There are two performers, among others, you really need to see at the San Francisco Blues Festival this time around. The first, headliner Robert Randolph, along with his Family Band, has been blowing minds since his debut, Live at the Wetlands (Dare/Warner Bros.), came out in 2002. Critics proceeded to freak out, big shots like Eric Clapton started taking him on tour, and Randolph began freeing the minds of white pothead kids with jam-blues purveyors the North Mississippi All-Stars. Randolph plays the sacred steel, a form of pedal steel guitar normally found in African American church services where he got his start, namely at the Church of God in Maplewood, N.J. On record, the group behind him lays down a punchy soul-funk foundation while Randolph positively shreds over the top. Clearly influenced by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel, Randolph’s strafing leads range from ornately beautiful asides to far-out psychedelic explosions of color.
Randolph and his ensemble are universally renowned for the live show they put on, and one listen to Live at the Wetlands is all one needs to hear to understand why. This band does not miss notes. And it sets things on fire. The ecstatic vibe starts at level 10 and goes from there. Randolph and the Family Band are the embodiment of the biblical term "joyful noise." Effortlessly crossing from gospel to jam rock to soul-blues, Randolph is simply one of the most exciting semiknown artists to come down the pipe in a long, long time.
The second guy you’ve gotta see is Allen Toussaint. For anyone who doesn’t know and everybody should Toussaint basically invented New Orleans soul, producing sessions, writing songs, and playing piano on just about everything that came out of New Orleans throughout the 1960s and ’70s. He wrote "Waitin’ For My Ya-Ya" for Lee Dorsey, "Right Place, Wrong Time" for Dr. John, and "Southern Nights," which was a major hit for Glen Campbell in 1977. Toussaint also had a hand in "Lady Marmalade," "Working in a Coalmine," and "Pain in My Heart" monumental songs. Besides accruing a laundry list of cowriter and producersession ninja credits, Toussaint regularly records his own material, and anyone unfamiliar with his ’70s soul classics "Last Train" and "Whisper to a Scream" needs to go buy The Allen Toussaint Collection (Rhino, 1991), which I personally have stolen from at least two people over the years.
Toussaint’s latest offering, The River in Reverse (Verve Forecast), is a collaboration with bad-hat lover Elvis Costello and is way better than the time Costello got together with Hall and Oates. Anyway, who knows maybe Costello will turn up onstage with Toussaint. You know he’ll be there. Anyone with even the slightest interest in true soul music will not miss the opportunity to hear Toussaint’s incredibly distinctive piano playing in person.
There are other artists at the fest, but these are two, blues fan or no, you don’t want to miss.
SAN FRANCISCO BLUES FESTIVAL
Sat/29Sun/30, 11 a.m.5:30 p.m., $35$80
Great Meadow, Fort Mason, Bay and Laguna, SF