The performances at Saturday's inaugural Indian Wells Music Festival, led by Robert Cray Band and Jon Batiste with the Dap Kings, were blue enough to make Bruce Springsteen proud.
Cray, a five-time Grammy Award-winning blues artist, sent the festival at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden into high gear in its second night with a soulful performance marked by the unselfish interplay of his quartet—three-fourths of whom have played together since the late 1970s.
But he caused a stir by singing a 2017 song, called “Just How Low,” that criticized President Trump for making Barack Obama show his birth certificate and featured the line, “If you wanna build a wall, build it around yourself.” It got a standing ovation from a small portion of the crowd of 2,000 people sitting in chairs or around VIP tables under a pavilion at the tennis garden.
But, after several more Memphis-blues-styled songs, with keyboardist Dover Weinberg eliciting a Hammond B3 organ sound on “Shiver” and sequenced symphonic crescendos on “Time Makes Two,” with drummer Les Falconer playing mallets as Cray played sorrowful single-note guitar lines, the whole crowd erupted in a standing ovation.
Batiste, music director of “The Late Show Starring Stephen Colbert,” then followed with messages of sister and brotherhood, starting with a rendition of the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can-Can,” with the lyrics, “Now's the time for all good men/to get together with one another. … And do respect the women of the world/Remember you all have mothers.”
Batiste, a Juilliard-trained multi-instrumentalist from New Orleans who fuses old-school R&B and gospel in the Ray Charles tradition, conveyed his messages mostly through fun, soulful music punctuated by the power of the Dap Kings horn section and female vocalists, who previously backed deceased singers Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones. He took the crowd to church without making them say amen on “The Light Shines Brightest in the Dark.” He also exhorted them to “open yourself up to the vibe” and “just be yourself because ... that’s what makes the world a better place.”
Remarkably, the crowd of mostly baby-boomers and older Gen-Xers did just that. They rushed the stage for the first time all weekend and danced with abandon. Batiste and the Dap Kings got way down on a song called “Funky Soul,” and the Indian Wells crowd got silly. Batiste egged them on, insisting they get on their feet like they do in New Orleans.
“We’re going to do this dance we call ‘Rocking the Ship,’” he said, using the stage like an evangelist. “Everybody in Indian Wells. Everybody across the world!”
The only one who might have enjoyed it more than Batiste was promoter Jim Fitzgerald of Wendy Jayne Productions, who was given $60,000 by the city of Indian Wells to expand his one-night Desert Lexus Jazz Festival in 2016 into a more wide-reaching event that would fill local hotel rooms. Fitzgerald said this inaugural festival did that.
“It’s so tough to even get a reservation in the desert this weekend,” he said. “The Westin Mission Hills and the Desert Springs JW Marriott (in Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert, respectively) have been our host hotels, housing the artists and offering rates to festival-goers from out of town (and) the reason the other hotels are involved is our Indian Wells hotels are packed to the rafters. We had a lot to do with that with the announcement (of the music festival) when it first came out. So, with the TOT (transient occupancy tax), from the city standpoint, I think we more than accomplished their goal.”
Fitzgerald said he also was hoping to give Indian Wells a more festive image. The city wanted to be part of the desert’s month of music festivals and encouraged Fitzgerald to hold his event a week before the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival instead of the week after the Stagecoach country music festival.
“Not that Indian Wells needs a different image because Indian Wells is a spectacular city,” he said. “But, it gives them a different moniker. It makes people aware who may not be aware of Indian Wells being the hub that we are.”
Fitzgerald targeted a baby-boomer audience using the same formula he uses as a radio personality and programmer for CV 104.3 FM, weaving a mix of music to reach across demographics.
“Music is the language that brings people together, brings the valley together and people are enjoying it,” he said. “They’re getting turned on to other genres and that was my goal—to mix it up and show that good music is good music.”
The format of blues, jazz, rock and country didn’t attract many young people, who will arrive in the next two weeks by the hundreds of thousands for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Two of the youngest of the 4,000 people at the Indian Wells fest was a 30-ish couple, Dennis and Colleen Cinelli, who came from San Francisco Saturday for country pop singer Sandra Lynn and the desert’s dry, warm climate. Even they said they were a little old for Coachella.
Rich Hirsch came from Columbus, Ohio, and said he especially enjoyed Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman Kim Wilson sitting in with Jonny Lang on Friday night, although he only played harmonica on the Lang song, “Angel of Mercy,” and didn’t join in on vocals. Hirsch said he’d come back next year, “especially because our aunt and uncle live about 500 feet that way, literally across the street.”
Fitzgerald said other visitors came from Colorado, Arizona, Wisconsin, Montana, Minnesota and British Columbia. Many locals took advantage of the single-day tickets offered after two-day packages were sold exclusively in the first couple weeks.
Jack Area, a part-time Indian Wells and Denver resident, who serves on the McCallum Theatre board, said he bought a ticket on Craigslist for Saturday. He hadn’t heard of Cray but called his set “amazing.”
Bobbi Lampros of Rancho Mirage came to see Cray and Batiste and wound up dancing in the aisles to Batiste. She said she prefers blues and jazz to rock and thought Lang was “a little too rock for me.” Lang, a former teen blues guitar prodigy from North Dakota, played with histrionics and Fitzgerald noted that appealed to a lot of fans—“the joy and the pain that he conveys, not only through the music but his facial expressions.”
Lampros preferred saxophonist Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds on Friday night. Abair, who emerged as a contemporary jazz artist, was in full rock mode with guitarist Randy Jacobs sharing leadership duties, but a highlight was her melodic instrumental finale, “Lucy’s,” the first song she said she had ever written.
“This sets the benchmark,” Moore said. “We are going to do this festival every year. This year was an experiment. We’re going to (continue to) do it for two nights before Coachella. I think this has really worked out very well."
"I can’t say enough about how happy I am (with) the support from the community," said Fitzgerald. "The goal is to just keep building it."
(Photo: Richard Lui/The Desert Sun)