The essence of blues is rooted in sadness, so, while the concept of a "Sunshine" Blues Festival is a novel one, it is only appropriate that the day was spent beneath the cover of clouds and random torrents of rain.
Despite the crying skies, plenty of South Floridian blues fans donned their slickers and came out to Boca Raton's Mizner Park Amphitheater to enjoy a day packed to the gills with some of the genre's heaviest hitters.
The festival featured two stages of music that alternated the burden of the blues from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. -- a proper marathon for veterans of the festival scene. Those that made it out early were treated to burning performances without the crowds that can sometimes make a festival a bit unpleasant.
The highlight sets of the festival started early with the slide guitar pride of Louisiana, Sonny Landreth. Landreth led his trio through a set of searing blues that showcased his mind-bogglingly technical bottleneck playing. His playing was no-doubt impressive to the layman, being equally fluid as it was soulful, but to the guitarists in attendance, Landreth's ability to fret fragments of chords behind his slide with his incredible speed and accuracy was simply inspirational. Most importantly, the display of guitar wizardry was far more than a showy set of parlor tricks and musical athletics. The zydeco flavor that hedges his songs made for a satisfying listen for just about anyone with a taste for blues bred in the bayou. A few stood close to the stage and danced in the rain to songs like "Blue Tarp Blues," completely entrenched in the sounds.
Walter Trout was the next performer to hit the main stage. Trout was formerly a bonafide, "boogie-chillun" member of the late John Lee Hooker's band. However, contrary to the stylistic tendencies of his former boss, Trout's set displayed a man ablaze with a case of pentatonic guitar fury, in addition to a healthy of dose of humor.
Trout shook his legs jokingly between releasing bouts of Texas-flavored blues shred from a laser-sharp sounding Fender Strat, dedicated "Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous" to Lance Armstrong, and even pulled out a hilariously mumble-some Hooker impression. The rain let-up a bit as Trout had a two-way monologue on his guitar between "his girl" (the upper register notes) and himself, that ended with a mouthed "fuck off" that mocked the sound of the guitar.
Over on the secondary stage, British guitarist Matt Schofield treated the crowd to his band's brand of sophisticated guitar tunes. Schofield has been the feature of many guitar mags in the past few years. And for fans of the Ford/Carlton school of laid-back blues with a jazzy twist, the man is considered the absolute next in line to the throne.
Scholfield did not disappoint with his exceptionally Boca Raton approved take on the genre, locking into deep grooves with his trio, and playing with only the prettiest of tones, courtesy of his Two-Rock amplifiers and custom made Stratocasters. There is a subtlety to what Schofield does that might have been lost a bit in the muddy field, lined with BBQ carts and filled with a crowd that was starting to hit the inebriation mark. But the guitarist and his band seemed to be enjoying their playing so deeply, that it might just be our imagination.
As Schofield soothed mud-caked feet into dancing across the way, the main stage was being primped and prepped to host a living legend: Mac Rebennack, Jr -- Dr. John (the Night Tripper) for most. A purple cloth was laid across the top of a piano, a human skull then laid atop that, and the band took their places.
As a showband style intro played, the Gris Gris man himself waltzed across the stage looking like the unholy love-child of a pimp and a voodoo apparition, supporting himself with his ever-present and artfully adorned walking stick. He sat at a keyboard and gave the audience one of his telling smiles before hitting the groove from the title track of 2012's Dan Auerbach produced Locked Down.
The band was on-point, though the early half of the set could have benefited from a bit more volume. Rebennack sat and plotted each twinkle of the piano, every riff of the Rhodes, and every lyric he chose to conjure. Rarely did the man sing so much as channel something from another dimension -- or at least another time. The set was largely built from tracks off of Locked Down, which disappointed few considering the albums popularity, and also when considering that it might be the best Dr. John album since the early Night Tripper-era stuff.
Toward the end of the unfortunately shorter set, Dr. John moved slowly across the stage, picked up a guitar and played some bluesy leads on "Getaway," and also led his impeccably well oiled band through "Let the Good Times Roll," reminding everyone that he was an axe-man before a small arms incident placed him at the piano bench. While the tracks from the Starbucks-sold Locked Down were all well-received, the top reaction of the set came from "Right Place, Wrong Time." Dr. John left as he had entered, a mystic vision in maroon and pinstripes drifting into the night to the groove his band provided.
The night was closed out by the massive roots band conglomerate that formed out of the marriage of slide guitar wunderkind Derek Trucks and blues-howling soulstress Susan Tedeschi. The rain had left us for good finally and the crowd had bloomed to enjoy the end of the show.
The band is compiled out of Tedeschi and Truck's former touring groups and included two drummers, an organist that doubled on jazz-flute, a full horn section, two back-up singers (with enough talent of their own to lead the band themselves), a bass player, and of course Derek and Susan out front.
To say the sound they made was immense would be a gross understatement. This is a band that puts most other live acts playing in 2013 to absolute shame. Despite the large number of people on stage, everything was done as a unit, every song was dynamic, and though every member of the band was given an opportunity to step-out and embellish a bit, things never escaped too far away from the song itself.
Highlights of the band's extended set included a cover of George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity" -- which proved an perfect platform for Truck's vocal sounding slide playing -- "Bound For Glory," an absolute romp through "Rollin' and Tumblin,'" and even a new track that the group was performing live for the first time.
The most remarkable thing about the performance -- more than the unbelievably locked-in dual drum assault provided by J.J Johnson and Tyler Greenwell, or band's ability to function as one, or even the sheer virtuosic abilities of Trucks' guitar or Tedeschi's voice -- was seeing a couple that visibly feeds off of their love for one another perform. The set was more than just songs being run-down by a big band. It was a series of time-stopping moments strung together to make for a closer that was in a league of its own.
Though the duo certainly made great music separately, there was a tangible love displayed on Saturday night that the entire band fed off of, and though the blues the band bases their music on is a sad affair, the vibe on Saturday night was undeniably one of joy.
Personal Bias: Major fan of the slide guitar. Despise elevator blues.
Overheard: "Man, they were tighter than an ugly 3rd grader!"
- Audience member after Sonny Landreth's band exited the stage.
Random Detail: The organist in Walter Trout's band reminded us of a muppet.
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