Festival Review: Blue Water runs deep at Sawdust

The Blue Water Music Festival, hosted by Rick Conkey and his nonprofit Blue Water Green Earth, returned to Laguna Beach last weekend at the Sawdust Art Festival grounds under the shade of the tall eucalyptus grove. The two-day event featured a variety of acts in several musical genres playing an even wider variety of instruments.

As with all music festivals, there were the expected headliners, but it was the discoveries on the outer stages that made it so fun. The acts given the tiny tavern stage were small in space but big on talent Saturday. It seemed to be where most of the fun was. Despite the cramped quarters, many of the bands found ways to scrunch it all in. The artists got creative with stage layout.

On Saturday, the Adam Lasher Band was the first one I glimpsed. Lasher is familiar playing in Laguna venues, but I'd never seen him before. He easily mixed his soulful voice with his amplified acoustic guitar on each song, accompanied by a bandmate who played a wooden box, tambourine and shaker simultaneously, keeping an easy rhythm with hands and feet. With his emotional commitment to each song and chops to back it up, it's easy to see why Lasher is in demand.

As I'm partial to '50s rock 'n' roll styles, one of my favorite bands of the day was Moonshine. With pinup-girl good looks and a vintage mic, singer Celena Delpizzo-Howell garners the attention with her sassy vocals, but it was her brother Dylan who impressed on guitar. He brings to mind something between Elvis' first guitarist, Scotty Moore, and Brian Setzer's guitar on "Stray Cat Strut" thrown in a jazz jar.

Without much expression or movement, Dylan kept a steady train shuffle between him and the drum kit, driving the beat forward. The song "Cold as Stone" was a highlight, as was a solid cover of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues."

I caught up with Jeff Crosby and the Refugees on the big blue stage. Crosby commented on how beautiful the Sawdust grounds were — this coming from a guy from a small country town in Idaho. The singer-songwriter seemed to be just hitting his stride after opening on a solid blues-rock solo. He announced after that he had only one song left. This seemed to happen to a few artists throughout the day — too tight a schedule and having to cut sets short.

Later, the Missiles of October on the same stage were told to take a 15- to 20-minute timeout. It stopped the flow, but no worries. In the window, two former Cirque du Soleil performers put on a display of strength and balance with their slow-motion balance moves. After the "TV timeout," the Missiles picked up where they left off with a blues-country-gospel set. Poul Finn Pederson, Richard Bredice, Jimmy Perez and Frank Cotilnola are still an impressive group. After 20 years in the Laguna club scene, they never disappoint and play with as much passion and commitment as ever.

Walking back to the tavern stag, I was introduced to Vinnie and the Hooligans. Watching the group set up was just as fun as the energetic folk-rock they delivered — a sort of Irish version of Old Crow Medicine Show meets the Dropkick Murphys. They managed to play on the small stage and delivered a punchy Irish folk-rock perfect for the setting. A cover of "Wagon Wheel," an unfinished Bob Dylan song that Old Crow completed and recorded, had people singing along with the occasional fist pump.

At this point, it was hard not to hear the thumping of the green stage across the grounds. Robert Jon and the Wreck had begun. It's no wonder they were voted best live band in the 2013 OC Music Awards. The animated stage stomps and heavy-handed guitar action and Southern rock n' roll theme kicked things up a notch after sunset. The keyboardist head-banged his overgrown Afro mop to the beat.

After a few songs, people were drawn to the stage, but organizers told them to tone it down or the show could be stopped. Enter Laguna noise-issue politics. Robert Jon muttered, "What? We're a rock band, man. That's what we do, man." Like throwing water on a fire for these fellows. Nonetheless, the boys shook it off and went easy on the last song and ended the set.

Sunday's lineup was mostly dedicated to local reggae, highlighted by the 1st American Reggae Hall of Fame Award and tribute to late bass player and founding member of the Rebel Rockers, Eric "Redz" Morton.

Before the induction, the sun was out and the Sawdust grounds began to feel like a warm summer beach party as Laguna artist Ken Garcia was in full swing. Playing a blend of Latin and rock grooves, he quickly had people up and dancing. Garcia, who wore a colorful tiki shirt with hula girls, was perfectly comfortable accompanied by one guitar or a complete band. His version of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" helped set the beach vibe for the day.

By this time, people made their way to the green stage where the 1st American Reggae Hall of Fame award was to be announced. It was no secret as to the recipient as Ron "Ron-I" Pringle, lead vocalist of World Anthem, presented the award to the late Morton and Rebel Rockers singer/co-founder Deborah Lee Sullivan. Morton is often referred to as the founder of the American reggae movement, and he and the Rebel Rockers were a fixture from the early '80s on, especially at the regular reggae nights at the Sandpiper Lounge.

A tearful Sullivan was supported and flanked by members of her other project, the Oreo Divas. Sullivan and Morton's mother, Reva, accepted the award on behalf of "Redz" and the Rebel Rockers. The awards ended with a spirited musical tribute by members of the current Rebel Rockers, led by Sullivan, Julani Jones, Ed Krebs and Massive McGregor. It was Natty Dreads in full.

The rest of the afternoon was a who's-who in the local reggae scene that included veterans World Anthem, Common Sense and Pato Banton. Ron-I got the standing-room-only crowd to dance shoulder-to-shoulder in front of a stage of nine musicians, many of whom have jammed together for years.

The only local reggae not in the for the super jam was Common Sense, setting up its own gig on the main stage. The band is comprised of singer Nick "Nick-I" Hernandez, guitarists Phil Gough and Billy Sherman, saxophonist Harold Todd, bassist Larry Young and drummer Rock Deadric. It was a small dust bowl in front of the stage as the band played the first song on its new record, "What's It All About." The dust never settled until the end with a lead-guitar duel from Gough and Sherman on "The Ocean."

Banton continued the oneness vibe with a solid show that ended with the packed crowd holding hands up in the air as the sun set in Laguna Canyon.

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