Etta James’ closing set at the Orange County Blues Festival on Sunday may have been one of her least physically energetic appearances in recent memory. But the heavyweight vocalist, known for working up a sweat as she bumps and grinds her way through often suggestive material, sang with such strength and animation that the theatrics weren’t missed.
She really couldn’t be blamed for her relative inactivity. Having worked the previous night in Durham, N.C., James and her eight-piece band had to catch an early flight to Los Angeles to make their 7 p.m. appearance in Dana Point. (Even so, there were times that James responded to the rhythms by getting off her stool and scooting around the stage in her stocking feet.)
In any case, her best vocal effort, “A Lover Is Forever,” found her seated all the way through. Backed only by guitarists Josh Sklair and Bobby Murray, James’ voice took on airs of experience, bolstered by reserved gestures and facial expressions. The pitch of the ballad had her working the lower register where her tones take on their fullest measure of color and depth. With the guitarists adding their own expressive touches, this was the highlight not only of James’ set but of the daylong event.
With even larger crowds packing the hillside and vending area than on the previous day, festival performers seemed intent on keeping the party atmosphere going. There may have been more guitarists influenced by Jimi Hendrix than by Muddy Waters, especially on the second, smaller stage, but these blues-rock hybrids went over just fine with the audience. Again, the pair of performance stages made it hard to catch all the bands but offered plenty of interesting juxtapositions, with gritty, rock-oriented trios and quartets playing the small stage while bigger groups on the main stage played jump, boogie and zydeco.
Sometimes the two worlds met, as when the five-piece Delgado Brothers band brought its roadhouse-flavored sounds to the large stage early in the afternoon. Long a popular club and party favorite, the Delgados seemed a bit set back by the setting. “We’re not used to this big stuff,” one member announced after the second tune. “I can’t even smell any cigarette smoke up here.”
But if they were intimated, it didn’t show in their performance. They rocked and socked their way through an hour set, mixing originals with more familiar numbers such as “I Should Have Known” and “Just Like a Woman.” Guitarist Joey Delgado provided most of the excitement with a good sense of drama and a clever way of framing searing runs with clipped chordal phrases. The group commanded one of the day’s biggest ovations.
Juke Logan opened the day on the big stage with an abbreviated set that featured his tunes “Let’s Buzz” (used by the Paladins as the title piece of their latest album) and “The Chill,” a moody exercise heard on Logan’s own new European release. Logan, who applied smart harmonica lines to the numbers, also served as emcee at various times during the day and made guest appearances with a number of other bands as well.
On the small stage, guitarist Richard Norton fronted a trio, playing an intense if busy electric set. He closed one tune by picking out the riff with his teeth, a trick more than one person in the crowd had seen before. Raging Sun, a trio, may have been the day’s least traditional blues band with a sound that relied on heavy tom-tom drum play and guitarist Steve Copeland’s screaming lines and strained, red-faced vocals. Family Style’s raunchy version of Rufus Thomas’ “Walkin’ the Dog” was perfect for the beer-soaked grounds around the small stage.
Backed by Logan on harmonica, Earl Thomas put his firm but unremarkable voice to work on “I’ll Sing the Blues” (a tune he wrote for Etta James) and a number of other, mostly easy going pieces before turning the large stage over to guitarist Mike Reilly, whose brand of good time blues and boogie prepared the crowd for James’ performance.
Starting only 10 minutes behind schedule, James’ band warmed up with a tight, punchy version of “Hold On, I’m Comin”’ before the blues diva waddled on stage and coaxed wolf howls from the crowd by getting bassist Richard Cousins to come to her submissively on his knees. Even without all her trademark energy, she was something to see, her face a kaleidoscope of pouting lips, rolling eyes and furrowing foreheads. Still, her most expressive instrument was, as always, her voice.