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Bill Bowker's back with the Mississippi blues

click to enlarge DYNAMO Watermelon Slim's been a trucker, a farmer and a criminal.
  • DYNAMO Watermelon Slim's been a trucker, a farmer and a criminal.

Since 2010, when Sonoma County Fair officials eliminated the Sonoma County Blues Festival, longtime radio host Bill Bowker, the event's organizer since the early 1990s, has been searching for a replacement location.

The search ended at Petaluma's Lagunitas Brewing Company, which, along with Bowker Family Productions and KRSH Radio, presents "The Coahoma to Sonoma County Blues Festival: A Mississippi Blues Experience" running Aug. 19–20.

Coahoma County, commonly accepted as the "birthplace of the blues," is situated in the fertile Mississippi Delta, which sprouted such blues greats as John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke and Ike Turner. Muddy Waters was raised there, and it's the site of the crossroad where, legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.

In booking the festival, Bowker sought performers who are actively playing Delta-style blues. "This music is close to my heart," he says during an interview at the KRSH studio. "We're trying to get the feel of a Mississippi juke-joint festival."

Co-headlining both days is Lightnin' Malcolm, winner in 2009's Blues Music Awards for Best New Artist Debut. His guitar-and-drum duo format emulates the North Mississippi hill-country blues styles of Hooker, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Malcolm's self-composed music is raw, hypnotic and highly percussive, with sparse lyrics reminiscent of old field hollers. Keeping the beat will be drummer Jason Wilburn.

The other headliner, Watermelon Slim, who has two Blues Music Awards from 17 nominations, will appear solo both days on lap steel guitar and harmonica. Legendary music producer Jerry Wexler once referred to him as a "one-of-a-kind pickin' n' singin' Okie dynamo." Slim's latest album talks about his truck-driving days, but his résumé also includes gigs as a watermelon farmer, sawyer (where he lost part of a finger), collection agent, funeral officiator and small-time criminal. While laid up in a Vietnam hospital, he taught himself slide on a five-dollar balsa wood guitar, using a pick cut from a rusty coffee can and a Zippo lighter as a slide. His genius IQ goes well with his 240 bowling average.

Sunday's show (noon–8pm) adds David Jacobs-Strain, backed by Joe Craven, and Sonoma County fingerpicker Coyote Slim joins the party on Monday (5–9pm). A local all-star band including Sarah Baker, Steve Pile, Gary Silva and Donny Maderos opens both shows and will stay on hand for jamming later. Bowker hints at possible "special guests, some friends who may want to support this."

The Coahoma to Sonoma County Blues Festival runs Sunday-Monday, Aug. 19–20, at Lagunitas Brewing Co. 1280 N. McDowell Blvd., Petaluma. Tickets for Monday's show are sold-out, but Sunday's show is free, all-ages, and does not require tickets. 707.588.0707.

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