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05.14.08

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Sleeps in: Mike Schermer is that rare musician who supports himself by playing gigs and selling CDs.

Play Hard

How Mike Schermer, Santa Cruz's favorite working bluesman, came to the job.

By Garrett Wheeler


One note is all it took. A single tone, a solitary sound, and Mike Schermer knew he had found his calling. "Most guitarists come onstage and play a flurry of notes, which is cool, but Albert just hit one important note," recalls Schermer of a 1984 Albert Collins concert at the Kresge Town Hall on the UC-Santa Cruz campus. "[The note] had all this energy and power--there was something so pure and unadulterated about it. After that show, I went to see Collins play whenever I could. I knew I wanted to play like him."

Since Schermer's first encounter with Collins more than two decades ago, he's had plenty of memories involving the "Master of the Telecaster," including a backstage run-in at the San Francisco Blues Festival. Wandering backstage, Schermer asked a stagehand where he could find Collins. The roadie pointed Schermer to Collins' RV, but nobody seemed to be inside. "I heard a voice from under the bus," Schermer remembers, "and it was Albert, going, 'Hey, I'm under here!' He was changing the oil on his own bus."

Collins' do-it-yourself oil change is a fitting metaphor for the workingman attitude of blues music itself, and one aspect of the genre that attracted Schermer to the age-old tradition. "That's the thing about the blues," says Schermer, a Santa Cruz resident of 24 years, "everyone's real. Blues guys are just regular people." Considering Schermer's career has led him to share the stage with performers like Booker T, Charlie Musselwhite and Bonnie Raitt, his appreciation for the down-to-earth aspect of the genre's many personalities is well justified. Of course, there's nothing average about this year's headlining acts: collectively, Al Green and Bonnie Raitt have sold hundreds of millions of records and won 18 Grammy Awards; both are inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the words of event organizer Bill Welch, this year's show is "over the top," and Schermer couldn't be more thrilled. "I couldn't believe it when I saw [the festival lineup]," says Schermer.

"They kind of held out on who was playing, but when they released Bonnie and Al, it was like a one-two punch. I don't think there's been a lineup like that, ever." With past headliners that include the inimitable B.B. King and Ray Charles, Schermer's use of the word "ever" seems to hold a particularly hefty weight, and not just because of the star power. There will also be a little blues heritage on hand.

Saturday will feature "Legends of the Blues," a veritable history lesson in the past decade of American blues, with Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith lending their respected crafts. The Mighty Mike Schermer Band will back the first-generation icons.

"Anytime you get a chance to meet one of your heroes, it's something else," says Schermer, "but to actually get up onstage and play with them, I can't even describe it." Schermer, who calls longtime Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin "one of the most influential living guitarists," is well aware of the magnitude of the occasion. After all, the list of first-generation bluesmen is inevitably dwindling, and for any student of the blues, there's no better way to preserve the genre's legacy than to spread the word about those who laid its foundations. "These guys are a direct link to the '50s and '60s Chicago blues," explains Schermer. "Pinetop played with Muddy Waters for years, Sumlin was Howlin' Wolf's guitarist through his Chess [Records] years, and Willie played drums on a lot of great Muddy Waters recordings." And while the three aren't getting any younger (Smith is the youngster at 73), their abilities as musicians remain sterling. "Some people might be surprised, thinking we're just propping a couple dinosaurs up there," Schermer says, "but it's going to be a deep musical experience. In the blues, you can keep getting better at your craft--Pinetop proved that." At 94, Perkins recently won his first Grammy Award for a collaborative album with David "Honeyboy" Edwards, aptly titled Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.

In addition to backing the blues veterans, Schermer will also play with his group the Mighty Mike Schermer Band. Formed in the late '90s, the group's debut album, 1st Set (2001, Fine Dog Records), confirmed Schermer's position as one of today's hottest blues guitar players. After his previous band, the Soul Drivers, broke up in 1998, Schermer decided to move from harmonica-based blues to the New Orleans variety, a style influenced by soul music and characterized by keyboards and horns. Schermer and company will play under the heading of the Mike Schermer Allstars, a group that includes drummer June Core, bassist Steve Ehrmann and fellow guitar slinger Dale Ocherman.

Not to be overlooked is Bonnie Raitt's headlining appearance on Saturday. Schermer, who played alongside Raitt at the BAMMIE Awards in San Francisco in 1998, says Raitt "might be the best guitar player I've ever played with." Raitt's remarkable contributions to the world of contemporary blues are undeniable, and it comes as no surprise that Schermer regards her with such high esteem. "Her sense of timing and rhythm is incredible," Schermer says. "Everything she plays has so much feeling, and her singing is always spot on. You know, you look at some famous people, and it makes you scratch your head and wonder how it happened. But others you understand immediately. Bonnie is one of those people."

Following a performance with Schermer at Sweetwater in Mill Valley in 1996, Raitt was quoted as saying Schermer was her "new favorite guitarist." And just think: if it wasn't for that one note Albert Collins played at UC-Santa Cruz so many years ago, Mike Schermer may never have become the Mighty Mike he is today.

THE MIGHTY MIKE SCHERMER BAND plays the 16th Santa Cruz Blues Festival on Saturday, May 24, at Aptos Village Park. Tickets are $60 day/$110 for the festival. For more information, visit www.santacruzbluesfestival.com.

Royal Blues

Next weekend's Blues Festival features the biggest names in old-school and contemporary blues

By Garrett Wheeler


On the fence about attending the 16th Annual Santa Cruz Blues Festival this Memorial Day Weekend? Two words (names, actually): "Al Green" and "Bonnie Raitt." Yep, the reigning king of R&B performs alongside California's champion blues diva--and that's only the beginning.

Since the SC Blues Fest's inception in 1993, a staggering number of top-drawer acts have graced the stage, including Albert Collins, B.B. King, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Greg Allman, Boz Scaggs and John Mayall. How event organizer Bill Welch manages to pull in these larger-than-life performers year after year is something of a mystery. Welch says it's a challenge. "It took me eight years to get B.B. King," he says.

All that illustrious history aside, there's no denying the unprecedented stature of this year's event. "Each year we try to do something different to get people excited about coming out," says Welch. "This year we got two Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees who are still totally relevant today."

In addition to the Big Two, this year's installment features three first-generation bluesmen whose connection to the genre's rich historical tradition provides concert goers with a unique glimpse into the origin of the blues. Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith make up the contingent billed appropriately as the "Legends of the Blues." Perkins, who made his name playing piano with Muddy Waters in the '50s and '60s, is the eldest of the group, but at 94 he still hasn't passed his prime. In fact, Perkins won his first Grammy Award last year alongside guitarist David "Honeyboy" Edwards. Perkins will be joined by longtime Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Local guitar phenom "Mighty" Mike Schermer calls Sumlin an "even more influential guitarist than B.B. King," saying Sumlin "very quietly changed the pace of blues guitar in those mid-'60s Howlin' Wolf recordings." Willie "Big Eyes" Smith is best known for playing drums with Muddy Waters for several decades, beginning in 1961. He's also earned a reputation as a premier harmonica player, having played harp with blues mainstays Bo Diddley, Johnny Shines and Clifton James.

The rest of Saturday's acts represent the latest crop of blues talent, beginning with Florida up-and-comer JJ Grey and his band Mofro. Grey's soul-filled vocals and rich horn section make him a strong candidate to become the next Southern-rock star, complete with swamp-boogie romps and back-porch country tunes. Also performing Saturday is blues-rocker Jimmy Thackery, who rose to critical acclaim in the late '70s with his band, the Nighthawks. West Coast blues legend Coco Montoya follows suit with his searing guitar licks before Saturday's headliner Bonnie Raitt treats her fans to a few hours of Grammy-certified rock & roll.

If Saturday is the bread, Sunday is surely the butter of the 16th Annual Santa Cruz Blues Festival. The mighty Al Green heads the bill, bringing his iconic soul music to the Central Coast with all the sexy flair and finesse that bolstered his fame nearly 40 years ago. Few can forget the sweet refrains of Green's 1972 hit "Let's Stay Together," and his newest album, 2005's Everything's OK, only furthers his legacy as R&B's greatest vocalist. "[Al Green] is part of the soundtrack of my generation," says Welch. "We grew up listening to him in the '70s, and you still hear his music played today."

Three decidedly younger artists, all of whom seem to draw heavily from Green's influence, will get things started on Sunday. Twenty-two-year-old Trombone Shorty (Troy Andrews) leads off with his funky New Orleans-style sound. Andrews, who calls his infectious musical hybrid "Superfunk Rock," is no stranger to performing alongside big-name acts, having already logged gigs with U2, Lenny Kravitz and Green Day. The Boneshakers will follow, led by guitarist Randy Jacobs and his eclectic mash of blues and funk. Next up is Louisiana rock outfit the Subdudes, followed by the night's main event, Al Green.

There you have it--a blues festival for the ages held in the beautiful tree-lined bowl of Aptos Village Park. "We couldn't have a festival like this without a community that supports live music," says Welch. "We're a cut above most markets--that's why we get to have a lot of meaningful music right here in our backyard." So c'mon Santa Cruz, let's stay together.

THE SANTA CRUZ BLUES FESTIVAL is May 24-25 at Aptos Village Park. Tickets are $60 day general admission/$110 both days. For tickets and information, visit www.santacruzbluesfestival.com.


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