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Santa Cruz Blues Festival (featuring the Tedeschi Trucks Band)

Now on the verge of releasing their second studio album as the Tedeschi Trucks Band, the group is poised at the crossroads of the blues -- representing the past, present and future all at once.

Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers

Santa Cruz Blues Festival

City: Aptos, CA
Venue: Aptos Village Park
Date: 2013-05-26

It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the Santa Cruz area, putting blues fans in position for a great day at the 21st annual Santa Cruz Blues Festival. The festival has scored a coup with the Tedeschi Trucks Band in the headliner slot and anticipation runs high. Tedeschi Trucks Band just might be the best thing going in 21st century blues, with virtuoso slide guitarist Derek Trucks and wife/singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi leading a prototype band that blends vintage blues heritage and appreciation with cutting edge rock power and genre-blending songwriting that appeals to fans of all ages.

Trucks, the nephew of Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks, is akin to the legendary Duane Allman re-incarnated. So much so that Derek became a member of the Allman Brothers Band himself. But Tedeschi Trucks Band is his main gig and what a gig it is. Tedeschi’s got a voice for the ages and the dynamic duo have put together a complete unit with two drummers, a horn section, backing vocalists and ace musicians all around. Married in 2001, the couple have been wowing audiences since they first toured together in 2007. Now on the verge of releasing their second studio album as the Tedeschi Trucks Band, the group is poised at the crossroads of the blues, representing the past, present and future all at once.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings were slated to precede Tedeschi Trucks Band here, but sadly had to cancel when Jones came down with a cancer diagnosis that forced her to put her band on hold. But unlike the Bottlerock Festival (which did nothing to replace Furthur when they had to back out of a May 9 headlining slot), Santa Cruz Blues Festival organizers stepped up to field a worthy pinch-hitter with JJ Grey & Mofro. The lineup also features the James Hunter Six and Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers, making for a full day in the park.

Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers

Bluhm bills her band as “rocking country soul with a tinge of vintage” and there’s a distinctively bluesy flavor in the mix that fits right in on this bill. The band hits the stage at the challenging time of 12:30 pm though, a bit on the early side for many attendees. But for those who make it, the set is a treat. Northern California connections abound in the band with husband Tim Bluhm from the Mother Hips on guitar/keyboards and bassist Steve Adams from Animal Liberation Orchestra on bass. “Little Too Late” is a mid-tempo blues rocker that shows Nicki in fine form, with the band revving up the energy level. Bluhm’s voice is often compared to Linda Ronstadt and so a cover of “You’re No Good” hits a bluesy sweet spot as well. it’s not hard to imagine this band moving up on the bill in future years.

The James Hunter Six

James Hunter follows with a rootsy rhythm & blues soul sound that recalls classic artists like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Van Morrison. Billed as the UK’s greatest soul export, the band does not disappoint. They’ve got a groovy retro sound enhanced by a horn section and some B3 Hammond organ that might fit in on a Mad Men soundtrack. They also sound a bit like the absent Dap Kings, clearly sharing some of the same soul influences. There’s a vintage authenticity that gets the crowd on the left side of the stage dancing (as opposed to the gold circle part of the audience that can’t seem to be roused from their chairs). But even the many lawn-chair seated fans seem to be enjoying themselves while perhaps saving more energy for later.

JJ Grey & Mofro

It’s shortly after 3 pm when Grey hits the stage and the Florida-based band wastes no time in kicking the festival into high gear. Grey stirs a deeply soulful mix of southern rock, blues, swampy funk and Memphis soul into his sound and it resonates to the masses here. Like many blues musicians, you get a sense of obligation to the music from Grey that most would-be pop stars can’t fathom. “The best songs I've ever wrote, I never wrote. They wrote themselves. The best show I ever played, played itself and had little to do with me or talent. To me those things come from the power of an honest moment and I guess I’m trying to live in that power and not force life to cough up what I want,” Grey says at his site, sounding like a musical Jedi who knows it’s all about tuning into the Force.

He gives a shout out to Sharon Jones and pays tribute by dedicating “Somebody Else” to her. The slinky, horn-accented groove strikes a chord and there’s little doubt that the festival has come up with a worthy pinch-hitter here. “Brighter Days” is a big winner, with Grey going deep into the well for one of his most soulful and soul-soothing tunes. It’s one of those songs that embodies the spirit of the blues, illustrating how singing a personal song about difficult times can bring the cathartic emotional release needed to help transcend those troubles.

The set keeps rocking with “Your Lady, She’s Shady”, a down and dirty swamp rocker with a great saxophone jam. “Georgia War Horse”, dedicated to Grey’s grandmother, is more of a straight blues with a Stonesy twist that feels like it could be an outtake from Exile on Main Street. Grey’s set has to be a revelation for those who haven’t seen him before, as he demonstrates an impressive array of blues influences that make his presence on this bill seem destined.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band

The band hits the stage with the hot “Made Up Mind” from their impending new album and a fuse is lit. Trucks is one of the best guitarists on the planet, a guy who can shred but who also knows how to make each note count. Tedeschi is a shining star in her own right, with a voice that oozes bluesy soul and charisma, turning every song she touches into sonic gold. Joining forces creates a further alchemy that generates one of the most dynamic sounds in music today, one that finally gets the gold circle crowd out of their seats here. “Miss Understood” follows, another new tune with a funky groove that continues to build an energetic vibe.

The band throws a bit of everything into the set - some fabulous new material, a handful of great tunes from their first album and some choice covers. One of the top standouts among a set filled with them is the new “It’s So Heavy”, a deep blues tune where Tedeschi sings an oh-so-soulful lament for some of the mind-boggling injustices that exist in this crazy world. Trucks accents the tune with one of his patented solos that makes the guitar seem to talk, drawing hoots and hollers from the revved up crowd. Another highlight finds the band going old school for “Rolling and Tumbling”, with Trucks and the horn section leading the group through an up-tempo romp through the blues classic.

This segues into “Midnight in Harlem”, the gorgeous centerpiece of the band’s 2011 Revelator LP. The song has a gentle vibe but also one of the great transcendent grooves of the 21st century. It sounds fabulous in the outdoor setting, with a gentle breeze almost seeming like another instrument in the band. The song is a showcase for the entire ensemble at the height of their power, with Trucks delivering a face-melting solo that mesmerizes. “Bound for Glory” keeps the set jamming with another of the band’s prototype blues rockers, and there’s nary a lull throughout the entire set. Whether it’s an up-tempo rocker or a slow blues, there’s a continuing sense of supreme talent, special chemistry and deep respect for the power of the music on every song.

The band closes the set on a peak note with the new “Part of Me”, an infectious rocker that gets the whole crowd going like it’s an old classic. It’s got a catchy chord progression, an uplifting tandem vocal between Tedeschi and Mike Mattison, and superb accents from the horns, keys and percussion that elevate the tune to an even higher level. It would probably be a huge hit if it could be released in 1973 or 1993. The band rides the song’s feel good wave into a huge triumphant jam, with Trucks simply tearing it up on guitar.

The first encore of “Angel in Montgomery” is a big hit with the ladies in the crowd, with Tedeschi’s gospel-tinged vocal striking a deep chord. Keyboardist Kofi Burbridge delivers a beautiful flute solo as well. The band turns on a dime to jam the song into the Grateful Dead’s “Sugaree”, demonstrating the jamrock influence to seamlessly segue from one classic into another. Trucks throws down some more melty slide licks too. Then they wrap it up with another classic in “The Sky is Crying”, a number that features Derek and Susan at their bluesy best once more. It’s been a masterful performance that suggests the sky is the limit for the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

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