To headline the second annual Orange County Blues Festival this weekend, organizers went for opposites to attract crowds.
On Saturday, the refined and polished Brian Setzer Orchestra performs, while Sunday brings the gritty, rootsy sound of John Mayall to Doheny State Beach in Dana Point Harbor.
Setzer, the former Stray Cats front-man, has been touring extensively throughout the year as leader of a nostalgia-tinged, 18-piece big band that performs new material as well as classic and obscure covers from the '40s and '50s.
The orchestra's self-titled debut album, released earlier this year, showcases Setzer's affinity for writing and singing Bobby Darin-cum-Frank Sinatra-styled pop numbers with a distinctly New York City feeling and sophistication. Setzer's accomplished, newly jazz-inflected guitar playing fits smoothly into the rich bed of brass that the band provides, a lavish and rewarding texture that few modern ears have had the pleasure to experience.
If the singer sometimes isn't up to the task of effectively tackling the more muscular shouters--such as the 1949 Wynonie Harris classic, "Sittin' on It All the Time,"--swinging originals with Nelson Riddle-esque arrangements such as "Lady Luck" should make the set worth a listen. The Brian Setzer Orchestra is scheduled for 8 p.m.
Preceding Setzer at 7 p.m. will be James Cotton, the legendary Chicago blues harpist who made his reputation as a member of Muddy Waters' band in the '50s and '60s and went on to become a top-notch bandleader in his own right.
In Waters' band, Cotton had the unenviable task of replacing all-time great Little Walter, but his aggressive honking and flair for showmanship were well-received by Waters' fans. He was able to parlay these talents into becoming one of the most energetic and popular touring blues attractions in the '70s, while developing a strong rock 'n' roll following as well.
By the '80s however, the years started to take their toll, and Cotton slowed his pace.
But his musicianship remains formidable. He is one of the true giants of Chicago blues, a much-copied and beloved harp player with roots deep in the city's musical heritage.
Saturday's lineup is rounded out by Maria Muldaur, one-time folkie best known for her 1972 hit "Midnight at the Oasis," plus the Rhythm Lords, Mississippi Millie and Max Bangwell, the King Brothers, Barrelhouse, the Lifters, Robert Lucas and Tyrone Anthony, who starts the day off at 11 a.m.
If James Cotton's appearance fails to satisfy lovers of blues harp, Sunday's lineup should more than sate the palate.
Harmonicats John Mayall, Kim Wilson and Charlie Musselwhite appear at 8, 7 and 6 p.m. respectively, in a battle of the blues harps that should shake, quake and bake the beach.
At age 63, Mayall is the godfather of the British blues scene, having introduced and/or worked with such eminent English blues musicians as Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie in the '60s, as well as American studio hounds such as Sugarcane Harris, Blue Mitchell and Harvey Mandel.
Originally a traditionalist, Mayall's finest work was done in the late '60s and early '70s, when his experiments with jazz voicing and percussionless lineups took the blues into uncharted realms. Never a truly exceptional harp player (Mayall will doubtless be best remembered as a singer and bandleader), his workout on the instrument with 1969's "Room to Move" was nonetheless a staple of FM radio during the era.
In more recent years, Mayall has returned to his prosaic roots in London-by-way-of-Chicago blues, but his unique, eerie, almost feminine vocal tone always proves an interesting diversion.
Wilson, formerly of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, has gained a deserved reputation as the man to beat on the instrument in the past decade or so.
A Little Walter disciple whose swooping, sax-like runs can raise gooseflesh, Wilson has dedicated himself to playing undiluted blues since the demise of the rock-oriented Thunderbirds a few years ago. Equally at home in an acoustic, Sonny Boy Williamson-inspired vein, Wilson can boast of versatility to match his virtuosity on the blues harp, even if his singing is less convincing and authentic. (A review of his latest album appears on Page 5.)
Another veteran of the '60s blues scene, Musselwhite blew more than a few minds with his eerie, minor-key classic "Christo Redemptor" in 1967. He's had an up-and-down career but is in the midst of a comeback due to last year's critically acclaimed "Signature" album, which also showcased Musselwhite's fine, down-home singing and guitar playing.
There's even more for harp fans Sunday afternoon, as Southern California staple James Harman appears around 4 p.m.
The surprise of the festival, though, could turn out to be Lee Rocker's Big Blue, which appears at 2 p.m. Sunday. Rocker, who slapped the upright bass with Stray Cats, hasn't gotten the ink or attention of Setzer, but his current lineup puts out more innovative music, raw energy and pure fun than his better-known former band mate.
Mixing rockabilly, blues, jazz, R & B and attitude into a loud and compelling mix, this is a band to watch.
Also appearing Sunday will be Randell Young, Doyle Bramhall, the Starlights, the Jive Kings, Delta Ramblers and the Chantays.
* What: Second annual Orange County Blues Festival.
* When: Saturday, Oct. 1, and Sunday, Oct. 2. Gates open at 10 a.m. both days. First acts go on at 11 a.m. Saturday and 10:15 a.m. Sunday.
* Where: Doheny State Beach in Dana Point Harbor.
* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (5) Freeway to Pacific Coast Highway, go north to Dana Point Harbor Drive and take a left. The Doheny State Beach parking lot will be on your left.
* Wherewithal: $10-$25 in advance. $15 at the door. Package deals sold in advance only.
* Where to call: (714) 645-1999.
Who's playing when at the Orange County Blues Festival at Doheny State Beach at Dana Point Harbor:
* SATURDAY, OCT. 1
11 a.m.: Tyrone Anthony
Noon: Robert Lucas
1 p.m.: The Lifters
2 p.m.: Barrelhouse
3 p.m.: The King Brothers
4 p.m.: Mississippi Millie
5 p.m.: The Rhythm Lords
6 p.m.: Maria Muldaur
7 p.m.: James Cotton
8 p.m.: The Brian Setzer Orchestra
* SUNDAY, OCT. 2
10:15 a.m.: The Chantays
11 a.m.: The Delta Ramblers
Noon: The Jive Kings
1 p.m.: The Starlights
2 p.m.: Lee Rocker's Big Blue
3 p.m.: Doyle Bramhall
4 p.m.: James Harman
5 p.m.: Randell Young
6 p.m.: Charlie Musselwhite
7 p.m.: Kim Wilson
8 p.m.: John Mayall
Also, there will be food areas, a vintage guitar show, kids areas and blues-oriented arts and crafts. $10 to $15 per day. $25 VIP weekend passes available only in advance. For information, call (714) 645-1999. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (714) 740-2000.