“I Heard That”: S.F. Blues Festival; Biscuits and Blues

by Rochelle Metcalfe on March 4, 2009

ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END – IF ONLY TEMPORARILY! Shocking news when THOMAS MAZZOLINI, founder/Producer San Francisco BLUES FESTIVAL, announced that this year’s anticipated event has been CANCELED!!!

The festival has been Mazzolini’s passion to preserve and present the music. According to Tom, as he’s affectionately called, attendance had been going down the past few years due to rising costs, and low turnout. I would opt to say competition from the Reno Blues Festival held in August, part of the problem, that also threaten the long running Monterey Blues Festival as well! The news heard clear across the country had to be a blow to Blues musicians who draw a sizable check from festival appearances, compared to club engagements!

Started in 1973, SFBF was the oldest and longest running festival in the country, drew thousands to the City. Many of the performers at the early concerts were the pioneers and originators of the WEST COAST BLUES sound!

E-mailed Tom to ask “WHAT’S NEXT???” He responded “I don’t really know. I’m sure something will evolve. I have felt all along the festival was a little jewel for everyone to appreciate because it reflected so much of the blues legacy. However, It was so often overlooked and neglected in this decade by the public and the media. Some things need nourishing or they will die. I always respected the real blues and its origin, but in a world like ours today that concept seems not to resonate anymore then we lose something of ourselves.”

One would ask if Mazzolini lost sight of his original focus. Perhaps failure to check out festivals in Memphis, and other happenings to discover NEW talent who carry the TORCH TO KEEP BLUES ALIVE! Locally, RONNIE and PAULA STEWART, Blues producer/promoters of the HAYWARD -RUSSELL CITY BLUES Festival – 2008 celebrated its 8th year . The couple book warriors of the BLUES, some still traveling the CHITLIN’ CIRCUIT, that include: Pinetop Perkins, Billy “Big Daddy” Cade – a B.B. King clone, out of Las Vegas, born and raised in Chicago, and Mississippi wailer Johnny Rawls.

My experience with Mazzolini go back to early 70s when producing at San Francisco State EXTENSION on Laguna Street in the small auditorium (my young son and I stood backstage; memory fade as to who were the performers). Caught the Blues fever when Mazzolini moved to Golden Gate Park (Sharon Meadows), FREE, eventually ended up at FORT MASON National Park. Introduced to great traditional Blues artist that I’d never heard of, from the backwoods of the south and beyond, THRILLED to have a greater appreciation for the music beyond B. B. KING, BOBBY “BLUE” BLAND and others.

LAST attendance, September 2006, when dear friend, the late RUTH BROWN appeared (she passed several months later in Las Vegas). Sassy Ms. Brown was my IDOL during teenage days, enamored over her big 50s hit “MAMA, HE TREATS YOUR DAUGHTER MEAN!” and other hits on Atlantic Records. Our brief friendship began when I attended CHARLES BROWN’S funeral in L.A. Wonderful memories of our last meeting when greeting her, invited to join her backstage. Musician Bobbie Webb captured a marvelous picture of us! LITTLE RICHARD HEADLINED AS WELL … GREAT FEST!

During the many years covering SFBF, loved backstage and on stage action taking pictures (you knew I was there)! Tom would quietly get agitated with me, send BIG MAN to ask me to move (later years THEY DIDN’T BOTHER ME!). Met a lot of personalities that included Big MAMA THORNTON (1979) and JOHN LEE HOOKER (1980) – both just out of the country, Mama remembered as a big buxom woman, frail. John went on to take the Bay Area and beyond by storm! At that time Tom traveled to fertile Delta, Bayou and other areas to seek out unique players of traditional blues, booked on his stage! Always felt he needed to book more local musicians.

SUGAR PIE DeSANTO, dynamite Blues singer, REFINED SUGAR, recognized as QUEEN OF WEST COAST BLUES, AND “THE QUEEN OF SAN FRANCISCO BLUES” recorded the hit, entitled “HELLO, SAN FRANCISCO!” Raised and resided in San Francisco, but not considered local, well traveled on the performing stage that included Europe. The lady has performed several years on the SFBF stage, last year both she and JIMMY McCRACKLIN were billed – Jimmy one of the first artist signed in 1973; Sugar in 1974!

Sugar and I go way back (covered her Wedding – WHAT A BEAUTIFUL BRIDE!). Just before deadline FINALLY caught up with the Lady to get her take on the cancellation of the Festival. ALWAYS OUTSPOKEN “If he (Tom) would STOP getting so many artists from out of town, he could still put on a festival! PUSH local artists, give them a chance – THERE’S NO RESPECT! GIVE THEM THEIR PROPS!” The lady is correct! She named guitarist/vocalist ALVON JOHNSON (who is TOP in his playing game, a crowd pleaser!). Sugar also expressed YOSHI’s could do more to BOOK local musicians (TRUE). Sugar, winner of the “Pioneer Award” in September 2008, also performed for ARETHA FRANKLIN’S Christmas party in Chicago. Aretha loved her!

Mazzolini’s decision economically disheartening for musicians who make a sizable income from Festivals, compared to club engagements. After doing something so long, sometimes one need to step back and REEVALUATE. Tom, take the year off – BOTTOM LINE – BRING BACK THE JEWEL – KEEP THE BLUES ALIVE!!!

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE HANGING WITH THE BLUES! My visit SURPRISED STEVEN SUEN, owner popular BISCUITS AND BLUES, the ONLY PURE and consistent blues nightclub in the City and BAY AREA! We talked about SFBF, shared the loss he felt and the City by Mazzolini’s decision to cancel, understandably hard times, BUT a tourist attraction that helped his club (and other businesses) at Mason at Geary, few blocks up from Union Square.

Saturday night was an EXTRA TREAT on stage – IN DA HOUSE – LEGENDARY BOOGIE WOOGIE piano player ERNIE LANE, Special guest of SOUL PUMPING R&B singer extraordinaire EARL THOMAS and the Kings of Rhythm Band. It was announced Lane (featured in Robert Nighthawk’s band) the ORIGINAL member of Kings of Rhythms, formed in 1951 by IKE TURNER. Thomas group carry the spirit of Turner’s original group.

Finished my fried chicken drumsticks just in time to snap my fingers, move MY FEETS (SMILE), shuffled in place to Lane’s thumping piano style!!! “BIG STUFF RIGHT THERE ON STAGE”!!! Grooved to Lane and Band’s (5 pieces) version of Cannonball’s “Mercy, Mercy” with a FUNKY FLAVOR – fitted my mood! Lane offered a bluesy vocal from his CD “Lil GIRL, Lil’ GIRL,” that begged the question “What’s wrong with you?”

Last Saturday night in the month belong to STAR EARL THOMAS who leaped on stage – tall, agile, thin, asked the packed house, in strong voice, “Are you ready to have a good time?” Hell yea! AND off on the R&B train that gave me a different FLAVOR of Thomas with his FULL entourage of swinging sidemen (First time heard him opening for Joe Louis Walker accompanied by two musicians). TERRIFIC BAND – SAX MAN BAAAD!!! Delved in cuts like “Elijah Rock,” SOUL PUMPING like Tina Turner doing “Proud Mary,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and Earl announced GOOD NEWS for his fans, finally his new album completed, copies sold that evening!

There are NO strangers in B&B – where friends are made, if only for the moment, such was with the happy DOHRING couple – GREGG ‘The Laser Doctor” and ANETTE SMITH-DOHRING – both professionals in town for the weekend to let their hair down, relax from the quiet community of Elk Grove. They were delightful – the Laser Doc’s laugh was something else!
Prior to B&B , stopped in what has to be THE HOT SPOT on Geary, around the corner from B&B, COLIBRI Mexican Bistro – UPSCALE! SPICY FOOD! LOOK FOR ME AGAIN!!!

ONE MORE ONCE FOR THE BLUES – FILLMORE at BRUNO’S where the BLUES IS HOT – MAMA MIA – Bruno’s Italian Restaurant, newly opened about two months ago across from Yoshi’s, my kinda place to sit, sip a glass of champagne, listen to PIPED BLUES – volume decent, SOUNDS you’d expect to hear in a night club! On a recent Saturday around lunchtime, when stepping out of my car across the street, LURED by the funky rhythms drifting from an outdoor speaker!

Bruno’s has picked up the FLAVOR of the JAZZ district – Jazz and Blues musician photos and instruments adorn cool decor walls, music penetrating. Sat down to have a plate of spaghetti and meatballs (delicious!) and a COKE, while enjoying finger-poppin’ BLUES!

E-mail Rochelle at iheard@earthlink.net

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