Recessionary times have left many of Bay Area's blues festivals with a bad case of the blues.
The first to fall was the most painful, as 2009's economic meltdown forced Tom Mazzolini to close the world famous San Francisco Blues Festival. The financial collapse of the Monterey Blues Festival in 2012 was another body blow. And now comes word that Ted Gehrke is putting the Metro Fountain Blues Festival on hiatus for the first time since 1981, meaning that Northern California has lost three of its most visible and long-running blues showcases in just five years.
But just when blues fans are thinking it's time to drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log, along comes this weekend's Redwood City PAL Blues, Arts and BBQ Festival. Launched eight years ago to raise funds for the Redwood City Police Activities League, the event has become one of the best blues events in the region by tapping an impressive cross section of Bay Area blues talent.
Opening Friday night with Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, the festival takes over Courthouse Square on Saturday with a full day of music representing a broad array of blues styles. The enduring music's power to reach unexpected places is embodied by the Aki Kumar Blues Band (scheduled to take the stage at 4 p.m.), which is led by the Indian-born harmonica player and vocalist Aki Kumar. Born and raised in Bombay (now Mumbai), he's become both a respected bandleader and a mover and shaker on the South Bay scene.
"Aki is amazingly good for the short length of time he's been playing," says harmonica ace Mark Hummel, who plays Saturday's 2 p.m. set with the Golden State-Lone Star Revue featuring Anson Funderburgh and Little Charlie Baty. "He's a go-getter. What I look for in musicians are guys who have the drive to create something musically or on the scene. That's where I came from, and I've been extremely impressed with Aki."
Growing up in India, Kumar heard Eastern and Western sounds around the house, from John Denver and Mozart to Hindustani music and Bollywood hits. He dabbled in keyboards and tabla, took a few years of instruction in classical North Indian vocals and acquired an inexpensive Chinese-made tremolo harmonica, though he wasn't familiar with the blues.
"In Bollywood music, the harmonica was present in some really popular songs," Kumar says.
He moved to the United States in 1998 at the age of 18, initially settling in Oklahoma City. But before long he transferred to San Jose State, and after graduating, he found work as a software engineer. He came to the blues slowly by following his interest in doo-wop and early rock 'n' roll back to the roots.
"A lot of folks told me this music came from the blues," he says. "I checked it out, and it was downhill from there."
He credits Dave Barrett, a respected harmonica player and influential educator who runs the School of the Blues in San Jose, with putting him on the right path. Barrett turned Kumar on to Chicago masters like Little Walter, James Cotton and George Smith. With a pedagogy focusing on performance, Barrett nurtured Kumar's budding talent.
"One of the things that Dave does is run his own little jam, a low-pressure situation for students to play with his house band of instructors," Kumar says. "And I just kept going to every show and club I could, checking out Mark Hummel and Rick Estrin. I'd harass them and hang out. I got to know them and their backing musicians."
While holding down his software day job, Kumar started gaining widespread notice with Tip of the Top, a potent quartet that disbanded in the spring of 2013. He became a regular at blues spots like Pleasanton's Main Street Brewery, Hayward's Turf Club, The Pocket in Santa Cruz, San Francisco's Sheba Lounge and the Smoking Pig in Fremont. Eventually, he was busy enough that he quit his day job at the end of last year to focus exclusively on music.
"It was a slow transition," Kumar says. "My heart was really into the blues. If this is my calling, I can't live another life. I'm 34. I've got some time to make a mark."
So far, 2014 has been a banner year. Most importantly, he released an impressive debut album, "Don't Hold Back," a diverse program of material featuring top-shelf guitarists like Johnny Cat Soubrand, Rusty Zinn, Kid Andersen and Little Jonny (with whom Kumar plays the Poor House Bistro in San Jose on Aug. 1). Always looking to build the scene, he leads a regular jam session at Little Lou's BBQ in Campbell, which attracts some of the best players around.
"I think I find fulfillment in promoting good blues," Kumar says, "whether it's me or someone I look up to."
Contact Andrew Gilbert at email@example.com.
AKI KUMAR BLUES BAND
Performing at the Redwood City PAL Blues, Arts and BBQ Festival
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Courthouse Square, 2200 Broadway, Redwood City
Tickets: free, www.redwoodcitypal.com/blues/