The death of blues music great B.B. King just days before the arrival of the 18th edition of the Doheny Blues Festival meant that the annual celebration in Dana Point would likely find a number of performers offering fitting tributes to the King of the Blues.
That proved to be the case throughout the final day at the fest, with Sunday seeing just about every performer either acknowledging King or even covering a song in his honor.
Headliner Bonnie Raitt and her long-time band offered one of the day’s most heartfelt tributes during their outstanding headlining set on the Doheny Stage. Playing a two-song tribute, keyboardist Mike Finnigan recalled his participation in a King recording session two decades ago and how special that was before leading the ensemble through a high-powered “I’ve Got News For You.”
Then Raitt took over lead vocals on a song that both she and King have each featured in their live shows, the spirited Chicago blues rocker “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.” Raitt’s spicy lead vocals and slide work anchored the performance, but there was a swelling point where Finnigan and guitarist George Marinelli did a tandem solo section capturing the unspoken sentiment of the sadness of King’s departure mixed with the joy that he gave so much in his amazing career.
Raitt’s full 90-minute performance was a triumph, in part because of her enduring talents as a singer and slide guitarist, but also for her unique gifts as an artist to interpret great songs. I caught all or part of 19 sets over the two-day fest and few moments were as powerful as her tender renditions of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (penned by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin) and “Dimming of the Day” (a Richard Thompson song she dedicated to her late brother Steve).
There were two other Sunday sets that were as powerful, both playing out on the Sailor Jerry Stage. An early afternoon set by Otis Taylor was powerful from start to finish, highlighted by the explosive power of Taylor’s four-member band (featuring outstanding fiddler Anne Harris) and 12-year-old guest Brandon “Taz” Niederauer (who simply amazed everyone in the crowd). The young New York guitarist delivered artful, speedy and powerful rhythm and lead guitar work throughout the 65-minute set. Hypnotic versions of “Hey Joe,” “Red Meat” and the explosive “Rain So Hard” were among the songs where Taylor, “Taz” and the musicians thrilled a crowd packed in front of the stage.
Equally powerful was the return of brothers Dave and Phil Alvin (who last performed here with the Blasters’ original lineup in 2011), this time able to feature a batch of new songs thanks to the release of their 2014 collection “Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy.” Sure enough, the brothers performed a number of gems from that collection as well as the playful “What’s Up With Your Brother” (off Dave’s 2011 solo album “Eleven Eleven”) and the Blasters’ staple “Marie, Marie.”
Delivering solid sets that nevertheless didn’t rise to the level of the day’s best were blue-eyed soul soft-rocker Boz Scaggs (making his best showing with an energetic “Lido Shuffle”) and blues-rocker Beth Hart (displaying her strong soprano on “Might As Well Smile”).
Doheny Blues Festival is always a place where fans can catch a wide-ranging field of artists who cover the genre’s far corners. On Sunday, Chicago blues lovers got excellent turns from Big Jon Atkinson and the Nationals, and Lurrie Bell. Austin singer-guitarist Carolyn Wonderland performed her affecting Texas blues-rock brew on the Backporch Stage, while a little later the Rebirth Brass Band brought a New Orleans-styled party to the main Doheny Stage.
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