The Redwood Coast Music Festival was an ecstatic experience, an overwhelming banquet of music and friendship. (If that seems hyperbolic, I can adopt Eddie Condon’s highest praise, “It didn’t bother me.)
Before we get to the music, something about transportation and the town. If one flies to the festival, the closest airport is Arcata, with two gates, one luggage carousel, an intermittently-closed snack bar: a charming reminder of what air travel must have been in 1958. Eureka is a lovely town, full of restaurants and hand-done murals, intriguing shops. And if one abandons the music for a minute, there are redwoods to marvel at and a splendid down-home town, Trinidad, to explore. This year I did no exploring, because I was greedily trying to see all the music I could.
By my yardstick, I failed in that attempt, seeing only eighteen sets in four days. That might seem like enough, but the RCMF offers one hundred sets and, at times, eight venues simultaneously. It’s head-spinning in its variety, from St. Louis and Chicago and New Orleans blues to zydeco, from Western Swing to Jelly Roll Morton and Chicago hot, with wonderful singers and multi-instrumentalists generously sharing their talents. Where other festivals have failed because of a narrow vision resulting in a diminishing audience, the RCMF makes dancers welcome. Thus I saw many patrons and musicians who have decades to go before Medicare. Bless them: they will sustain public performance of this music.
Here are some very personal highlights, in no particular order.
Hal Smith’s Mortonia Seven, in inauspicious circumstances (a hotel lounge with musicians in one line along the wall, automated disco lighting which went from one garish color to another incessantly) blew the roof off with a nearly savage “Pretty Baby” but also offering a plaintive “Ponchartrain.” Aside from drummer-leader Hal, the band featured Dave Kosmyna, cornet and vocal; T.J. Muller, trombone and vocal; Dave Bennett, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, keyboard; Steve Pikal, double bass; Katie Cavera, banjo.
In the same goofy space, the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet recalled the Thirties with “Krazy Kapers” (based on “Diga Diga Doo”) and “Love Is Just Around the Corner,” where Andy Schumm, clarinet, evoked Pee Wee Russell and Frank Teschmacher. Marc Caparone, cornet, led the way on other selections, with a melody passage on “Tennesee Waltz” reminiscent of 1935 Louis Armstrong. The other members of the quintet created a friendly durable swing: Danny Coots, drums (who restricted himself to one joke that came off spectacularly); Brain Holland, piano, and the exuberant Steve Pikal. Another Holland-Coots set with the same personnel was distinguished by deep telepathy and expertise as Caparone and Schumm mimicked each other’s phrases admiringly.
I heard several sets by guitarist Jonathan Stout, swapping guitars in midstream, with transcriptions of Swing Era arrangements, shrunk for an octet and notable for ringing work from Dan Barrett, cornet, Chris Dawson, piano, and a reed section of Jacob Zimmerman and Jonathan Doyle. Hilary Alexander brought her own quiet sweetness to the vocals.
Carl Sonny Leyland’s Boogie Woogie Boys were a highlight, merging Thirties Kansas City stomp with Fifties rockabilly. One set presented Big Joe Turner’s “Cherry Red” alongside Little Richard’s “Annie Is Back With a New Cadillac,” a delightful combination. The band included the rhythm team of Sam Rocha, double bass, and Josh Collazo, drums (the latter running from venue to venue out of necessity). A real surprise was the tenor saxophonist Mando Dorame, associated with Royal Crown Revue. I thought he would be from the Big Jay McNeely school of bar-walking exhibitionists, but I was delighted to hear tenderness in his playing reminiscent of Buddy Tate and Budd Johnson.
Another set by Carl Sonny Leyland featured guitarist-singer-legend Duke Robillard, focusing on the songs of Turner and Jimmy Witherspoon. Duke had been a hit of the 2022 festival, starring with various groups (a memorable swing set with Caparone and singer Dawn Lambeth) but this year he also sang. An eleven-minute “Wee Baby Blues” was mournful and thrilling, and for his closing song, Duke chose “I’ll Always Be In Love With You,” honoring its sentiments and its Basie-connections.
On another set, with Caparone’s Back O’Town All-Stars, Duke sang both “Lonely Boy Blues” and “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You.” His wife Laurene beamed while her husband entranced us. I am going to assume that Duke has already bought her a big Packard car and a diamond ring, but I didn’t ask. Another Boogie Woogie Boys set featured the ebullient Dave Stuckey—this time leaving his guitar in the case to sing, having the time of his life and making the crowd roar.
Caparone’s Back O’Town All-Stars did their own “Louis” set, featuring Marc, Dawn Lambeth, Jacob Zimmerman, Charlie Halloran, trombone; Chris Dawson, Jamey Cummins, guitar (who played magnificently alongside Robillard), Pikal, and Collazo. They began with an unhackneyed “Indiana,” moved on to “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” a touching “Sweethearts On Parade,” and ending with Collazo’s life-changing version of Sidney Catlett’s “Steak Face.” Instead of singing Velma Middleton’s hits, Dawn opted for two Thirties favorites, “I’m Shooting High” and a winsome “You Are My Lucky Star,” which had me holding back tears.
Dave Stuckey and the Hot House Gang brought their own brand of timeless Thirties-inspired fun in several sets. In one, Dan Barrett chose “Ready For The River” (the world’s most cheerful suicide song), Katie Cavera sang “I’ll Bet You Tell That To All The Girls”; Dave sang “Ain’t Cha Glad?”—a question the audience had no trouble answering. Another set brought Jessica King on, singing “Teardrops In the Rain” and “Delta Bound” as if she was whispering secrets in our ears.
Jessica also shone on a set led by Clint Baker, this time on trumpet, with “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” (which she made come alive, against all odds), and a closing “Shake That Thing.” I was too tired by that time to follow her very clear directions, and I was leery of upsetting my tripod, but I was with her in spirit. Other heroes there were Nate Ketner, reeds; Ryan Calloway, clarinet; Bill Reinhart, banjo, and the hard-working Riley Baker, double bass.
Moving into energized ragtime for one set, Hal Smith’s New Orleans Night Owls offered a limber homage to Bunk Johnson’s 1947 recordings and 2023 free-spirited improvisation, including a vocal by T.J. Muller on “The Oceana Roll.” The rhythm section of Hal, Kris Tokarski, Mikiya Matsuda, double bass, and Bill Reinhart, banjo, was just right. And any set that ends with “Snake Rag” has a place in my heart.
Last year’s “Kings of Western Swing” lifted out of my seat: this year’s was even better, featuring Dave Stuckey, Marc Caparone, Hal Smith, Mikiya Matsuda, this time on steel guitar; Whit Smith and Chris Wilkinson, guitars; Elana James and James Mason, fiddles (Elana also sang the existential lament, “What’s The Matter With the Mill?”), Leyland, and Pikal. It was a party onstage with a surprise appearance by Elana’s serene white dog, a joyous tentet, ending with “the national anthem of Western Swing,” “San Antonio Rose.”
The last two sets I will write of here were beyond memorable. If you had taken a profile picture of me (behind my tripod) I would have been ridiculously open-mouthed, astonished at what I was hearing and seeing. Both sets featured Valerie Kirchhoff (a/k/a “Miss Jubilee”) of St. Louis. I had heard her on CD but those discs are quiet evocations of the hilariously exuberant force she brings. For the first set, she was accompanied by T.J. Muller’s Swing Seven, T.J. leading from a metal resonator banjo-guitar hybrid (think of Eddie Durham on the Bennie Moten sides) with Schumm, cornet; Jonathan Doyle, tenor saxophone; Jacob Zimmerman, alto and clarinet; Ethan Leinwand, barrelhouse piano; Clint Baker, double bass, and Hal Smith. T.J. created arrangements that the musicians breezed through with no hesitation, even though they were seeing them for the first time. Valerie wooed us and winked at us through five songs, including “Was That the Human Thing To Do?” I wrote elsewhere that she reminded me of Connee Boswell mixed with the 1932 Moten band. The set began with “Jive At Five,” evoking rather than imitating Basie, and ended with a riotous “King Kong Stomp.” T.J. is a first –rate bandleader: introducing “Four Or Five Times,” he said sweetly, “If you know the lyrics, please don’t sing along.” Bingo!
The next afternoon, Valerie, Ethan, T.J., Clint Baker, and Ryan Calloway reunited as “Miss Jubilee and her Yas Yas Boys,” and they reached height after height, including the appropriate “The Duck’s Yas Yas Yas,” and the Red McKenzie love-ditty, “Murder In The Moonlight.”
There was a problem with plenitude, of course. Mark Jansen, who with his board of directors, works at scheduling sets and getting the best musicians—he is that remarkable entity, a festival producer who actually listens deeply to the music rather than counting the number of filled seats—tortured me by scheduling conflicting sets at the same time. If I wanted to see X, I couldn’t see Y. And since I can no longer run from venue to venue, I missed some sets. That pains me now. But it is better than sitting outdoors for an hour, waiting for something good to hear.
I’m also obsessed with video-recording and brought home more than 140 videos, some of which I have already shared on my site JAZZ LIVES (www.jazzlives.wordpress.com) with more to come. But the videos cannot substitute for the joys of the first-hand experience, so take a look at www.rcmfest.org. Next year’s festival is October 5-8, and it’s worth the trek if it were ten times longer. And maybe the snack bar will be open when you land.
Michael Steinman’s excellent JAZZ LIVES blog (jazzlives.wordpress.com) is mandatory reading for all those interested in who is playing the best music ever. There you will find videos of many of the performances he cites here. All photographs used here are by Michael Steinman and are used with his kind permission.