The stage was set in the public lawn of Aptos Village Park, a creek supporting the natural curve of an amphitheater.  It was a good-easy hike to get down, through a shaded green canopy, only adding to the experience.  Dragon flies surfed the crowd, while cypress, eucalyptus, and magnolia trees held in the natural acoustics.

This festival-of-best-of-all, Santa Cruz American Music Festival, held Memorial Day weekend in Aptos, California, was the one to kick off the summer.  It was only a few years back, the name changed from ‘Blues’ to ‘American’ Music Festival.  Perhaps ‘Blues’ is taken too literal in California?!  Any Chicagoan will claim, it’s the genre of music that started it all.  Right, nobody is looking to be blue these days, the world has enough of that.  Positivity enhances every Californian’s smile.  Music takes them where they NEED to go.  The Blues has its time and place; And it is NOW.

Santa Cruz gets it.  The founding members know true music and raw talent, sharing their love in the form of a music festival.  This festival has been around for 25 years!  They’ve brought in such names as Ray Charles, Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker, Joe Cocker, Etta James, BB King, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Rait, Doobie Brothers, Los Lonely Boys, Big & Rich, Johnny Lang, and even Gregg Allman.  Just to name a few.

This Memorial Day weekend was all about being American in California.  I am an All-American girl, at times during the weekend confused with the festival logo girl.  I’ve traveled the states many times over and have deep appreciation for what each region of the country offers – always unique and beautiful and worthy of my time.  Yet American history is something I learn best through music – I never was a reader, especially History.  The Santa Cruz American Music Festival provided tons of opportunity to learn this country’s deep roots, lessons on what it means to be American.

Santa Cruz’s American Music Festival includes a style of alternative folk country blues jazz rock & roll soul mix has been coined different names:  ”killbilly”, “mud-country”, “banjo punk”, Americana, mid-century rock & roll, upscale hodag (that one’s mine).  Whatever you wish to call it, don’t call it uneducated.  It most certainly requires a historical deep dive.

When people start talking “ROOTS”, what does that actually mean?  How far back can those of us living in the twenty-first century trace?  The festival artists I was fortunate enough to speak with, share a love for music that goes beyond history.  They went on a musical mission to find music’s soul.  They wound up at the beginning.  And in that search they connected to the music.

This festival is for those who’ve a true LOVE and passion for music; it’s a different kind of appreciation for music.  Blues/Roots fans are different.

Festival fan, Mark Cunningham of San Francisco, tried to place the genre of music, “I heard most acts and would say the genre was: I dunno.  [Mavis] Staples played a wide selection including ‘Talking Heads’.  [Melissa] Etheridge did the Memphis review.  You tell me!  I guess its Americana…”

The artists who shared a stage tucked down between the most perfect surf waves and beautifully situated mountains, were some of the best that one will hear all year.

Not about technical corrections to make a perfect sound, roots artists are very different.  They keep real with history.  Real with the sound.  Keeping the vintage; embracing it.  They  explore the soul and experiment with styles of new, yet understand the progression..how it got to the point of then ‘til now.

We received word early Saturday of Gregg Allman’s passing.  It was an intense thought to realize, he touched everyone in presence on some level.  Music IS that powerful.  We all wanted to channel his spirit.

It was most definitely an American Festival.  It was all about brothers and sisters, pie, cowboys & hats, and Santa Cruz.

  • The Bondesson sisters of Baskery, do not claim to be  Americans, but they certainly are up to date on all things America.  Read “Baskery: Import Accepted” concert review here.
  • The Brothers Comatose have been chastised for not truly being Brothers, but they are.  Brothers Ben and Alex Morrison share blood.  The rest, they say, are Brothers in spirit.  Read “Conscious: The Brothers Comatose” concert review here.
  • The Wood Brothers were born from the same Mother and share a musically inclined Father who came from a musical Father (that would be their G-Father).  Read “Solid: The Wood Brothers” concert review here.
  • The T Sisters made a special appearance with both The Brothers Comatose and The Wood Brothers.
  • And then, there is the ultimate sister; sister of soul.  Mavis Staples.  She showed us how to march.  Read “Do the Mavis March” concert review here.
  • Nothing is more American than pie.  The Brothers Comatose eat it for breakfast.  JJ Grey sings about his love for sweet potato pie in “Blackwater”.  Read “JJ Grey and Mofro: Funkin’ A” concert review here.  The Wood Brother’s always have room for “Shoofly Pie”.
  • The clear blue skies ensured hats were a necessity.  Good news for American Hat Makers – Head’n Home, out of Watsonville, California.  They were the official hat vendors outfitting festival goers, stylishly protecting heads from the hot sun with vintage flair yet to be discovered.  The Cabana Hat is hands down the best I have ever owned!
  • Santa Cruz is known for its amazingly surfable year-round waves and surf culture.  The Rides, owned the epic long wave.  Kenny Wayne Shepherd had all the showmanship in the world with so much intensity on that stage he shared with legends Stephen Stills, Barry Goldberg, and Chris Layton.  The swell was seemingly endless.  Read “An Epic Long Wave: The Rides” concert review here.
  • The Devil Makes Three came together in Santa Cruz…again.  The band’s beginnings share Santa Cruz origins.  They are worthy to claim it, clearly are the local favorite and I’ve a new appreciation.  For me, their music is Santa Cruz street’s soundtrack providing visuals and stories of its inhabitants.  TDM3 was festival-goer Mark Cunningham’s favorite act.  Read “The Devil Makes Three” concert review here.

This festival provided plenty.  From strumming a stand-up bass like Steve Vai, playing 3 instruments at the same time, to playing some instruments that were straight up MADE UP, the Santa Cruz American Music Festival wasn’t any ordinary festival.  That is the beauty of America!  It was all there for the taking, showcasing the rich roots and providing opportunity to discover new.  Read “Barns Courtney:  You’re Awesome” concert review here.

Call the style what you will.  The experience is what it is all about.  Soaking in the raw emotion, to permeate your soul…to feel that heavy emotion from the guitar, that soul in one’s voice, and allow the story to transport you to a time and place…  It definitely falls within the scope of all things American.  God Bless America.

Santa Cruz American Music Festival 2017 at Aptos Village Park in Aptos, California, Review by Elizabeth Lauer
Santa Cruz American Music Festival 2017 photo credit Elizabeth Lauer
Santa Cruz American Music Festival 2017 Graphic Designs by Janet Allinger