Annual blues fest hopes to strike a chord with music fans
By Lou Fancher
The Delta Blues Festival is a few "no's" -- no admission fees, alcohol, pets, sunburns or frowning -- and a bucketload of "yes."
Yes, the 17th annual event Saturday at Waldie Plaza in downtown Antioch offers magnificent musicians, fantastic food, family-friendly free parking and admission, cool crafts and a concrete cause. Proceeds from food sales and donations at the event support the San Joaquin Delta community. In memory of Antioch resident and festival founder David Williamson, a scholarship is awarded to an Antioch High School music student.
In fact, the gathering might seem like absolute paradise, if there wasn't one little problem: "If we raise a lot, we give a lot, but not many students apply for the scholarship, which is sad," says festival organizer Frank Giovanni, about the $500 to $2,000 amount available. "It's like anything: we're a Google world. If we're not on their radar, people don't look for us."
But Blues, Jazz, R&B, country and other music lovers have tuned into the festival big time.
Giovanni grew up in the area and says the term, "go over the hill" meant people had to go to Concord, Oakland, Berkeley or San Francisco to find top-tier music performances. "It's still sort of that way," he says, "but that doesn't mean people here don't have a thirst for music. Our festival is packed, every year."
Although Giovanni doesn't track the exact numbers, the festival's strong attendance figures are likely related to the lineup and headliners like this year's British import, guitarist Matt Schofield. Rated one of the UK's top 10 blues guitarists of all time by Guitar & Bass Magazine (alongside Eric Clapton and Peter Green), Giovanni says a simple email sparked Schofield's United States tour.
"We motivated the tour. We started him coming from the UK. His group then lined up other gigs. I wanted him because he's a phenomenal player at the top of his game."
Audiences are in for a second treat with a complete knockout of Bay Area female Blues artists performing in a late afternoon showcase. The high-caliber roster includes Terrie Odabi (her bluesy, soulful voice and her band will make you think you've died and gone to heaven), Nancy Wright (spectacular saxophonist), Kathy Tejcka (thank goodness for vocalist/keyboardists who un-retire), Gigi Amos (smokin' guitarist/singer), Ruth Davies (extraordinary bassist with a special skill for inspiring young, upcoming artists) and Daria Johnson (bold, dynamic blues drummer with funk/ rock underpinnings).
Given the choice to present only one of the women in a solo concert or pool their talents into one show, Giovanni says a showcase format best serves the artists. He is hoping it will knock down a traditional barrier.
"Believe it or not, blues are still dominated in this millennium by males. These women just kill it. By putting them together, people get a chance to experience them and then follow them in the future."
The festival stretches in a variety of directions resulting from the blues genre's diversity and more critically, from corporate sponsors and volunteers, Giovanni says. "Bedford Electric has really come through.
"They've been a small sponsor and jumped on board. Kathy Gronackie from Home Street Bank has helped monetarily also. Without cash, without the sponsors, we can't put it on." Fourteen volunteers who have worked with Giovanni for 12 years "don't make a dime and even use pocket money to help out," he says.
Shirley McCoy, 18, was able to participate for only a handful of those years before moving to Chico to attend Butte Community College. Even so, the experience was a dream-builder. "I was basically like a promoter," she says. "Frank would give me the posters and fliers to distribute. I helped to spread the word about the fest."
As a blues and classic rock lover who attended the festival with her family even before joining as a volunteer, McCoy plans to complete a degree in business administration and eventually open and own a "music venue/bar/restaurant." Music, she says, will always be a part of her life.
The remainder of the festival lineup features harp player Aki Kumar -- ("It's a voice. It's smooth, raw, raunchy.
It goes places you wouldn't expect," Giovanni says, of Kumar's signature sound); the infinitely danceable rhythms of the Tri Tip Trio; the solid Allen Vega Band; and the smooth Southern blues of guitarist/vocalist Clarence Van Hook.