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Etta James & the Roots Band

It's been more than 50 years since Etta James was discovered as a teenager by bandleader Johnny Otis, but her sultry voice and flair for capturing the essence of a song endure. On the heels of her 2006 album, All the Way, a newly trim and energized James proves that she still makes whatever music she sings her own, no matter what the era. All the Way features James' favorite songs from artists ranging from Bobby Womack to Prince, and even includes a moving rendition of Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years."

But fans need not fear that James has abandoned her roots. The blues still run through her veins. In 2005, she won a Grammy Award (her third) for Blues to the Bone, a stellar collection of classic covers by Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson among other blues pioneers.

It was blues that first called James to the stage. Although she was reared on gospel, singing in the church choir from age 5, it was blues and R&B; that stirred her soul. At age 14, performing with girl group The Peaches, she was introduced to Otis. With his help the group recorded the single, "The Wallflower," which immediately went to the top of the R&B; charts, and began touring on the R&B; circuit.

In 1960, James was signed with Chess Records, the home of the greatest blues and soul singers of all time. It was there that her talent blossomed, and she recorded a run of hits, including her signature song "At Last," considered one of the great timeless classics. "Tell Mama" (recorded with the Muscle Shoals band),"All I Could Do Was Cry" and "Something's Got a Hold On Me," are among the other songs she launched into the cannon of American music during her Chess tenure.

In the years between 1960 and 1975, James ranked with Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick as one of the most prolific female singers of her era. She also worked with the top producers, musicians and songwriters, including Randy Newman, whose songs seemed written for her soulful renditions.

The 1980s and 1990s found James exploring varying musical genres, from pop to jazz, including the acclaimed Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday.

In recognition of her huge contribution to modern music—and her influence on female singers from Diana Ross to Bonnie Raitt—in 1993, James was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. An avalanche of accolades followed. She was honored by the W.C. Handy Blues Foundation, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004, Rolling Stone included her on its list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Times.

From the gospel choir to the storied studios of Chess Records, and from Hollywood Boulevard to performing rollicking shows around the globe, there's no doubt that this grand dame of American music, the "matriarch of the blues," deserves the acclaim.

The Santa Cruz Blues Festival is so honored to welcome to our stage for the first time, the incomparable Etta James.

Little Feat

It's been a long and winding road for a band often described as one of the greatest ensemble acts of modern history, but there is little doubt that Little Feat still has the best "Sailin' Shoes" around.

Flashback to 1969, and Lowell George, a brilliant songwriter and charismatic singer with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, launches his own band with the rootsy hit single "Willin'." The band's California-fresh blues-rock and Dixie-inspired funk-boogie was fresh tonic in this music-drenched era, and musicians and fans alike heralded this new act.

With the combined talents of George, Bill Payne, Richie Hayward and Roy Estrada, Little Feat went on to record era classics such as "Sailin' Shoes" "Easy to Slip" "Trouble" and more. When Estrada left a few years later, Paul Barrere, Sam Clayton and Kenny Gradney signed on. The new, expanded configuration added a funky, New Orleans-inspired syncopated sound the mix, and resulted in 1973's unforgettable Dixie Chicken and its sing-along title track, and the wildly popular "Fat Man in the Bathtub." The list of hits continued—"Oh Atlanta," "Rock & Roll Doctor" and "Time Loves a Hero" among them—creating a soundtrack for the decade. When George died in 1979, the band's future was tossed up in the air. It's eighth album, Down on the Farm, would be its last studio recording until the late 1980s.

When an unexpected jam session reunited Barrere and Payne, who both recognized the simpatico of a shared musical history, reforming the band was almost inevitable. Adding vocalist Craig Fuller and Fred Tackett, the new Little Feat released Let it Roll in 1988, which was immediately embraced by fans. Representing the Mambo and Shake Me Up followed. When Fuller left the band later that year, Shaun Murphy, a theater-trained Bonnie Raitt-like vocalist, came aboard, providing yet another gust of fresh air into Little Feat's sails.

This new incarnation of the band had staying power. A raucous tour schedule and rabid support for its jam-based funky energy kept Little Feat hopping. A serious of live recordings kept fans sated before the studio-produced Under the Radar and Chinese Work Songs delivered new hits "Home Ground" and "Calling the Children Home." The band's 2003 Kickin' It at the Barn, which Payne calls Little Feat's version of The Band's Big Pink, brought yet another layer to the band's catalog songs and an expanded sound.

Little Feat shows no signs of slowing down and we couldn't be happier about that. Bringing to blues fans one of the most respected and storied acts of modern musical history is our profound pleasure to welcome them back to Santa Cruz.

Robben Ford

Much has been said about Robben Ford's musical eclecticism—through his career he's spanned blues, fusion and jazz—but for Ford, the blues is home base. It was the electric blues of the late, great Mike Bloomfield that turned his attention to the guitar. And his latest recordings, Blue Moon and Keep on Running, return him to these roots.

As a kid Ford played saxophone, but after hearing Bloomfield and the other young white Chicago blues players that emerged in the 1960s, he was hooked. Further influenced by the blues-infused rock of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and tutored by his father, a guitar player and singer, and his older brother Patrick, Ford was on his way.

After joining his brother on tour with blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, and then playing a short run of Bay Area gigs with a family blues band, Ford, who was already showing his particular brand of guitar genius, was tapped to join Jimmy Witherspoon, the legendary jazz vocalist. It marked the start of a musical journey that would find him playing with the L.A. Express, which backed Joni Mitchell during the heady Court and Spark years; Miles Davis; David Sanborn; Little Feat (another Santa Cruz Blues Festival act); and George Harrison; and founding the genre-bending jazz group the Yellowjackets.

Drawing from this huge range of influence and experience, Ford's solo work has always embraced a variety of musical formats. The instrumental Tiger Walk (1997), for example, earned a Grammy Award nomination in the rock category, and Supernatural (1999), offered yet another view of Ford's guitar skill and his considerable chops as a singer/songwriter.

But the blues never left his radar. Starting in 1988 with the Grammy Award nominated Talk to Your Daughter, and following with the formation of the Blue Line band, Ford recorded three more albums in the 1990s and scored two more Grammy nominations.

With Blue Moon and Keep on Running, Ford offers blues fans more of his original influences, including Clapton and Harrison's "Badge," the Spencer Davis Group's "Keep on Running," Otis Rush's "Can't Do My Homework," and the Freddie King tribute, "Cannonball Shuffle." It also features the work of fellow bluesman Edgar Winter and former Stax Singer Mavis Staples.

It is in this bluesy spirit that Robben Ford joins us on Sunday, his second appearance on the Santa Cruz Blues Festival stage. We're honored to have this mega-watt guitar talent in our midst.

Tommy Castro

How many blues musicians—or any musician for that matter—can boast that they have a day named in their honor in a major American city? (OK, the State of Texas has a Stevie Ray Vaughan Day, but you see where we're going with this.) Tommy Castro can. Oct. 14 marks Tommy Castro Day in San Francisco. The distinction is telling: The city by the Bay loves its celebrities, and this local son has made his area fans darn proud.

On the heels of perhaps the best recording of his career, Castro is red hot. Painkiller (2007) has reached the #2 spot on the Billboard Blues Chart, and garnered high praise in music mags and metropolitan newspapers around the country. Produced by John Porter, who has worked with Saturday's headliners, Los Lonely Boys, and Santana, the CD features the best of Castro's "rock 'n' soul" blues with a combination of classic and original songs, and offers a guest performance by another Santa Cruz Blues Festival favorite, Coco Montoya.

This recording also displays the accumulated goods from a career that just seems to get better and better. Rewind to 1991, when Castro, after playing for a few years with The Dynatones, forms his namesake band. It quickly becomes one of the hardest working and in-demand acts around, as noted by BAMMIE awards in 1993 and 1994 for Club Band of the Year — a coveted write-in category also awarded to Chris Isaak and Huey Louis and the News. Castro's debut release, Exception of the Rule (1996) on Blind Pig Records, won immediate praise and his musicianship favorable comparisons to "the earthy soulfulness of Albert Collins and B.B. King with the polish of Robert Cray."

Can't Keep a Good Man Down, Right as Rain, Guilty of Love, Gratitude and Soul Shaker followed, each displaying more of Castro's searing guitar work, vocal range, equally inspired originals and takes on classic blues and soul songs, and the tight turnarounds of his top-notch band. Castro became one of the most watched blues acts around. Now as a regular festival performer whose popularity sends him around the globe, the Tommy Castro Band has grown far beyond the Bay Area. Fortunately for us, this "hometown" musician hasn't forgotten his roots. We are happy to welcome back to the Santa Cruz Blues Festival stage, Tommy Castro.

Nina Storey

It's been a few years since Nina Storey has graced the Santa Cruz Festival Stage. This talented chanteuse became an instant festival favorite after her first performance in 1999 blew the Tevas right off some audience members, and returned in 2000 before taking a hiatus to work on other projects.

The Denver and Los Angeles-based Storey certainly keeps busy. In addition to putting out three albums, including Shades, Nina Storey, and her last, 24 Off the Board, recorded live at local music club Moe's Alley, she boasts numerous television and movie song credits, was featured on Frontier Airlines' in-flight entertainment channel, and has sang the National Anthem for Chicago Bulls, the Colorado Avalanche, and the Denver Broncos. She also maintains a busy tour schedule, playing intimate to large clubs around the country, festivals including the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the High Sierra Music Festival. In addition, she and has opened shows and toured with some notable musicians, including today's headliner Etta James, Keb Mo', Jonny Lang, Joan Osborne, and the late John Lee Hooker.

With her latest recording scheduled for release just one week before the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, Storey is primed with new material and an even more expansive sound. Her fans may have a hard time believing that this singer can get any better: she belts out the blues like nobody's business, wails a heartbreaking high note, and comfortably straddles the line between acoustic singer-songwriter and commanding bandleader. But testament to Storey's creativity and talent, she continues to explore new ways to express her thoughts and her perception of the world around her, through song.

Her voice—her primary tool, though she also plays a mean set of ivories—has been compared to powerhouse female singers including Joan Osborne, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, and Janis Joplin. Yet with her smart, lucid songwriting and a decidedly indie edge, Tori Amos or Alanis Morrisette might be closer matches. But as anyone who watched her perform, and marveled at her talent while feeling the hair on the back of his or her neck stand up when she loses herself in song, will attest, there is no one, really, like Nina Storey. She's a true original. We're thrilled to have her back.