When Buddy Guy takes the stage in Aptos Village Park on Sunday, May 30, 2010 for the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, he will be on familiar terrain. Guy has been at the top of the Blues Fest bill four times counting this year's appearance -- the others were in 1994, 1998 and 2004 -- and this is the third time he's played on the same day as Coco Montoya.
Which is not to say that the Memorial Day weekend festival is in a rut when it comes to booking acts. In fact, 2010 brings one of the most diverse lineups in years.
Saturday begins especially strong with Eric Lindell, a newcomer who blends Clapton-like chops with New Orleans funk. More New Orleans influences are on tap with Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, which features a pair of Nevilles (the name is music royalty in the Crescent City) as well as a pair of bassists.
Artist and folk-rocker Joseph Arthur, who began his music career opening for Ben Harper, continues the day's less-than-pure-blues theme. Then comes Taj Mahal, who you'd think might be as much of a Blues Fest mainstay as Buddy Guy, but is actually making his first appearance here. Mahal, whose style is sort of a blues-meets-world-music hybrid, is the opposite of Arthur when it comes to the day's headliner, Ben Harper, Mahal actually gave Harper his start when he took the slide guitar wizard on tour with him.
For his part, Harper has become enough of a fixture on the pop-culture landscape that no one blinked twice when he appeared alongside comedian Will Ferrell, Billy Gibbons of ZZ top, and Beck for a rendition of the most clichéd and requested of all rock anthems, "Free Bird," at the end of Conan O'Brien's final Tonight Show. After the upcoming gig in Santa Cruz, which is his only Northern California stop this summer, Harper and his band, Relentless 7, head to Europe to open a string of dates for Pearl Jam and headline a few of their own.
Sunday is the day for blues traditionalists, although it won't begin that way. Was Not Was opens the show, with Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens on soulful vocals, Randy Jacobs of the Boneshakers on guitar, and Don Was on bass. (Was just finished producing 10 previously unreleased tracks for the re-release of Exile on Main Street by some band from England called the Rolling Stones...)
Eric Burdon and the Animals will bring back the '60s with a slew of their hits, while guitarist Coco Montoya will show everyone why he was tapped by John Mayall to join the blue-eyed bluesman's legendary Bluesbreakers. By mid-afternoon, husband-and-wife team Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, he of Allman Brothers fame and she of, well, Susan Tedeschi fame, will continue the day's guitar-heavy vein. And then Chicago's Buddy Guy, perhaps the most influential blues guitarist of the second half of the 20th century, closes out the day with what promises to be a spirited show from one of the few blues artists inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Before you go, a couple of logistical tips: First, the pricier tickets for the seats up front are totally worth it. Second, since parking is at an offsite lot and you need to rely on the festival buses to get you back to your car, you need to plan your escape. If you insist on beating the lines, expect to miss the last 15 minutes of so of Guy or Harper in order to do so. Otherwise, be prepared to dawdle a bit -- it's far more pleasant to hang out in the park waiting for the bus lines to thin out than it is to wait in the lines themselves.
Santa Cruz Blues Festival is held on Memorial Day weekend, May 29 and 30, 2010. For tickets and information, visit santacruzbluesfestival.com.