When it comes to resurrecting long-lost Ojai traditions, not many are as surprising or as welcome as the Bowlful of Blues Music Festival.
Announced in suitably excited (and ironically un-bluesy) tones via a float at the 2016 Ojai Fourth of July Parade, this year’s Bowlful of Blues promises a return to those heady and heated Ojai days of blues, roots and zydeco music that drenched the Valley in a haze of soulfulness and musical truth amid the superficial happiness of the Reagan ’80s. It grew into an event that was less a festival than it was a calling, attracting blues players as wide-ranging and storied as blues guitarists John Hammond and Paul “Lil’ Buck” Sinegal, zydeco accordionist Fernest Arceneaux, blues jazz pianist Mose Allison, Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy Smith, and Shuggie Otis — a veritable orchestra of blues history and legendry. For two decades, the Bowlful of Blues became a beacon for the artform, bringing in thousands of fans from throughout Ventura County and beyond, until shuddering and sputtering to an ignominious end in 2004 at Lake Casitas, lately a fitting symbol of drought and blues itself.
For the better part of the past decade, however, Bowlful of Blues co-founder Michael Kaufer has kept the original spark of the blues alive in his heart. Through his and his “Blues Brother” Lanny’s tirelessly enthusiastic efforts, the festival finds its way back to its origins in Ojai at the renovated Libbey Bowl. It’s a homecoming that’s observed on somewhat of a somber note. The year of the last Bowlful of Blues, festival co-founder Clarence Sterling died of cancer. And yet, even as one falls away, scores of others rise. Something that tends to get overlooked is that, behind the personalities and the founding producers of the festival, there are volunteers from throughout the community working to ensure that this Bowlful of Blues surpasses the previous 22. These are the people who make the day run like a perfectly wound metronome, doing everything from selling tickets to pouring beer to patrolling the perimeter. Without them, there would likely be no festival, either in spirit or practice.
Over the course of the afternoon, five groups will appear, including hotly tipped rising blues chanteuse Jade Hendrix; the Arthur Adams Band, led by the Tennessee guitarist who’s written songs for B.B. King and Sam Cooke; Rounder recording artists and 1983 Bowlful veterans Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan; War blues harmonicist Mitch Kashmar; and Jimmy Calire’s and John Marx’s Organ Quartet. Earlier in the day, extra blues clues will be given out by Annieville Blues and local singer/songwriter Richard Kaller on the lawn stage.
Hendrix enthuses, “I’m both honored and excited to be a part of the festival because, as a kid who grew up in Ojai, I have a lot of wonderful memories of catching shows at Libbey Bowl. This will be the first time I’ve ever actually stood on its stage as a performer, and I’m completely over the moon.”
Also on tap: an introductory invocation by Patrick Tumamait of the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians, down-home Southern cooking, adult beverages, an exhibition of vintage memorabilia from Bowlfuls gone by, Mardi Gras Queen and bassist Rondia Kaufer’s fried chicken, the Ojai Mardi Gras Wake-Up! Krewe — and a community revitalized.
It’s almost as though it were destined to be.
As for what the blues really mean, Hendrix sums up her perception thusly: “I love the blues because of the stories that have been told through the genre. It’s the original American artform, born from some of the most tragic of circumstances and, because of that, I try and play it with a great deal of reverence and respect.”
The 23rd Bowlful of Blues happens on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2-9 p.m. at Libbey Bowl, 210 S. Signal St., Ojai. For schedule, tickets and more information, visit http://bowlfulofblues.org.