Words + Photos by Tom Dellinger

Memorial Day weekend saw the annual blues festival make a change not only in name, but also in its musical direction. Formerly called the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, it is now known as the Santa Cruz American Music Festival which, on Saturday, saw what you might have seen in years past: a steady stream of artists based in blues and funk. On Sunday, however, they made a clear departure from the past by including some contemporary country artists in the mix, bringing former American Idol contestant Kellie Pickler and the high energy, genre bending Big and Rich.

Saturday got rolling in high stepping fashion as New Orleans based Big Sam’s Funky Nation took the stage with a set that featured classic funk sounds served up New Orleans style. A lot of energy mixed with hard driving horns and a slamming rhythm section.

Though early in the lineup, the second set was one of the most memorable for many as Ana Popovic returned for the second consecutive year with a set that had many praising her performance. Ana has been a steady performer for some time, but in the past year she’s shared the stage with many of the established guitar playing elite which no doubt has helped her to hone her art and craft. In watching and listening one could feel her depth and her drive to coax all she had within through her guitar. Backed by a superb rhythm section, it was a nuanced and memorable performance.

As if that weren’t enough, the following set with perennial favorite, Coco Montoya was another high point for the day. Coco and his band delivered a classic and solid set that could easily have stood on its own, but they were also joined by local favorite Chris Cain and Marcia Ball guitarist, Mike Schermer about midway through which elevated the performance even more. And in this case, the sum was considerably more than its parts. Not only are all these players excellent technically, they also bring a passion that is easily and quickly shared with the crowd as it became as much a celebration as it was a performance.

As the day moved into the mid afternoon and beyond, there would be no letting up as JJ Grey and Mofro brought their soul and blues based rock to keep things moving along. Closing out the day was legendary Bonnie Raitt who delivered a clean, tasty set that covered all her hits to an appreciative crowd.

One never knows what they’ll discover at a festival and Sunday’s opener, Drake White, was one of those finds. Based in Nashville, Drake’s songwriting and winning personality made him a quick hit with the audience as he and his band peeled out his catalog as well as a couple of well known covers. Following his set was singer and songwriter Ryan Bingham, known for many of the songs he wrote for Jeff Bridges’ movie, Crazy Heart.

With the two opening sets established with artists best described as Americana or a Country Roots style, the day picked up a head of steam as blues based rockers, Los Lonely Boys heated things up as the afternoon got underway. Always a crowd pleaser, they did not disappoint as they left the crowd screaming for more.

To close things out for the weekend, things now moved solidly into country music as Kelli Pickler took over and played a traditional set with songs of family and the common issues of daily living we all know so well. Topping off the festival, Big and Rich delivered what could easily be considered a perfect closing set. Though they are considered to be a solid country act, they are actually quite a bit more as they also employ DJ beats, hip hop, straight up rock and roll and more into their performances. Opening with a solo DJ (DJ Sinister) on the stage working his laptop and other electronic devices, one would wonder about how could this work with country music. But, he’s a very engaging performer, quickly has the audience with him for the ride and as Big Kenny and John Rich hit the stage, the game is on. Add into this mix hip hop stylings with Cowboy Troy and you’ve got a lot of energy exploding onstage. Their performance was non stop over the top fun and everyone in the crowd was feeling it.

It was a weekend that mixed a little bit of the past with a glimpse of what may lie in the future for this festival. It was a bold move to take a step in a new direction after so many years, but if the performances witnessed this weekend are any indication, one would have to conclude the future should remain bright.


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