MONTEREY >> Due in large part to its verdantly beautiful fairgrounds, Monterey has the distinction of being a destination festival town. There's a world renowned jazz festival that's been here 57 years and counting, there was a legendary pop festival in 1967 that became the seed for all other large scale rock festivals, and there was a blues festival that lasted 27 years. Not to mention all those that have come and gone over the years in an effort to match what has come before them. Whether it's a sign of the times or not, it's definitely no easy task.
But that doesn't deter 62-year-old Oakland-based former baseball player/political advisor Rusty Jackson, who is bringing back the blues to Monterey with a two-day event called Blues Brews and Barbecue at Monterey, to be held over the weekend at what is now called the Monterey County Fair & Event Center. Blues Hall of Fame member Joe Louis Walker is the headlining act on Saturday, while legendary founding member of Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elvin Bishop takes top billing on Sunday. Both of these fine blues artists have strong historical ties to the San Francisco Bay Area, and hopefully their appeal will draw a large contingent of blues lovers to Monterey from the Bay Area and beyond so there will be enough support to keep this inaugural event alive.
"I heard that the Monterey Bay Blues Festival had been cancelled about two years ago," Jackson said in a face-to-face interview a week or so ago. "I picked up the phone and I started calling a couple of my buddies and said, 'Let's go after this.' Everybody turned me down. They'd say, 'Dude you haven't done anything for awhile, we know you were taking care of your Dad. This is a big undertaking.'"
Yet he couldn't "hold his peace" as he described it and he began to track down the particulars on how he might put his idea to the test. He reached out to the Monterey Convention and Visitors Bureau and they sent him to the fairgrounds office. The folks there asked him to submit a two paragraph proposal, which he did. A meeting was arranged and they forged an agreement in principle.
"I was supposed to give them the deposit Thanksgiving weekend," he said. "Something happened. I wasn't able to get there. I delivered the deposit December 2nd and that was supposed to lock the deal. That day would be my Dad's ninety-second birthday if he was still alive. So I knew that the heavens had opened up to smile on me because I was doing this on a day that was so significant in my life. We really didn't have enough time to do it properly. But I'm an athlete and I like to step up. And then I keep getting these signals. So now, it's about 'Dude, you call yourself a man of faith, where's your faith?' And so I believe we're going to have success. I'm counting on it."
The man is nothing if not optimistic and you've got to give it to him, success or not. And the help of friends and supporters has fed his soul and given him strength, he says. For the lineup he gives credit to blues photographer Donald Johnson, who gave him leads on who put on a great show.
The complete lineup for Saturday has Walker, the astonishingly versatile blues, jazz and soul songstress Paula Harris, real deal Beale Street-schooled guitarist Memphis Gold & Friends, and Terrie Odabi, a soulful gem of a singer referred to as the "East Bay" Jill Scott.
Sunday has good ol' boy, country blues rockin' Bishop, modern Louisiana swamp-blues master Kenny Neal, American blues scene veteran and powerful harmonica player Curtis Salgado, the youthful blues infused Perry family trio Homemade Jamz Blues Band, and an opening set by Emmit Powell, a gospel media leading light with his seasoned ensemble The Gospel Elite. Having the gospel group is a nod to the tradition held by the MBBF, and Jackson is quick to acknowledge his debt to the MBBF for developing the blues tradition in Monterey to the level it did before its sad ending.
"I want people to know I am trying to honor the tradition the founders of MBBF started," Jackson said. "I'm not trying to say that I'm better, because I'm not. Any success that I have, I stand on their shoulders."
Joe Louis Walker is a true-blue bluesman, San Francisco style. Raised in the historical pre-gentrification Fillmore District, he witnessed the Afro-American community at its roughest, and grew up in the neighborhood where all the legends of blues and jazz came to play at long gone hangouts like Minnie's Can-Do Club.
And he was smack dab in the middle of the blossoming hippie era, playing guitar and hobnobbing at the Fillmore West with all the greats like Jimi Hendrix, Lightning Hopkins, Thelonious Monk, Michael Bloomfield, Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), Sly Stone, Carlos Santana, Steve Miller, Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane), and Wayne Shorter. Any and all genres came together at that time without barriers. And it was a good time, too good sometimes.
"Fillmore was like Harlem," Walker said in a phone interview from his home in upstate New York. "I got to see it how it used to be and then how it became. Pros and cons all up and down the line. There were all the guys that were an influence on me, not just Bloomfield (with whom he shared an apartment for many years). I had Charles Brown, who I played with when I was 16. I was the house guitar player at The Matrix where I backed all the greats like Magic Sam (as well as Fred McDowell, Albert King, Freddie King, and Robert Junior Lockwood.) Lightning Hopkins kicked me off the stage. That's what really helped me as a young guy, to formulate the idea of what the hell it was I was trying to do. One thing about those times, there on the West Coast, nobody knew the music would be like this. Nobody knew it was going to be big business. Nobody knew anything. Everyone lived from day to day having fun."
Through his gospel days and return to secular music, Walker forged a fiery guitar style that today he hopes will excite a younger audience enough to come out and support him and other blues artists. The Alligator Records artist made 23 recordings prior to his last two at the Chicago blues-focused label. His latest is "Hornet's Nest," a really great album that covers the gamut of styles he knows so well. He covers a Rolling Stones hidden gem "Ride On, Baby," a nod to his close relationship with the guys in that classic blues rock band that keeps on rockin', just like Walker will do at this weekend's inaugural Blues Brews and Barbecue at Monterey.
Tickets are $40 per day, sold through the Web page, www.bluesbrewsandbarbecue.com, sales going directly through Jackson, no fees. Day of festival tickets cost $45 at the gate. You can also call Jackson directly if you have questions at 510-421-9211.