I'm honored to be on a stage with them," Walker said.
Forty-one-year-old San Franciscan Walker is known to mix it up a bit himself, combining blues influences including T-Bone Walker, B. B. King and Mississippi Fred McDowell with the feeling of such gospel groups as the Soul Stirrers and the expressive Southern soul of Memphis' Stax label artists of the '60s. He's one of the more recent arrivals in a contemporary generation of blues players that include Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland. Walker appears on jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis' current album and is working on a new album of his own.
While some blues die-hards may object to the Long Beach lineup, Walker is part of what's arguably the strongest program in the fest's 13-year history. New Orleans' favorite daughter Irma Thomas and Los Angeles' own Etta James (who has appeared at three previous Long Beach fests) are overwhelmingly emotional singers. On a good night James' rendition of her "I'd Rather Go Blind" can actually capture the literal enormity of the lyric's statement of need. Thomas is a somewhat more refined singer, sounding a bit like an even more soulful Gladys Knight, and she similarly can tear the heart out of a song.
The more traditional sides of blues are well represented. But rather than offering such excellent but oft-seen perennials as B. B. King, Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker, the fest instead has players who have rarely visited the West Coast. Honeyboy Edwards began playing in the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s, and, like many of his contemporaries, moved to Chicago and adopted a tougher, amplified version of his blues. Harmonica player Snooky Pryor, who is accompanied at the fest by guitarist John Nicholas, followed the same route about a decade later.
Though the piano has as long a tradition in the blues as the guitar, it is rarely represented at blues fests. In Sunnyland Slim, the Long Beach fest is getting a walking history of that neglected art form. The 84-year-old pianist also hails from Mississippi, where he began playing at age 15. Since composing "Sunnyland Train" in 1928, he's made more than 250 recordings and worked with everyone from Peatie Wheatstraw to Howlin' Wolf.
While the blues groups were working the barrooms and juke joints, the Mighty Clouds of Joy have been playing places with pews for the last three decades. The Grammy winners are no less experienced at getting an audience on its feet, though, with a driving vocal sound.
Saturday's headliner, Chuck Berry, may not worry much about the details of his performances, given that he's always using unrehearsed pick-up bands and playing a guitar that often sounds as if it was last tuned in 1959. But on a good night, he can muster a vitality and wildness in his performances that may only be matched among his rock contemporaries by Jerry Lee Lewis. Along with coming up with half of rock's great guitar riffs, Berry is one of the greatest poets the music ever produced.
James Brown, Sunday's show-closer, also is an American icon, and was such a consistent musical trailblazer in the '60s and '70s that it's hard to imagine what a wan thing popular music might have been without him. Before his much-publicized incarceration a couple of years back, his shows had become mechanical, uninspired run-throughs. Reports of recent shows suggest that may not entirely have changed, though one might take some hope in his comeback album of last year, "Love Over-due," a soulful update of his early R & B roots.
The fest is produced by jazz radio station KLON-FM (88.1), which is based at Cal State Long Beach. In the past, the fest was held on a campus athletic field, but it has been moved this year to allow greater flexibility in scheduling, according to station publicist Vicki Pearlson. Instead of ending before dusk, the fest now runs from 2 to 9 p.m. each day, with gates opening at 10 a.m.
An early arrival is advised because parking is complicated by construction going on in the area. Shoreline park is also host to the annual Southern California Cajun and Zydeco festival.
Walker thinks the mixed lineup may help the blues artists on the bill. "It may get some new listeners for us," he said. "Someone who comes to hear Chuck Berry do 'Sweet Little Sixteen' is also going to hear me, and I'm going to be doing my best to see they like what they hear. It also great to be able to play where families and kids can see us, where there isn't an age limit or a two-drink minimum."
He said he misses the days when pop radio would play blues artists like Jimmy Reed and Slim Harpo along with rock artists. "It's still like that a bit in Europe," he said. "I just played a festival in England that also had Lou Reed and Tom Jones, if you can believe that. These days radio in this country is left up to demographic consultants, and they don't allow blues music in. If a festival here can get us new listeners, then great."
The Long Beach Blues Festival is Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 9 p.m. at Shoreline Aquatic Park, Long Beach. $25 per day (advance); $30 (at the gate). (310) 985-5566 or (310) 597-9911.
2 p.m.: Popa Chubby Band (Blues talent search winner)
3:30 p.m.: Honeyboy Edwards
5 p.m.: Joe Louis Walker
6:30 p.m.: Irma Thomas
8 p.m.: Chuck Berry
2 p.m.: Mighty Clouds of Joy
3:30 p.m.: Sunnyland Slim
5 p.m.: Snooky Pryor and John Nicholas
6:30 p.m.: Etta James
8 p.m.: James Brown