The blues is a well-traveled genre no longer bound by its American roots. Stateside to Serbia, the genre offers musicians a gateway to cultural exchange that still reverberates loudly through the strum of just a few simple chords.
For local fans, Saturday's B-Town Blues Fest is sure to get your mojo workin'. Promoter Pat Evans said the festival, in its eighth year, just continues to boogie along.
"Every year I've thought about changing the formula of what's worked for us," said Evans in a recent interview at World Records, the store he owns in Westchester. "There's no redesigning of the wheel, just fine-tuning."
The annual music and food festival has become a coda to Bakersfield's summer event schedule, and creates a challenge for Evans to go out with a bang (the event doubles as a fundraiser for the Houchin Blood Bank and bone marrow registry).
Headlining this year's fest will be California blues guitarist Coco Montoya, 60, who returns to Bakersfield after being a featured artist in Evans' No Stinkin' Service Charge Blues Series three years ago.
Montoya, originally a rock drummer, traded in his sticks after catching legendary guitarist Albert "Ice Man" Collins in concert. The two would cross paths again some years later and develop a working relationship when Collins' band was looking for a touring drummer. Montoya joined the Collins band, where he stayed for a decade doubling on guitar.
After leaving Collins' band, Montoya landed with John Mayall and his newly reformed Bluesbreakers, alongside another rising talent, guitarist Walter Trout. There he stayed for a decade before striking out as a soloist.
With a reputation for blending the styles of his mentors to produce a sound all his own, Montoya tours extensively, making stops at festivals around the world. Montoya's intense vocals are every bit as powerful as his steely blues guitar work.
Evans recalls an early Bakersfield encounter with Montoya in 1997 when the guitarist was called into cover an opening slot for a concert featuring John Lee Hooker at the Fox.
"John Lee Hooker wasn't performing very lengthy shows by this time in his career, so Coco came out and played for over an hour. He just blew the crowd away."
Montoya's current release, "I Want It All Back," is regarded as a musical departure from previous works, leaning more towards lighter R&B rather than the razor- sharp licks he's known for. Expect a mixed bag of tunes from Montoya's illustrious career, reaching back to his years with Collins and Mayall.
Raised in Yugoslavia under the oppressive Milosevic regime, Ana Popovic comes by her talent naturally; her father was a well-known guitarist who held blues and jazz jam sessions at home every week. Popovic took to the strings herself at age 15, absorbing every groove on her parents' vintage blues record collection.
Paying homage to many of her heroes when she takes the stage, the 36-year-old trailblazer has helped redefine the role of women in the male-dominated blues guitar scene. Just like Montoya, she also can sing. Blessed with soulful pipes that easily switch on the grit, Popovic's ability to charm her audiences has made the Copenhagen resident an international crowd favorite.
"She's really rising," said Evans. "We've been carrying her CDs for some time now and this is our chance to catch her and bring her to Bakersfield. She has a great story and so many YouTube fan videos, it's not hard to find out what she does live onstage. Just amazing."
Popovic's latest CD, "Unconditional," is a well-produced collection of originals and covers showcasing her strengths as a blues triple threat on guitar, vocals and composition. Sure, the CDs cover may throw off some listeners (Popovic is posed bare-skinned, covered strategically only by a guitar) but that doesn't overshadow the strength of the material, which includes a killer reworking of Nat "Cannonball" Adderly's "Work Song."
Also making a return visit is extreme blues showman Eric Sardinas, who will open the high-powered triple bill. Sardinas, who appeared in Bakersfield in May of last year, is a cross between Ted Nugent and Steve Vai when it comes to stage persona and in-your-face audience engagement.
"Booking Eric was a new experience for us. Imagine a full house and he just walks out, no need for a microphone, and holding court," he said. "If you look at him, he could be in Pantera, and he does have an aggressive voice. He knew exactly what he was gonna do that night."
Sardinas is tall, lanky, and fits the profile of a maniac swamp rocker -- and that's just his wardrobe. Reputed for lighting his guitar on fire among other rousing onstage antics, he straddles the line between rock and blues, playing a vintage resonator guitar.
"People saw something they never saw before," said Evans, who promises a fully stocked merch table, with Sardinas' CD, "Sticks and Stones" and music from Montoya and Popovic.
"That kind of sharing between people is why we're doing this."
The festival also will feature a set by the Flying Arvizu Brothers, featuring cousins Tony, Scott and John Arvizu, performing in memory of late Bakersfield saxophonist Ray "Daddy" Arvizu, whom Evans credits for naming the festival.
Vendors will be cooking up authentic Southern, Tex-Mex and Italian cuisine, along with traditional snack and dessert fare available for purchase from Jake's Tex-Mex, Frugatti's, Coconut Joe's and more.
"To get this size of show happening, we rely on the support of our sponsors. This year we have a big push from our restaurants, who are working closer together."
Houchin Blood Bank will be holding the second annual B-Town Blues Fest Blood Drive from 5 to 8 p.m. today featuring the John Hollins Band and catering from RJ's Bar and Grill.
Blood donors will get a $10 discount voucher off festival lawn seating, plus there will be a raffle for four free passes to the festival. Houchin Blood Bank is located at 5901 Truxtun Ave.
"Blues is still living in new artists," said Evans. "Everyone who comes out will have a great time."