Saturday I was at the buffet of blues presented by Ascencia, an organization that helps the homeless. The show was the Urban Blues Festival, hosted by Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. Walter Trout was the headliner, but when you have acts like Guitar Shorty, Arthur Adams, The Scorch Sisters, The Americans, Little Faith, The Trout Brothers Band and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton on the bill, it’s hard to tell who the headliners are.
I’m not a huge fan of festivals, especially in August, but some are so compelling, you can’t turn them down. This was one. The show started at 11am, just around the time the sun moves from “it’s going to be a hot one today” to “I should have worn shorts” time. I don’t know what the official temperature was, but it was hot. And bright. Did I mention how hot it was?
The appropriately named “Scorch Sisters” opened the show. I say this because what little cool air left in the place was “scorched” by this group of women, along with the fact that it was way too hot to be doing this outside. Led by singer Francesca Capasso, the quintet kicked off the day with a very bluesy set. They may have been playing to a slim audience (it is hard to get people to show up promptly for the beginning of a nine-hour show), but they played as though the place were packed. I was particularly struck by the bass playing of Sharon A. Ray. Not only did she hold down the rhythm section, she was reading off the sheet music. The old joke that goes “how do you get a guitarist to turn down? Put sheet music in front of them” did not hold true here. I mean, when was the last time you saw someone playing off of sheet music at a live gig? Very impressive Ms. Ray.
I can’t describe every single act here, because for one, I don’t want this to run into an article so long that nobody will read it, and in all honesty it got so hot at one point, I flew back up the 101 for a wardrobe change more appropriate for the scorching heat. Thank goodness for air conditioning…
Later in the day Mr. Arthur Adams came up. How do you begin to describe these acts for those who are into the blues but weren’t there to catch the show. And while we’re on the topic, I’m a member of the blues community here in Los Angeles. I’m a bass player, and it’s a pretty large circle of musicians. Except for one or two people I know from the community, I was disappointed that more of you (and you know who you are) weren’t in attendance. Not only do we all go on about keeping the blues alive, but this was for a great cause. At the next big jam, I will come up and shame all of you individually. OK, personal rant over, back to Arthur Adams. I thought at one point that Mr. Adams was going to either faint or lose ten pounds by sweating. At one point, you could see the sweat dripping right off his face, while I tried to capture it on film…about 30 times. Maybe next time I’ll shoot video.
The Trout Brothers Band was up next. This is basically Walter Trout’s sons, but this is no “family band”. These kids earned the right to be on that stage. The drummer Dylan Trout is only 13 years old! The guitar duo of Mike and Jon Trout is pretty powerful. They’re both in their 20’s and it’s pretty obvious that talent runs in this family. Watching Jon bend the strings is like, well, it’s like watching a young version of his dad. During their set, Walter and his wife sat in the back with the rest of the fans taking it all in, and just enjoying the moment like any proud parent. Or was he enjoying it like any other blues fan?
Next up was Guitar Shorty. If you don’t know who this man is, I would strongly suggest you buy a couple of his CDs. Shorty has been around since the 50’s and legend has it that many a popular artist lifted a lot from this guy. He’s played with Willie Dixon, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Little Richard and Sam Cooke to name a few. Is that an impressive enough resume for you? Dressed in his trademark black hat, flame-emblazoned vest, with “Red”, his sunburst Strat strapped on, he burned through his set, came down off the stage at one point, walked through the audience, and handed a pick to an infant giving him his first taste of blues fame. The kid played pretty well for a 1-year-old in diapers. Particularly impressive was the bass playing of Crazy Tomes, and it’s hard to stand out on a stage with Guitar Shorty!
And then it was time for the headliner, Walter Trout. I had wanted to sit down with Walter and do a full-on interview. For me this is akin to interviewing Eric Clapton but probably better because Walter Trout is so real. His story is real, his recovery from being near death is as real as it gets, and his music is real on so many levels. At one point Mr. Trout joked that when he thought he had days left to live, he wanted to write songs about it, and then announced that “the depressing part of the show dealing with this topic” was about to begin. I’m sorry Walter, but no matter how depressing the topic may seem to you, coming out of your amps it’s nowhere near depressing. We are so lucky we didn’t lose him in 2014. I did manage to ask a couple of questions while keeping a respectful distance. Sometimes answering a bunch of questions in the heat is the last thing someone wants to do, and you have to respect that. Besides, I’m a huge Walter Trout fan, and I got a picture with him, something I rarely do. I wouldn’t even do that with Mick Jagger.
Walter Trout plays something like about 200 shows per year, and this is after coming off of a liver transplant in 2014. So here’s the mini-interview:
ME: Why do you do this? 200 plus dates per year is crazy, especially with what you’ve been through isn’t it?
WT: I love it. I love what I do, and I love my fans, and I’ll do this until I drop dead.
ME: What was it like stepping out on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall?
WT: It was fun. I had a great time playing with Van Morrison and Eric Burdon.
ME: Could you feel the history of the place? This is where Cream played their final show, twice.
WT: I loved The Cream, saw them a bunch of times.
ME: Was Cream a big influence on you?
WT: Yeah, they were. I never played with Eric Clapton. I did get a chance to play with Jack Bruce however.
And that was it, end of the interview. I’m sure I could have spoken at length with Mr. Trout, but there were a lot of people wanting his time and I didn’t want to be totally intrusive. You get a sense that he loves his fans, is willing to chat with them, but really values his time alone. He spent a lot of time sitting sidestage watching the other acts perform and seems to be very humble, preferring to not grab the spotlight when he’s not playing and instead directing his attention to the other performers.
So Walter Trout continued to set the stage on fire as he always has done. So even though the sun was going down, Walter kept the temperature at broil with his guitar, bending the strings so far off the fretboard, I thought for sure they were going to just snap. The highlight of the evening however was the moment we knew was going to happen; Guitar Shorty joined Walter Trout on stage and created the same magic that exists on the 2006 album “Full Circle”. I won’t identify the track because if you’re a blues lover and don’t already own this album, you’re really NOT a blues lover. My personal opinion is it’s one of the best blues albums of the last 10 years.
You’ve hopefully read some of my earlier reviews, and I try never to write anything negative, instead looking for the positive in every performance, a pretty easy task. But last night during Mr. Trout’s set, the vocals weren’t mixed perfectly and it came off sounding a bit “muddy”. A minor thing really.
During Walter’s set, everyone was up on their feet, and a huge crowd formed in front of the stage. What else can I say about such a meeting of two great performers? Not much. Sometimes you can only write so much and end with “you just had to be there”.
Gold rings on Ascencia for putting this show on, Raleigh Studios for hosting it, Pacific BMW for sponsoring it, Limelight Media for booking all these great artists (and making my review and photos possible), and above all, the musicians and crews for donating their time for a great cause, and giving us a great show!
All photos: Ivor Levene for The Los Angeles Beat