The Monterey Bay Blues Festival celebrates 25 years with a female tour de force and Grammy-worthy zydeco.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Since 1986, the Monterey Bay Blues Festival has hosted a barrage of blues superstars, from Etta James and Taj Mahal to B.B. King and Ruth Brown. This year’s 25th anniversary boasts another stellar collection of musicians, and some of the genre’s most divine female forces.
Rising contemporary blues artist Ruthie Foster (1:50pm Saturday at Main Arena) took an unconventional path to get her where she is today.
“I actually went into the military to take a break from music after college and experience living in a different place, different cultures and different food,” says the Austin, Texas native. “But [the Navy] ended up having a huge impact on my musical career.”
After a year away from music, Foster joined the Navy band as a vocalist and served out the rest of her three years doing what she loves in Charleston, S.C.
“It was great for me,” she says. “I took just the right amount of time away from music and jumped back in. Military musicians are incredible because that’s what they do 24/7 and they have to be able to read music and improvise.”
After the Navy, Foster decided to delve headfirst back into the sounds that initially moved her as a youngster.
“Blues and gospel were an early part of my musical awakening and it just takes me to this point of discovering music for the first time,” she says. “The blues can mean so many different things. It’s all about playing what you feel and meaning what you say.”
Using her dynamic voice and expert fingerpicking, and drawing from roots in country and electric blues, Foster has garnered a Grammy nod, a number one hit on the Roots Blues charts and NPR’s Featured Song of the Day in 2009 (for “I Really Love You”).
Foster says that “Stone Love” – from her acclaimed The Truth According to Ruthie Foster – is about that one dedicated love everybody wants and deserves. The song is driven by a reggae-saturated rhythm and Foster’s goosebump-inducing voice.
“In my music, I put in a little bit of reggae, folk and gospel,” she says, “but the blues brings it all home.”
In August, Foster will hit the studio to record her fourth full-production album in New Orleans.
“I never look back,” she says. “I’m always moving forward.”
One of Foster’s biggest inspirations, Chicago blues legend Mavis Staples (1pm Sunday at Main Arena), performed a few weeks ago for tens of thousands at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. The crowd – who had been rocking out over the weekend to modern bigwigs like the Black Keys and Lil’ Wayne – watched in awe as the 71-year-old vocalist tore it up with gospel-infused blues classics like “Wade in the Water,” “Creep Along Moses,” and “Freedom Highway.”
For more than 50 years, the Chicago-born singer has had a similar impact on audiences. The Staples Singers, her first band, made up of her three siblings, became one of the musical voices of the civil rights movement and a favorite of Martin Luther King Jr. Staples’ voice even won over Bob Dylan after he heard her version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
Her crossover appeal showcases itself again in August, when she’ll join the likes of Phish and MGMT at the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival in San Francisco.
Millie Jackson (10:15pm Saturday at Main Arena) also cites Staples as a main influence. Jackson made her name with killer pipes, but today she’s also known for something other than her voice. Her 1989 album cover for Back to the St! features the R&B songstress sitting on the toilet in a negligee, panties pulled down around her ankles with one black pump on her left foot and the other grasped in her right hand. The strained expression on Jackson’s face can be described duly as both constipation and love-hurt.
In a way, the cover – which has consistently appeared on Worst Album Cover lists – is a perfect representation of Jackson: The singer-songwriter, whose voice is often likened to Tina Turner’s, specializes in lyrical truths, as well as humorous and profane spoken sections she interjects into her music during live shows.
Jackson’s first breakout success came with the 1974 hit “It Hurts So Good,” which topped the soul charts and was featured in the blaxploitation classic Cleopatra Jones.
The tune pulses with a quintessential, sultry vibe that can only belong to the 1970s. Jackson’s voice yields a perfect blend of raspy and sexy. The singer’s 1974 Caught Up is an entire concept album about cheating featuring the hit “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right.” The first side of the record is from the perspective of a girl going with a married man, and the second side is from the wife’s point of view.
“When I write a story like that, I like to balance it out so people on both sides can see what’s going on,” Jackson tells Songfacts.com.
There will also be some hefty doses of testosterone at this year’s Blues Fest – including the Bar-Kays (8:20pm Friday at Main Arena), Magic Slim & the Teardrops (3:30pm Saturday at Main Arena) and Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band (6pm Saturday at Main Arena) – to balance out the flood of female talent. Last February, Carrier and his band won their first Grammy for “Zydeco Junkie,” in the Best Cajun or Zydeco song category. The festive and catchy accordion-driven romp encapsulates the culture of rural black Creoles of southwest Louisiana.
“[The Grammy] was a long time coming,” Carrier says. “It’s overwhelming and unbelievable; zydeco music has a long history and [it] was an honor to be recognized in that category.”
Carrier, who grew up in a family with a long line of musicians, is a premier showman whose band was called “one of the finer standard bearers of the classic, blues-based zydeco sound among the new generation of Louisiana bands,” by The Chicago Tribune.
The Louisiana-native says that when hardships like Hurricane Katrina, arise, music, food and culture helps everyone persevere.
“That’s pretty much our medicine,” he says. “We always get together, we play music, we visit and we eat but after the hurricane, we pulled together even more and are rebuilding houses one at a time.”
With a name like Chubby, food fittingly has as much of a place in Carrier’s heart as music.
“Down in Creole country, we cook a lot,” he says. “We have stuff like smothered chicken, smothered pork chops, chicken and tomato gravy and of course jambalaya with red beans and rice. We cook a mean gumbo. No hurricane can take music and food from us.”
THE MONTEREY BAY BLUES FESTIVAL happens 5pm-midnight Friday, 10am-midnight Saturday and 10am-11pm Sunday at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. $55-75/one-day arena passes; $30-$40/one-day grounds; $85/three-day grounds; $130-200/three-day main arena. 866-558-4253, www.montereyblues.com