Once a year, the Doheny Blues Festival takes over a sparse open area just off the beach in Dana Point, California. For a full weekend, some of the best in blues congregate for sets lasting an hour or longer on three stages, attracting thousands of attendees each year and just as many lawn chairs. From the crowds of excited people and lanes of food, beverage and trinket vendors to the constant live music and welcoming community atmosphere, Doheny put together a memorable event for its 16th anniversary.
Part of the fun of attending a weekend-long blues festival is wrapped up in its atmosphere. Excited for the festivities to begin, ticketholders traditionally line up hours before the doors open at 11 a.m., jockeying for strategic positions and listening to the buzz around them as others hustle by and a few lucky musicians entertain the crowds. Once inside, people spread out their blankets and line up their chairs, eagerly securing locations that will best meet their viewing and listening needs. Booths snake around the stages on the grass as vendors work side by side to hand out business cards and sell merchandise, creating a maze of colorful offerings augmented by the ever-present blues chords vibrating from the speakers on the Sailor Jerry Stage, The Backporch, and the Doheny Main Stage.
In all its history, the Doheny artist lineup has never been something to shrug at, and the 2013 festival was no different. In recent years, the Doheny Blues Festival has attracted B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Jonny Lang, and many other legendary performers. This year, Doheny beckoned a total of 21 acts to its three stages. The festival kicked off on Saturday with performances by Lynwood Slim, Red Lotus Revue, Joanne Shaw Taylor, Jimmie Vaughan & the Tilt-A-Whirl Band featuring Lou Ann Barton, Harry Manx, J.D. McPherson, Tedeschi Trucks Band, a tribute to Little Walter by Mark Hummel and friends, James Hunter Six, a special “Blues & Brews” jam session, and a closing set by Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite. Sunday’s lineup was just as impressive: after Gino Matteo and Guitar Shorty started Day 2 with dueling sets on the Doheny Main Stage and The Backporch respectively, sets by Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Bums, Toast of the Coast, Nick Moss Band, Shemekia Copeland, Janiva Magness, and Robert Randolph and the Family Band followed. Sunday headliners Joe Bonamassa and George Thorogood & The Destroyers closed out the festival with back-to-back performances on the Doheny Main Stage.
Blues Rock Review got the opportunity to attend the festival’s opening day and enjoy performances by artists who have been soundtracking the lives of many blues fans for decades. In the early afternoon, Joanne Shaw Taylor spent an hour speedily plucking her guitar on the Sailor Jerry Stage as her drummer and bassist supported; not long after, modern rockabilly’s rising star J.D. McPherson took Taylor’s place onstage and wowed onlookers with his energy and vivid comprehension of the blues.
Halfway through Day 1, the Tedeschi Trucks Band walked onto the Doheny Main Stage. Two years after their first Doheny appearance, the band (formed when blues singer Susan Tedeschi and guitarist Derek Trucks combined their bands to make a blues super group of sorts) maintained a fluidity throughout their nearly two-hour set that can only be attributed to the years that Tedeschi and Trucks have now spent touring and recording together. In addition to playing tracks from the band’s 2011 debut Revelator, they also performed a song from Made Up Mind, their sophomore record expected out in August 2013. Throughout the band’s time onstage, Tedeschi’s vocals were as strong as those on her breakout 1998 album Just Won’t Burn; meanwhile, the always modest Trucks blistered through one solo after another, inspiring a nearby fan to rave about his talents as lead guitarist as soon as the set was over.
Closing Day 1 on the Doheny Main Stage was Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, two blues titans who earlier this year released their collaborative album Get Up!. While both Harper and Musselwhite hold expansive skill sets individually, it was their shared musical chemistry that came across the strongest during their evening set. While Harper sang lead and played guitar, Musselwhite worked interchangeably as both melody maker and backing instrumentalist with his harmonica. Though the duo’s instrumental weave looked complex from the outside, their teamwork onstage made it all sound flawless.
Each year, the Doheny Blues Festival pulls together a strong lineup that includes both established artists and musicians who are still making their mark on the blues world. While it can be difficult to arrange close-up views of the stages, proximity is not vital; with large screens streaming the main stage sets and speakers stationed throughout the festival area, there is always a blues artist to listen to, no matter where one goes on the grounds. Above all, it is the atmosphere of the event that makes Doheny a memorable experience: with excited fans eager to share their past or present festival experiences, the annual music-filled weekend is truly a celebration of the blues.
– Meghan Roos