San Jose Fountain Blues Festival
St. James Park
San Jose, California
July 14, 2012
Record Crowd, Fine Music Assures 32-year Run Will Continue
By Dan D. Harrell
Proving once again that less can be more, the Fountain Blues Festival, presented by San Jose’s Metro newspaper, offered just four major performances over nearly eight hours. The emphasis there should be on major, however, as a record crowd estimated at 3,500 to 4,000 enjoyed a typical San Jose sunny-not-hot summer afternoon and a quartet of exceedingly pleasing bands: Elvin Bishop, Canned Heat, Ruthie Foster, and Lurrie Bell with John Primer.
This was the thirty-second continuous year for the festival, which has had its shaky moments in recent years, including losing long-time supporter San Jose State University two years ago. Promoter extraordinaire Ted Gehrke – who has weathered all thirty-two shows while producing some of the most memorable blues shows San Jose has ever seen – put on one this year that can rightfully be called “lean and mean.”
Bishop, the headliner and soon to be seventy years old, proved once again why he is indeed “The Closer” when it comes to festivals – there just isn’t much that any performer can do after his show! Bluntly put, Bishop leaves ‘em wet and winded.
Whether prancing ecstatically to every part of the large stage like a hillbilly Mick Jagger, or striking silly poses with uber-talented guitarist Bob Welsh, Elvin gave the crowd a truly satisfying show that covered sixteen songs and lasted nearly two hours – with more lively sing-alongs than a Thursday-night karaoke bar.
The set included popular anthems like “What the Hell Is Going On,” “Let it Roll,” and “Fish, Fish, Fishin’” during which Elvin roamed the crowd looking for a fan to help make his fabled 1959 Gibson ES-345 “Red Dog” speak. About halfway through the show, soul singer/harmonica virtuoso John Németh joined and stayed to the end, handling vocals on classics like “Night Time is the Right Time,” “Fooled Around and Fell In Love,” and the always inspiring “Rock My Soul (Halleluiah).”
Bishop was backed expertly by long-time band members – the flamboyant trombonist/singer/percussionist Ed Earley; drummer and frequent lead vocalist Bobby Cochran; always in-the-pocket Ruth Davies on bass; multi-talented S. E. “Steve” Willis on keyboards, accordion, and vocals; and, the aforementioned Welsh delivering soaring solos, tasty rhythms, and vocals. Németh fit in like he’d always been there, providing top-flight harp solos and accompaniment in addition to powerful vocals.
But no matter who else is on stage, an Elvin show is all about Elvin – not him, per se, but the pure, unadulterated joy that he spreads like Johnny Appleseed to those lucky enough to receive the offering. In the end, as the event rolled well beyond the scheduled 8 p.m. stop, everybody stood and crowded the stage for a rip-roaring rendition of “Traveling Shoes” and then an extended nod to Michael Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield that riffed off “Blues with a Feeling” and proved that Elvin can still play more than a little bit.
Sweat soaked, but with an ear-to-ear smile that should be trademarked, Elvin graciously sat stage-side for another thirty minutes signing autographs and listening to fans describe their favorite song, CD, or show.
Next-to-last on the bill was Canned Heat, a choice that probably surprised some. But the band – three of whom have been playing together since 1969 – laid down a satisfying set laced with its own memorable collection of dance-and-sing-alongs.
They opened with a few minutes of flashback, psychedelic aural musings from Harvey Mandel, one of the most talented electric guitar players in the known universe, supported expertly by other original members Larry Taylor on bass and Fito de la Parra on vocals and drums. Dale Spalding is the group’s not-so newcomer, handling vocals and harmonica.
Once they got cooking, though, there wasn’t any stopping the boogie and they pumped out ten tunes over about ninety minutes, the final six providing a tail-shaking trip down memory lane. First it was “Rollin’ and Tumblin,’” which was exactly that, and then the late sixties anthem “Going Up the Country” that propelled everyone out of their chairs. They rolled on through “Sugar Bee” before pausing to let Mandel stretch again on “Cristo Redentor.”
The two big closers were exactly what the crowd wanted, starting with a tight, funky “Bull Frog Blues” and then a twenty-minute-plus “Let’s Work Together.” Any doubts about this band’s ability to deliver were certainly wiped away by this strong performance.
Second on the bill was Ruthie Foster, fresh from collecting some new hardware at the Blues Music Awards – 2012 Koko Taylor Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year (she won last year too!), 2012 DVD of the year for Live at Antone’s, and nominated for B.B. King Entertainer of the Year.
Foster was 2010 BMA winner for Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year and 2010′s The Truth According to Ruthie Foster received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album. That year she also was named female Blues Artist of the Year by a Living Blues critics’ poll.
After hearing her on a couple recent Blues Cruises and at this festival, I’m convinced that this lady is the real deal and a huge, huge talent.
The first half of Foster’s seventy-minute set layed down enough gospel rock to qualify for two Sundays in church – but it’s a lot more fun than that. The tight, four-piece ensemble includes her long-time collaborators Samantha Banks on drums and Tanya Richardson on bass and other stringed instruments. Scottie Miller‘s haunting and driving organ is a huge force in most tunes.
But it’s Ruthie herself who is a (perhaps reluctant) star. Her voice has a Bonnie Raitt-like uniqueness that makes it impossible to ignore; and her smile and charismatic stage presence make you a willing participant in whatever story she wants to weave. She finished off this show with knockout renditions of two songs on her current CD, Let it Burn – “This Time,” a fine ballad, performed with Los Lobos on the album, and the uplifting “Ever Lasting Light” that had the crowd swaying and grinning.
Not to take a thing away from the fine performers above, but I would have paid full price to see just the opening act. It paired Chicago guitar veterans Lurrie Bell and John Primer. They’re both regulars on the Windy City blues scene, with individual credits a yard long, but for some reason I’ve seen Bell several times and always missed Primer. This is an interesting match-up because Bell is a down-and-dirty blues player/singer and Primer is a lightning-fast slide virtuoso.
It worked out just fine and everyone was treated to a Chicago-style smorgasbord of shuffles and gut-bucket blues that couldn’t have been any better if you were sitting at Buddy Guy’s Legends on a Saturday night. Nearly every tune in the twelve-song, ninety-minute set was a classic that the pair brilliantly carried to new heights, including “I’m Ready,” “19 Years Old,” Blues Got Soul,” I’m a Man,” and “Close to You.”
The last three tunes qualify as a perfect blues music triplet – “Crosscut Saw” with Bell’s vocals and guitar sounding every bit the ghost of Albert King, “Messin’ with the Kid” with Primer delivering an righteous slide workout and Bell shining on vocals, and a rousing, eighteen-minute encore of “Sweet Home Chicago” that they might have played all afternoon if they hadn’t been stopped. This was a truly memorable show by a pair of living masters.
San Jose’s Fountain Blues Festival is certainly one of the longest running events in the country. With this year’s impressive lineup and a strong turnout, I can’t wait to see what Mr. Gehrke has is store for number thirty-three. And, by the way, the whole show cost just twelve bucks, only ten if you bought in advance!
Dan D. Harrell is contributing writer for BluesWax and president of The Write Answer in San Jose, CA, specializing in writing, public relations and marketing consulting. Contact him by commenting below or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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