What makes a great blues band? Is it all in the voice? Is it the believability of the downtrodden heartache in the lyrics? Is it the ability to channel Albert King and Muddy Waters and Hound Dog Taylor while keeping those influences subtle? Does whiskey help? Does one guy in the group need to be blind?
No, what makes a great blues band is that most elusive thing: the feel. Far from any academic test, you know the blues simply when it grabs you in the gut and won't let go. When it hits some buried emotional tarnish in your soul, and says, hey man, we ain't so shiny, but we'll get by. A great blues band is personal catharsis as much as a well-placed E7-10 chord, which is why picking the Best Blues Band in Sonoma County for 95.9 KRSH-FM's recent contest was such a difficult and much-discussed topic among local fans.
The votes are in, and three bands have come in on top. The Hellhounds, whose newest album Back to Sonoma showcases fine guitar licks, thick harmonica soloing and songwriting that touches on classic blues themes (see "A Thousand Years"), have been raising the roof for years in the area both acoustically and electrically. The Bluesburners feature K. C. Camarillo, a microcosm of Bonnie Raitt circa Home Plate who can nail Sam and Dave, and whose guitarist Mike Marino is so serious about tone that he owns his own pedal company, ToneCandy. Rounding out the pedestal is the SoulShine Blues Band, whose take on "Feels Like Rain," "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Born in Chicago" are performed with just the right amount of rough edges.
All three winners kick off the KRSH's summer backyard concert series in an all-out evening of three chords and the cold, hard facts of life at the Backyard Blues Bash on Thursday, June 4, at KRSH Studios, 3565 Standish Ave., Santa Rosa. 6pm. Free. 707.588.0707.