The Santa Cruz American Music Festival

The Santa Cruz American Music Festival brings a remarkable line-up to the redwoods

By: Paul Piazza

The Santa Cruz American Music Festival takes place annually at the Aptos Village Park. It’s a beautiful setting for a concert. The stage is built in a meadow is a natural amphitheater surrounded by thick groves of oaks and redwoods.

This year marked the second year of the event, which featured blues, jazz and funk on Saturday and country and Americana on Sunday. Overall, the event has been going on for 25 years. It was formerly known as the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, until new festival owners took over a couple of years ago and decided to rebrand the event to draw a broader audience by turning the second day of the blues festival into a country day. Thus, the American Music Festival was reborn.

Kid dancing during Trombone Shorty

The Saturday Blues Day lineup was exceptional this year. Blues legend Buddy Guy headlined while Trombone Shorty and Orleans Ave. and Robert Randolph Family Band, two powerhouse national acts provided support. Also on board were the great blues-rock group Indigenous and Carolyn Wonderland, who is considered the queen of Austin blues.

Opening the show was Wonderland, who played a fiery set of blues, with a little bit of slide guitar and trumpet thrown in for good measure. She glides easily from down and dirty blues to New Orleans-style romps. Her raw howls and powerful vocals remind many of Janis Joplin. Needless to say, she got things off to a good start.

Next up were Indigenous, a group led by Mato Nanji a wizard on the Fender Stratocaster. Nanji hails from the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. His father, Greg Zephier Sr. had a group called The Vanishing Americans, who toured nationally. Nanji began playing at an early age and made waves by winning awards in the blues community with Indigenous. He been paid the ultimate compliment in the blues guitar world since 2002 by being included annually in the Experience Hendrix tour.. It’s an annual tour that features some of the best blues and rock players in the world interpreting Hendrix classics.

Nanji and his band took the stage in Aptos and played many of albums from the Indigenous catalog, but really got the house fired up with a smoking cover of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” where Nanji and guitarist Levi Platero traded scorching licks much to the delight of the crowd.

Following Nanji, things got a little funkier and soulful with Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Randolph grew up learning to play the pedal steel guitar or “Sacred Steel” in church and that’s where he took the Aptos audience. He and the Family band got festival goers on their feet with a relentless groove attack that built to a climax when Randolph would wail on the sacred steel. Before you knew it, more people were up on their feet dancing and stomping to the music, especially during “Ain’t nothing wrong with that,” which features the lyric, “When the music gets down in your soul/it makes you wanna lose control/and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.”

Things ramped up another notch when legendary New Orleans trombone/trumpeteer Trombone Shorty hit the stage. After his band set the groove, the first notes that thundered from his ‘bone immediately turned heads. Shorty (Troy Andrews) and his band Orleans Ave. have continued a steady ascension in the historical hierarchy of music groups from The Big Easy. The six-piece band dazzled with a high-energy display that was unabating during their 90 minute set, engaging the audience with some of his better known songs like “Do to me,” “Hurricane Season” and a killer cover of Lenny Kravitz’ “The craziest things.” The 30 year-old Andrews, who has been playing trombone since the age of 4, was a member of Kravitz touring horn section at the age of 19. He has been touring with Orleans Ave. for the better part of the last decade and has closed out the last couple of New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festivals as the headliner. It was easy to see why this band have become a festival favorite.

After a short changeover, came blues legend Buddy Guy. The 79 year-old (Guy turns 80 this summer) hit the stage with amazing vigor. He opened up full throttle with “Damn right I’ve got the blues,” and did not let his foot off the pedal until the end of the set. At one point Guy took a stroll with his guitar through the audience, much to the delight of the adoring crowd. Throughout the set, Guy constantly made sure he had the audience’s attention. He was careful about checking in to see that people were getting the gist of each song, and would jokingly say “Don’t look at me, I didn’t write that fu*#ing song” before launching into saucy favorites like “She’s nineteen years old.”

Guy was full of quips and moves that come from over 60 years of performing and the audience ate it all up-because the way Guy delivers it keeps it fresh and real every single time out. But the truly amazing part is that he wears his signature Telecaster like it’s one of his body parts. He is a true guitar master. He truly understands tension and release, whether it’s going from playing loudly to very soft or creating a dramatic moment with his eyes and hands only. He has no peer, this Guy.

Overall, Saturday’s line-up, much like the beautiful setting of this festival, was remarkable.

Sunday’s country line-up included Josh Turner, David Nail, Granger Smith, Canaan Smith, Brodie Steward and Leaving Austin.