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The Cleary Winner: Did we lie to you when we said Jon Cleary would be a highlight of the Blues Festival? No, no, we did not. We could never lie to you.

Hot and Bluesy

I hate to say we told you so, but we totally did. In our pre-Santa Cruz Blues Festival coverage, we highlighted Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen and the Holmes Brothers with feature stories, and lo and behold, they were the highlights of the festival.

Oh sure, Buddy Guy put on what any blues publicist would call an "electrifying" performance, pulling a Dick Dale on us when he took off into the crowd during an extended guitar solo, his wireless hookups keeping him connected to the gigantic stacks of speakers spewing out his dirty work on the guitar. Also impressive was the encore performance of Coco Montoya, Michael Burks and Tommy Castro wailing on their guitars all together like some sweaty blues version of a round robin. The Holmes Brothers' drummer Popsy Dixon even jumped into the mix with an adorable tambourine solo. And I should also admit that I missed Angela Strehli, Bernard Allison, Shemekia Copeland and Jonny Lang—my bad, but it was hot.

This year's blues festival was literally scorching. Usually the fog holds the sun at bay for at least an hour or so in the morning, but not so on either day of the festival this year. A sea of straw hats protected the experienced festival-goers from overexposure, but there was plenty of lily-white skin reddening in the sun. Of course one of the best parts of any festival is the people-watching possibilities. I like to try to discern some sort of aggregate character of a crowd, but given the sheer size of this one, it was extremely difficult to distill its entirety down to any one representative couple. It's as if some queer eye gathered together the largest assembly of fashion no-no's in a blazing hot park, got them drunk and then turned the sun on high. Hence, the representatives should both be carrying 20-ounce Budweiser's to stay "cool." The woman should be wearing a tight tank top exposing vast amounts of leathery sunburned cleavage, while the man should not be wearing a shirt at all, his bare belly bulging before him like a hairy, sunburned sail. He might also wear a mustache and sunglasses. Then multiply this couple by 1,500 and you have your festival.

No, to be fair there were plenty of people looking good and having fun during the festival, but none were quite as cute (in a cuddly grandfatherly way), nor sounded as good as the Holmes Brothers. I saw them first on Saturday night at Moe's Alley, rocking the joint to its knobby little knees with bluesy growls, some powerful work on the electric guitar and a jumpin' dirty duo holding down the rhythm on bass and drums. While they didn't work quite as well in the festival setting, their slower R&B tunes interspersed throughout the set were loved by the lovers in the house, sweet as honey they were. Their three-part harmonies are incredibly rich, especially when used to close up their festival set with a stirring version of "Amazing Grace."

Word is that Jon Cleary's performance on Friday night at Moe's was top notch, but I didn't catch him until he opened up the festival on Saturday morning. He had his work cut out for him—unlike the Holmes Brothers, who enjoyed a packed park when they kicked things off on Sunday morning, Cleary faced a half-empty park. But he and his Absolute Monster Gentlemen—who were in fact absolutely monsterously huge—managed to get the crowd excited about their blend of New Orleans blues, soul and funk, even though it would have been a huge hit later on in the day when everyone had their drink and groove on. But that's okay, because if my magic Arnie 8-ball is right—and it always is—he'll be back. Whether or not his nose will be bright red again is a different question, one which not even the Arnie oracle can answer.

Mike Connor

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From the June 2-9, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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