The 12th Annual Ventura County Blues Festival is coming up on Saturday, April 29. The headliner of this year’s event, the Phantom Blues Band, consists of some of the top musicians in the music industry. Playing individually on many top records by artists such as the Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendrix, Etta James, Elton John, Leon Russell, Little Feat and B.B. King, they coalesced into a working band to back Taj Mahal for several tours and four extremely successful albums. On their own these days, they have continued to play to audiences around the world. The Beat sat down to talk with trumpet player Darrell Leonard, who has been featured as a solo artist on albums by Bruce Springsteen, Randy Newman and Buddy Guy, and with drummer Tony Braunagel, who has played with Eric Burdon, Bette Midler and Rickie Lee Jones among others.
Q: The Ventura County Blues Festival has been going for over 10 years. What do you think about headlining it?
A: (Tony) It’s great, because we’ve been around here, living in these neighborhoods, the confines of the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles—-I’ve lived where I am now for 30 years, been here since like 1979, Darrell has been here even longer than I and was working even before I got to this area—-and we’ve honed our crafts as studio musicians and come home to our wives and families and such from the road and made our living doing this for so many years. Nobody really notices a band from the neighborhood like this, I mean here we are, getting a chance to go to Ventura, which I consider extended now out beyond the Valley but still our neighborhood, we get a chance to play for all these people who know us from the area, who know us from the blues community in California and they know us from the worldwide blues community as well. It’s a great opportunity.
Q: The Phantom Blues Band is composed of top-notch studio musicians. How do you switch to live stage performances?
A: (Darrell) We all started playing in live situations in various bands, that’s how we cut our teeth and that’s how we ended up in the studio, by being able to do that. It’s fun for us to jump out of the confines of the studio and go and play live in front of people. It’s always refreshing.
(Tony) That’s a perfect answer. As Darrell said, it’s refreshing for us to go play, but you need the combination of the two. I think what you do live, the excitement, the intensity, you sort of remember that and you take it into the studio with you, you don’t become kind of just stamping it out in the studio every day, you try to remember those great magic moments and take them into the studio.
Q: You play blues, jazz, R&B, rock, gospel and reggae. How do you get so many musical styles to mix so well?
A: (Darrell) Once again, we’ve been doing this for lots of years and have played with a lot of the original artists from the styles that we gleaned from. I mean, Larry Fulcher (bass, vocals) learned to play with so many of the reggae mainstays and all of us have played—-I played with Wilson Pickett on The Midnight Hour —we’ve all gotten to do stuff like that, you pick up stuff from the people you’re playing with, and we’ve gotten to play with a lot of great performers.
(Tony) Like Darrell said, after 50 plus years you should be able to play everything or else you wouldn’t still be a musician making a living, you might be a musician but you certainly couldn’t do all those things.
Q: The Phantom Blues Band has two Grammys. Can you tell me about them?
A: (Tony) During the years of working with Taj Mahal we did three records together. We weren’t really established as a blues band then but most of the nucleus of the band was there and played on what I would call a trilogy, Dance to the Blues, Phantom Blues and Señor Blues. They were all on Private Records. Then we put together a live record to follow up all of that that came out in ’99. That won the Grammy in 2000. It was just a natural evolution that every time we got together for those first three studio records with Taj and John Porter producing, that we would come up with something really good and interesting. We got Grammy nominations on all three. We won the Grammy on Señor Blues. Then we took sort of a hiatus from recording, not really on purpose but I think the Private era had ended at that point. Then Taj said, let’s do a live record so we did a live record, went into the Mint and recorded three nights, came out with 105 takes, processed them ourselves very well, finished the record and released it, got a Grammy nomination and won it in 2000.
(Darrell) We’d been out working with Taj, we went out and did those three albums and we worked them around the world. We were out like guys do, you out, you make the record, you work. But one of the highlights at the Grammy show was when we won it and we went up on stage and had B.B. King be the first person to congratulate me. That was nice, that was a great feeling.
(Tony) Another thing that I want to add to what Darrell said too is that when we went out working, we worked up this fervor, as the business says, of a really good blues band backing up a great player like Taj, making great records. We also won the W. C. Handy Blues Award, we took Band of the Year. So really, the heat was turned up under us and during that time, it was not, not wanting to be boastful, but other bands would not want to follow the Phantom Blues Band because we were steaming, just tearing it up with Taj every night. There was a really great resonance going on musically for us and with the community of people that really liked our music. So when we made the live record, it was like it had to get out there and when it got out there it was like “Wow, here’s another from the Phantom Blues Band” and it got all the recognition that it deserved at that point and the Grammy nods. We’re grateful for all of that. It looks good on our resume, but its not like we’re living just off our laurels of that. I know it comes up in the conversation all the time, but I have to say that none of us have stopped doing what we are doing, whether it’s keeping Johnny Lee’s Studio running—I’m making records in here, Darrel’s making records in here, Darrell’s doing TV and movie stuff, so everybody’s involved constantly and we don’t sit back wait for it to come—-we make it happen. It’s maybe why we have been so productive over the years.
Q: “Boogah Man” is such a driving classic blues tune. What’s the story behind that?
A: (Tony) I think Larry Fulcher discovered those lyrics. Larry discovered a storybook or a poem, it might have been a really famous American poet I believe that it came from. It was Paul Laurence Dunbar. The band just went, “what shall we do?”. I don’t remember who came up with that idea of a boogie treatment to it, but we just started playing it and we through all of our energy in. when you look at those lyrics and the way they fall, you start to get this movement in your body, you have to move your body a certain way like a dance to go along with the way those lyrics go and then you put the rhythm section and horns behind it and what we came up with as Boogah Man. We know how we did it, we kind of vibed, there’s kind of an unfound ear that you have in your body, in your mind, in your psyche when you’re coming up with music like that because it speaks to you like this, and then you all get together and you all feel it and you all hear it like this so you’re playing it and contributing to it.
(Tony) Can I speak for Darrell? For me as a drummer, to me it turns into something like an orchestra or symphony, because the way Darrell and Joe arrange their horns around the rhythm section, the notes and chords and progressions and parts they play, that’s the brilliant part of being a sextet like we are. These guys know how to play with a great rhythm section and know how to put their parts around a great rhythm section so it never gets in the way of what the rhythm section’s doing and vice versa. The rhythm section leaves them the space they need. It makes this type of a combo really fat and really very musical. You don’t find anybody in it getting in any body else’s way, stepping on anybody else’s parts, it’s all a lot of space for it. The reason why I wanted to jump in and say this is because I want to give kudos to the horns for the fact that they make it sound so special as a six piece horn band.
(Darrell) I really don’t look at it as rhythm section and horns. I try to look at it as a whole band and a whole sound, and that goes along with what Tony says, that it all works in with the rhythm section so that we’re playing together rather than “Look Out! Here come the horns! We got some hot licks”. That’s not our beat. And I always like bands with horns because when a band’s got horns then I’ve got a job!
Q: Tony, you’ve toured with Taj Mahal, Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt and many more. What’s your best story from the road?
A: Oh man, you don’t have enough time to hear that, there’s too many really. I had so many great moments of working with three wonderful artists like that as well as several others, but you know with all the years on the road as musicians there’s always something, almost every day. It’s so interesting to other people who don’t do it that we take it as normal. We kind of live through it saying “Oh yeah, that happened”. It means something to us, there are days when there are certain things that are memorable so much to us that you put a stamp on that day and you tell that story over and over and over to your friends when you get together and reminiscence, but it’s really hard to pull out one, if just for the fact that i’ve been really lucky to have worked with so many great, gifted artists.
Q: So what about the Ventura County Blues Festival?
(Darrell) We’re looking forward to the Ventura County Blues Festival, it’s going to be fun for us. The night before, we’re playing in Orlando, Florida and we get up at probably 4 o’clock in the morning and fly back to Los Angeles. That afternoon, we go up to play in Ventura. It’s what we do!
We’ve done things even crazier though. (to Tony) You remember Chicago to Geneva and drove to the Montreaux Jazz Festival, the big jazz festival in Switzerland. We flew over—there’s a road story for you!
(Tony) Darrell, Joe and I left Chicago and flew overnight from a Blues Brothers gig to Paris and then we missed the connection.
(Darrell) Oh, that’s right, that’s right…..
(Tony) We spent hours there waiting and then we drove around Lake Geneva to the Montreaux Festival, got there maybe an hour, hour and a half before the show. Those are the exciting things that happen in a musician’s life when you do it over and over and over. You don’t take it lightly, it’s amazing that we made it. We’re happy that we made it and nothing disrupted Taj’s career. Or anyone’s career! But that’s the crazy stuff we’ve had to live through.
My final word on Ventura is this: I know Michael John, he’s become a friend. He’s a great guy, he’s come from a great bunch of people who are really happy to put this on with great people working this festival and it’s very friendly and I’m very happy to see that in our community. There’s some great artists playing. I know Debbie Davies, she’s now a local, she lives out here with us in California and Chris Cain, he lives out in the Bay Area, San Jose and is coming up to play. He’s one of my favorite singers, so it’s going to be a great day. Even with no sleep, I’m going to get out there and listen to most of it and have as much fun as I can.
(Darrell) Same here!
Q: Thanks, Tony and Darrell! See you at the show!
The Ventura County Blues Festival will also feature an excellent lineup of performances for the entire day. Debbie Davies has received 10 nominations for Blues Music Awards, twice winning the award for Best Contemporary Female Blues Artist, and her sizzling guitar work should get everyone fired up at the festival. Guitarist and vocalist Chris Cain is another top featured performer taking the Ventura County Blues Festival stage. RJ Mischio also brings his master harmonica playing along with his powerful vocals to the stage. He is considered one of the top harp players in the U.S.
Two local favorites are also performing: Michael John and the Bottom Line Featuring Mikey Mo are perennial favorites at the Festival, bringing their artistry to the stage in a way that makes it hard for the crowd to stop moving. Crooked Eye Tommy also performs, with their hot Southern Blues combined with Southern Rock – a great way to get up and dance. Southern Rock and Blues are also a feature of Jim Gustin and Truth Jones who will open the festival.
Many vendors will again be at the event. T-shirts, CDs, hand-crafted items, along with memorabilia will be available for purchase. Plenty of good food and drinks including beer and wine will be available. The event is a benefit for Food Share of Ventura County, so any donations of canned goods, dried goods or cereals is appreciated. There will also be a Guitar Giveaway courtesy of Guitar Center.
General Admission tickets are $30 and are available online. VIP Admission is $125 and includes a shaded seating area, private bar with cocktails, a catered lunch, private restrooms and early entry. It also includes 2 drink tickets, t-shirt and more. The gates open at 10am and the music begins at 11am.
Phantom Blues Band
Ventura County Blues Festival
Studio Channel Islands
2222 E. Ventura Blvd.
Camarillo, CA 93010
Tickets and Info:
Festival Hotline: 805-501-7122