The newest faces at the Monterey Bay Blues Festival followed long roads to newfound stardom.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
The blues is inherently a conservative style, which makes perfect sense when you consider that the music is built upon a cold-eyed assessment of the essential, unchanging human condition. We live, we love, we despair and we die. There’s plenty of room for innovation of course, but no matter what kind of new spin a player comes up with, it’s gotta have the groove and the feeling, or it just ain’t the blues.
The hard-won wisdom required to really play the blues can’t be acquired overnight, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the 22nd Annual Monterey Blues Festival, which runs tomorrow through Sunday at the Monterey Fairgrounds, features long familiar luminaries such as Buddy Guy, Shamekia Copeland, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Chris Cain and Joe Louis Walker. Youth may reign supreme in our debased popular culture, but when it comes to the blues, there’s simply no substitute for paying serious dues. It’s no coincidence that the two most exciting up-and-coming artists making their festival debut this summer are veteran performers who have spent decades honing their craft.
While Zac Harmon and Fiona Boyes hail from the opposite sides of the Earth, they have both walked a long, winding path on their journey to the forefront of the contemporary blues scene. Both players share a bone-deep feeling for the music, but where Boyes came by her love of the blues through a teenage epiphany as a college student in her native Australia, Harmon was weaned on the blues in Jackson, Miss., since birth.
“Where I’m from in Mississippi, blues is like air,” says Harmon, 50, from his home in Mansfield, Tex., where he moved last year after a quarter century in Los Angeles. A gifted guitarist and soul-drenched singer, Harmon soaked up the music hanging out at his father’s drug store (the first black-owned pharmacy in Jackson). He played and sang in church, and took guitar lessons from Herman Fowlkes, the father of jazz diva Cassandra Wilson. By the time he was 16, Harmon was teaching guitar at the local YMCA, and one of his brightest students was Eddie Cotton.
“I grew up in the Farris Street district in Jackson, and the blues there was like oil is to Kuwait,” Harmon says. “Trumpet Records was down there and it’s where Sonny Boy Williams, Elmore James and Otis Spann came from. Back in the ’60s everything was segregated, and Farris Street was the black economic hub. On the weekends you’d have musicians playing out on the street, and as a 6-year-old kid I was standing next to these guys listening. I’ve been told I have an old soul, and that’s why. I was absorbing it all back then.”
Before he finished high school Harmon was performing as a guitarist with Z.Z. Hill, McKinley Mitchell and Sam Myers, who became an early mentor. He put off going to college to tour with Dorothy Moore as an opening act for B.B. King and Bobby Bland. Though Little Milton came calling, Harmon had promised his mother he would pursue a college education, so he got a business degree from Jackson State. After graduating, he knew he wanted to get back to music, and ended up moving to Los Angeles, where he gradually made a name for himself as an ace studio cat and gifted songwriter. While he was still trying to make it as a performer, Harmon kept getting work as a producer and ended up breaking through on a session for The Whispers. He went on to produce more than 100 albums in a wide array of styles, but even when he was immersed in the studio, he found time to sit in at the LA blues joint Babe & Ricky’s Inn.
“That’s the place I’d go sit in and keep my connection to the music,” Harmon says. “Lowell Fulsom, Guitar Shorty and Smokey Wilson were in there all the time. Albert Collins came in once in a while. There were some incredible blues players, and I would be lying if I said they didn’t influence me. I can definitely be influenced by something good. When you stop growing, you stop living.”
When gangsta rap became the rage in Southern California in the early 1990s, Harmon decided to bail on the music business and started working in film and television (“I couldn’t make a record that I wouldn’t bring home to my kids or would embarrass my pastor,” he says). While composing a film score with a blues theme, he was struck by how deeply the music resonated with him, and decided to dive back into performing. His first album, 2002’s Live at Babe & Ricky’s Inn (Z-Mac Music), announced the arrival of a powerful new voice steeped in Delta soul. His reputation spread when he won the Blues Foundation’s 2004 International Blues Challenge as “best unsigned blues band,” a triumph that led to his relationship with Bluestone Records, which released his scorching sophomore session, 2005’s The Blues According to Zacariah.
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It was at the 2003 International Blues Challenge that Fiona Boyes first made an impression in the United States. She was already a blues star in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia, after 14 years fronting the eclectic blues combo The Mojos. She launched her solo career as an acoustic guitarist with 2000’s Blues in My Heart, a sensational debut that set off an avalanche of awards, including the 2001 Female Blues Artist of the Year and 2002 Blues Performer of the Year. Her second album, 2002’s Gimme Some Sweet Jelly Roll, paved the way for her appearance in Memphis at the 19th International Blues Challenge, where she became the first Australian, and the only woman, to win the prestigious event’s acoustic competition.
“It was hugely exciting,” says Boyes, who relocated to Panama City, Fla., in January. “Like any blues fan, one of the things you want to do is make a pilgrimage to the birthplace. I couldn’t believe I was paying my tribute to Memphis Minnie on Beale Street. When I won, I had this window of opportunity, so I went home and reorganized, turned my life upside down, and came back to the States for three months.”
Boyes quickly connected with blues veterans like Bob Margolin and Tommy Castro, who invited her to open for him, an encounter that resulted in her recording her 2004 album Live in Atlanta with his band. She forged strong ties with well-traveled saxophonist Mark Kazanoff, who produced her latest album, the sizzling Lucky 13 (Yellow Dog Records). While Boyes has performed at many of the most prestigious blues events, including the W.C. Handy Awards, the Chicago Blues Festival, and the New York Rhythm and Blues Festival, her appearance with the late Paul Delay’s combo at Monterey marks her California debut.
In many ways the fingerpicking master has come full circle. Boyes caught the blues bug in college when she started listening to rural, pre-war artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt. She worked her way up from the roots while playing with the Mojos, moving from the Chicago blues to a myriad of other American genres. After six years of focusing on her solo career as an acoustic guitarist, Boyes has found that her recent experiences playing with Bob Margolin and the legendary Hubert Sumlin have started to break down the self-imposed barriers between her electric and unplugged repertory. Rather than fitting into any particular category, Boyes is now more interested in making her own statement.
“With the Mojos we’d discover different regional styles and just devour it,” Boyes says. “For a while it was Tex-Mex, listening to the Iguanas, and then it was zydeco. In Australia there’s this tyranny of distance. You’re a long way from the source, but there are no boundaries. Listening to John Lee Hooker was as great as listening to Jimmie Rogers or Doctor John. Understanding the nuances of all those regional styles is a life’s work. I like the place where the familiarity of the form delivers a surprise. You try to give it an individual stamp or twist, which is what the best artists have always done.”
ZAC HARMON PLAYS THE GARDEN STAGE ON SATURDAY AT 8:05PM; FIONA BOYES PLAYS THE MAIN ARENA ON SUNDAY AT 12:20PM.