There are things that should never change. One of them is Hondarribia Blues Festival that takes place in the beautiful natural environment of Hondarribia village. Those people like me who have been there regularly, will immediately sign to ask it always remains as it has been so far, due to the excellent organization, the easy going facilities to enjoy and do our work at the same time, the warm reception, good vibrations, friendship and, of course, the excellent blues line-up can be enjoyed in this magnificent Festival. So every year we cannot miss our appointment with Hondarribia Blues Festival because we know beforehand we will not be disappointed and, although some artists can appeal us more than others, the Festival will satisfy our expectations. This year’s edition has assembled a varied roster of artists, all them showing an outstanding commitment and a very high level. After a crowded Steven Seagal’s press conference which was entirely monopolized by some people who did not give other people the opportunity to ask any question, Festival opened with three completely different artists who were a perfect introduction for such a great blues event.
NIA MOORE KING & THE BLUEBIRDS is a reliable local duo that covers a broad range of black music styles. Elegant, well teamed they do a restrained show to satisfy a wide audience. Little by little, they warm up and gradually catch the audience too, finishing with an excellent version of “Lady Madonna” by Paul Mccartney.
Winners of the European Blues Challenge 2014 held last March in Riga, where they competed with 17 other bands each representing an European country, that has led them to participate in many of the most important European festivals, A CONTRA BLUES have already become one of the great Spanish blues bands. Besides a powerful well teamed band, they also have a special skill to turn blues inside out and make it something personal and different, without losing the blues conception and spirit. A greasy rhythm section with Nuria Perich on drums and Joan Vigo on bass and double bass, give the excellent support to the guitars of Alberto Calvillo and Hector Martin, two players gifted with a completely different technique but that perfectly match. The powerful voice of Jonathan Herrero becomes evident in each song, together with a good stage presence and communication. In Hondarribia they impressed the crowd with some of his classic songs like “Crossroads”, “44 Blues” (Willie Dixon), “Hiding”, “Come on in My Kitchen” (Robert Johnson) or “Brand New Car,” to finish with a terrific version of “Georgia On My Mind”, where Jonathan showed his amazing voice singing a capella with no microphone.
What STEVEN SEAGAL could do on stage was a mystery for me. The true thing is he is not an exceptional musician but Steven and his group did a more than correct set. Backed by a professional band, with the outstanding work of the second guitar player, as well as organ in some cuts and the special support of a second female backing voice, Steven did a repertoire based on rockin’ blues and boogie blues, all spiced with some drops of Americana, ending, as it could not be otherwise, with the legendary “Dust My Broom”. As a guitar player he showed a good knowledge of the instrument His voice was not so good, especially compared with the terrific one of Jonathan Herrero (A Contra Blues) we had just heard. He also was not a very bright communicator with the audience, but he was the exotic note of the festival. In general, he satisfied people who crowded Benta stage. We should also recognize him his interest to play blues because, although he could have chosen another and perhaps more popular music to satisfy big audiences, he has decided to play blues and give it to varied audiences which may go to see him attracted by his name as a Hollywood star and then discover or get a little bit more familiar with the blues.
Another local group that got people sympathy was TESTAPAZZA, in both shows at Benta stage (with a small rain which was not enough to stop the show) and Blues Village stage (let me point here the excellence of Basque gastronomy but also mention that the popular barbeque and paella on Saturday and Sunday at noon at Blues Village were excellent too). The Testapazza came from Barcelona and the true thing is these four young musicians sound refreshing and unpretentious. Their music is substantially based in country blues, but they also add some standards like “Kind Hearted Woman” or “Can’t Be satisfied” (good slide work). Despite his apparent simplicity, they delight us with a varied good chosen repertoire. My congratulations to this young four musician band, which has a bright future ahead.
Another local band that exceeded my expectations was THE BLUES MORNING SINGERS.
I did not know much about them as they usually play in their area not travelling so much all over Spain. They did an accomplished performing in both sets showing they know different blues styles, on a varied repertoire with some easily recognizable blues like “My Babe” or “Got My Mojo Working”, which are always pleasant for big audiences to listen and enjoy them, because they almost know these songs by heart.
In my opinion JIMMY BARNATAN was better in his first show at Benta stage than in the second one at Blues Village. Jimmy is a musician people immediately likes because he gives everything on stage, sings, dances, moves, waves hands, deeply lives the songs he performs… which makes him to connect with the audience who greatly appreciate his passionate energy. He is also a good singer gifted with a powerful voice. His first set was more vibrant and bluesy than the second one. At Benta stage he played some boogie blues, swamp blues and rockin’ blues, which did not let us take a breath, full of energy and a wild swingin’ music to dance all night long. After his electrifying first show, the second one at Blues Village was more relaxed, including an eclectic repertoire that did not catch me as he did in the first one. He really has a great voice and much feeling and he is backed bu a very professional band THE COCOONERS, who do a good work. The rhythm section always gives the excellent support to the powerful guitar solos. In my opinion it was not necessary to include an harmonica player who did not help to enhance the sound of the band.
GOV’ THE MULE were a last minute change on festival line-up as Canned Heat cancelled part of his tour. I was quite disappointed because, although i had already seen them on several occasions, I really wanted to listed to them again and dance one more time with the hypnotic boogie blues and those mythical songs that made me love the blues like “On The Road Again” or “Goin’ to the Country”. Gov’ The Mule came to Hondarribia as a genuine super-group led by Warren Hayes (Allman Brothers) on guitar and vocals, together with renowned musicians of hard rock blues scene. Although the quality of the whole band is undeniable, especially the amazing voice and the strong guitar work of Warren, their show did not give any special feeling to me. Besides the absence of complicity with the people, their repertoire was perfect for a hard-rock show but not for a blues festival itself (they only included a blues at the encores). In my opinion they should have included some more blues in their repertoire. I had the same feeling that normally happens to me when I go to power blues shows: after a couple of songs I have seen everything, music does not move me anymore and musicians do no surprise me like did those guitar players like Buddy Guy, Son Seals, Freddie King, Luther Allison, or even Albert Collins. Anyway, general audience appreciated the professional performing of the whole band and the outstanding voice of Warren Hayes.
I recognize in PABLO CARBONELL a tremendous daringness and aucdacity to go on stage and fill out more than one hour with old cliché humor and several songs with easy chorus and lyrics including humoristic gags (“Mi Agüiita Amarilla”, “Sevillanas Globales”). I do not know him but people who know him said to me he is like he appears on stage, you accept him as he is or you leave him but you can’t ask him to change his personality. Thanks to television he has become very popular, so his name attracted an audience ready to laugh with this mediatical clown. I felt quite disappointed because neither his repertoire, nor his attitude and staging fits in the global vision of such an excellent music festival as Hondarribia. But, although some people left the place, many others laughed and enjoyed it, so I will forgive and forget this strange show.
In spite of its undeniable quality TAJ MAJAL has never been one of my favorites bluesmen. Since that time back in the early 70’s, when he lived in a hippie community of La Floresta near Barcelona and where, as people say, he taught how to play blues to local guitar player Toti Soler, his forays in African music and the fusion of rhythms and other eclectic styles he has often played, did not interest me so much. For years Majal has devoted himself to investigate into the roots of black traditional music and his music is often a mixture of many different cultures. However I must admit this time I enjoyed him more than I was expecting. He has been this year artist honored with Blues Hondarribia 2014 Award, which recognizes a long life blues music career. Only backed by a bass player and a drummer, he gave us a restrained solid show, filled with a wrapping blues that created a very calm atmosphere that caught me with a strange magic. He showed good vocal qualities, a tasteful performing both on guitar and banjo, with some smalls winks to Celtic and African rhythms, but basically he played deep country rural blues and even he came for some minutes into zydeco music. In short works, a pleasant performing full of good qualitative moments that call my attention in many different aspects.
Although I saw LAZY LESTER quite a long time ago with Jerry McCain at La Boite in Barcelona, I was really looking forward to enjoy again this Louisiana swamp blues living legend, which probably I will not have many more opportunities to see him on stage (he is now 81 years old). Lazy Lester was backed by Madrid coming band KING BEE (they are specialists in backing completely different international bluesmen), so they gave the perfect support to enhance the music of this legendary swamp bluesman. In spite of his old age and the lack of vision, Lester eagerly wanted to please the audience and gradually felt more comfortable (especially in his show at Blues Village). He stood during the whole shows, singing and playing both guitar and harmonica. Although he has lost some of his vocal power, I really loved songs like “Scratch My Bag”, “Waiting For My Ya Ya”, “Big Boss Man”, “Bright Lights Big City” or the popular ballad “Raining In My Heart” (Slim Harpo). I was also impressed by the respectful admiration such great musicians like Mike Morgan and Shawn Pittman listened to him from the backstage. Finally both came up on stage to respectfully share a couple of songs with the venerable bluesman.
I have left for the end which was this year’s Festival main attraction, TEXAS CROSSROADS, which brought together HOLLAND K. SMITH, MEMO GONZALEZ, MIKE MORGAN and SHAWN PITTMAN, perfectly backed by THE OZDEMIRS with ERKAN OZDEMIR on bass and his sons KENAN OZDEMIR, guitar and LEVENT OZDEMIR drums, who became “father, son and holy spirit” in each and every one of the sessions that, both together or alone as lead artists, gave us these four “monsters” of Texas blues. In every show The Ozdemirs built a perfect rhythm section, showing their excellent qualities, good technique and blues knowledge, without disturbing the stars work. Besides, they have also coordinated the crowded pedagogical show in Sunday noon. My respect and admiration to The Ozdemirs for the great work they did in all shows, and also for their sympathy and kindness.
I could not stand out one of these four aces over the other ones. Perhaps as he was the most unknown to me and also for his sympathy and kindness, I would choose HOLLAND K. SMITH, who in every show he played showed an overflowing energy and an amazing stage presence with impressive versions of “Keep On Knockin'”, “Take me to the River”, “Evil”, “Stagger Lee” or the famous song he wrote for George Thorogood “Rock Party”, but… how we can forget the elegance but, at the same time, terrific punch of MIKE MORGAN!!, who in one of his sets played one of my favorite songs “Okie Dokie Stomp”, and completely moved us with “Frankie’s Blues” or the impressive slow blues in memory of harmonica player, singer and band mate Lee McBee who had just passed away. MEMO GONZÁLEZ caught the audience with his immediate communication, eager to please all of us. Gifted with and excellent voice, he danced and moved his more than 100 kilos and also delighted us with his harmonica playing, full of passion and enthusiasm. He even started one of their shows with The Beatles’ song “Come Together”, but mainly his appearances included the most festive Texas blues (“Sweet Little Thing” or “Louisiana Lover Man” by Lowel Fulson) with a few drops of Mexican border blues. After playing in Hondarribia in 2011 SHAWN PITTMAN came back after some time retired from music. He went from least to most, increasing his feeling as days were passing by and he finally reached the top of the Texas blues Olympus. Shawn always makes easy what is difficult. It seems that playing guitar is a natural thing for him and he does it with no effort and a polished technique His solos come deep into your soul like in the heartbreaking impressive slow blues “Smell Trouble” or the amazing shuffle “I Call Them What I See Them”. After seeing these four stars playing all together or separately, the true thing is I could not highlight one over the others… I would take all them home to play there hours and hours!!!…
To end the Festival nothing better than a true “Texas fiesta”, a TEXAS PARTY REUNION. For more than two hours we could enjoy once again with HOLLAND, MEMO, MIKE and SHAWN AND THE OZDEMIRS, all giving free rein to the best blues they deeply feel, driving us to a small Texas club, on a joyful party we would wish it never ends. But good things come quickly to end, so we left the Festival looking forward to the new surprises that Festival staff with Carlos Malles, will surely give us next year.
In short words, an excellent festival, which every year allows us to enjoy unforgettable blues moments, with a friendly and familiar atmosphere I hope never changes. Let’s hope Hondarribia Blues Festival keeps faithful to the spirit that along these years has made it become such a great festival.
Roser Blues (text & photos)