Six Must-See Bands at Blues Blast 2014

If you're a fan of blues music, particularly the kind proffered by local bands and artists, plan to spend part of this weekend soaking up some 12-bar down-home sounds in the great outdoors. The latest Blues Blast, the Valley's premier festival celebrating the genre, will be held on Saturday at Margaret T. Hance Park in downtown Phoenix and features a star studded lineup of locals and touring blues artists.

The Phoenix Blues Society sponsors and organizes the annual event, which is now in its 23rd year, and the organization's president Jim Crawford recommends planning ahead for a day in the sun, as the weather report calls for clear skies and temperatures in the 80s.

"Y'all stock up on the sunscreen and plan to spend the day with PBS and a cast of thousands at Blues Blast '14," he states in the latest PBS newsletter.

And while you're slathering on the SPF 80, around a half-dozen bands will be featured during the afternoon-long festival, which kicks off at 10 a.m. with free master classes for young blues players 18 and under, followed by seven straight hours of performances starting at 11 a.m. Here's a rundown of who's hitting the stage at this year's Blues Blast.

Conversation with Leon J from on Vimeo.

Leon J's Juke Joint Phoenix's Leon J. was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame back in 2011, but his musical journey began long before that particular honor. He first started exploring the art form while on his parent's gospel tour bus when he was only a 4-year-old. Over the decades, he's honed his craft, including his renowned soulful vocals, extensive blues chops, and his talents on the slide and finger-style guitar. The music is also well known for his storytelling abilities and a repertoire that stretches through musical history from the 1880s to modern times.

The Paul CruiZe Blues Crew The winners of the Arizona Blues Challenge in the band division and our state's entry into this year's International Blues Challenge in Memphis, the Paul CruiZe Blues Crew has no shortage of talent. The three piece band features Royce Murray on the Hammond organ, Tim Robinson on drums and Cruize on both guitar and vocals. Their songs include a mix of covers ("Loving on Borrowed Time," "Spitting Game," "Purple Rain") and originals ("Mumbo Jumbo," "Love all My Blues Away"). And you definitely don't want to miss their humorous take on the Bobbie Gentry classic, "Ode to Billy Joe"

Sugaray Rayford and the Rhythm Room All-Stars Texas-born bluesman Sugaray Rayford (pictured) has been playing heavy, classic blues for decades. He began singing and drumming in church at the age of seven, which is why gospel has played such a big influence in his music, and bounced around the western U.S. for years before recently moving to Phoenix.

Rayford's voice is commanding while his stylish dance steps onstage are akin to the moves of the legendary James Brown. His 2013 album, Dangerous, offers such upbeat and fun songs "Two Times Sugar" and "I Might Do Somethin' Crazy."

Over the years, Rayford has starred in a production of the Tony-nominated revue It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues in Portland and performed with the R&B band Urban Gypsys, as well as with the Mannish Boys. More recently, however, he's been gigging with The Rhythm Room All-Stars.

The local ensemble -- which includes Chris James, Patrick Rynn, Brian Fahey, Mojo Mark, and Rhythm Room owner and noted bluesman Bob Corritore -- are veterans of the scene with talent to spare. James and Rynn have three records together, while Fahey has played with the roots band The Paladins and Mark is known for his deep Chicago blues.

The Mike Eldred Trio Wishes sometimes do come true. Just ask local bluesman Mike Eldred, who was hoping his trio would get an invite to participate in this year's Blues Blast and wound up getting exactly that after PBS president Jim Crawford saw him perform last year.

Eldred was invited on the spot, which thrilled the musician to no end. "Man, I wanted to play at Blues Blast," he says. "I moved to Chandler eight years ago. I'm excited so people can hear my type of blues."

The trio performs alternative blues and use resonators along with slide and acoustic guitars to come up with a harder sound. According to Eldred, it's a way to reach out to younger blues fans. "We wanted to go for a younger crowd and have them question the music so they look back to the originals," he says.

And the trio did some of that themselves in 2012, when they released Elvis Unleaded a 20-song album that reworks the King of Rock 'n' Roll's hits into bluesier and boozier versions. Expect to hear a few of these when Eldred and company take the stage on Saturday.

Hans Olson Hans Olson is an iconic figure in the local music scene who's been kicking around the Valley since the late '60s. An Arizona Blues Hall of Famer, the veteran musician blends country, folk and other down-home influences into his original blues songs that are performed on an amplified acoustic guitar and harmonica and backed by the hard-boiled gravitas of his powerful voice.

While Olson is known for his pastiche of Chicago, Piedmont and Delta blues, he recently cut a country-infused CD for renowned local label Fervor Records entitled, Another Day With The Blues. In addition, he's also release albums on Virgin Records in Europe and has performed with the likes of Tom Waits, Albert Lee, Boz Scaggs, The Allman Brothers, Arlo Guthrie, and Joe Cocker.

Although Olson is famous for his weekly gigs inside darkened local bars like Pranksters Too in Scottsdale, he'll perform in the great outdoors during Blues Blast.

"It will be fun. I've been playing these festivals for 30 years on and off," he says. "This is the first one I've been to in [Hance] Park. When you go outside you risk rain, but it will probably be cool this year."

Samantha Fish This Kansas City-based artist is one of the hottest female guitar players and vocalists currently on the blues circuit. Fish became well known in the blues world in 2011 when she was included on the Girls with Guitars CD along with Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde. The trio also toured Europe and the U.S. together.

Fish later recorded the album Runaway, which mixed her gusty-riff blues along with touches of jazz. She's been on tour almost non-stop the last few years and also performs such covers as Howlin Wolf's "Who's Been Talking?" and Mike Zito's "Go to Hell," which she co-wrote. Plus, as the above video depicts, she can pop off with a mean rendition of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs."

Most of Fish's songs are originals, however, as evidenced by the track list on her her newest album Black Wind Howling, which features bluesman Mike Zito (who also produced the disc), Yonrico Scott on drums, and percussion and Charlie Wooton on bass.

Fish started in the blues biz as a teenager at the Kansas City club Knucklehead's Saloon where she heard such legends as Tab Benoit and Zito. She also counts Stevie Ray Vaughan, Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and Sheryl Crow among her many influences, all of which have helped her to come up with a sound that is strictly hers.

Blues Blast 2014 takes place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, March 8, at Margaret T. Hance Park. Tickets are $22.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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Stan Bindell