Little starlight shone on the Sunshine Blues Festival Saturday at Boca Raton’s Mizner Park Amphitheater, inclement weather graying the skies and softening the ground, leaving no foot — clad or otherwise — free of mud. Star power, on the other hand, was in ample supply for the second show of this three-date, three-city event, which began Friday in Fort Myers and concludes Sunday in St. Petersburg.
Headlined by the Jacksonville-based Tedeschi Trucks Band and featuring a slate of contemporary blues rockers, funk outfits and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, the festival also didn’t lack for electrical power. Beginning at 11 a.m. and wrapping up just before 11 p.m., the music could be heard blocks away from Mizner Park, an upscale, uptight entertainment and shopping district that could use more gritty, down-to-earth events of this type.
As night began to fall on the dirt-caked crowd — and to be clear, there was no confusing this graying, leathered audience with that of, say, the Ultra Music Festival, or with the well-scrubbed preeners beyond the amphitheater’s gates — the 30-something British guitarist Matt Schofield led his trio on the second stage through a set of by-the-book blues-rock that favored amplification over feeling. A song introduced as a “second-line” trip to New Orleans sounded more like a stop at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company than a visit to Decatur Street. An hour later on the same stage, the 63-year-old veteran guitarist Joe Louis Walker offered a correction, reminding listeners that volume and taste are not mutually exclusive assets.
On the main stage, a real New Orleans icon, Dr. John, looking and sounding every one of his 72 years in the best possible way, performed an hour-long set heavy on material from his most-recent album, last year’s “Locked Down,” a reenergizing work produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Staring out at the audience from behind dark shades, and wearing a wicked grin and braided voodoo charms around his neck, Dr. John (real name: Mac Rebennack) appeared to be in good spirits as he conducted his five-piece backing band (including a young, female trombone player wearing an arm in a sling) from behind his piano, organ and, for a couple of songs, electric guitar. It was no surprise when, late in the set, he pumped out the jaunty opening riff to his biggest hit, 1973’s “Right Place Wrong Time.” Less expected, however, was “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya,” the mystical-sounding 1967 track that re-introduced Rebennack to the world as the darkly magical Nite Tripper, Dr. John. Almost 46 years later, the song, and its author, remain enchantingly weird.
Magic of a brighter, less-cabalistic sort was provided by the festival’s show-closing, show-stopping Tedeschi Trucks Band, an 11-piece group of virtuosos led by the husband-and-wife team of Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, both formidable guitarists with successful solo careers when they created the band in 2010. (They married in 2001, and are raising two small children in Jacksonville.) Trucks, the 33-year-old nephew of Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks and now a full-time member of that legendary blues-rock outfit, is an innately graceful guitarist, delivering jaw-dropping, soulful runs with little apparent effort, and like his heroes Duane Allman, Buddy Guy and B.B. King, filling the spaces between his notes with as much power and tension as the notes themselves.
Tedeschi is another marvel, and last night, she lived up to every Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt comparison ever thrown her way (even offering, perhaps slyly, a warm cover of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” a hit for Raitt in 1974). Above all, though, Tedeschi showcased her singular gifts, her textured phrasing and just-this-side-of-gritty vocals producing frequent shivers, especially during the originals “Bound for Glory” and “Nobody’s Free.”
But this wasn’t just the Tedeschi-Trucks show. Everyone in this sizable group shared the spotlight, with Tedeschi ceding the microphone to singer-trombonist Saunders Sermons and harmony vocalist Mike Mattison on several songs, and each musician (the band has two drummers) allowing every other a moment to claim the audience as his or her own. It was an exercise in supreme charity, and at times, the performance resembled an old-fashioned, Stax-era rhythm-and-blues revue, with highlights piled upon highlights. At just a tick under two hours, it was over too soon.