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Tucked away in the corner of a small beach in a little town thrives a grand festival featuring big-time artists. For its 37th year, Guerneville hosted a fun weekend of top-notch acts at the Russian River Blues and Jazz Festival. The entertainment included Serbian-born Ana Popovic, New Orleans’ Trombone Shorty and the magnificent Gary Clark Jr.

From the foodies at the ahi poke booth to the thirsty teen in line for a snow cone, the festival folks found Ana Popovic to be an unexpected delight. “That girl can rock!” admired the middle-aged restaurateur as he prepared a gourmet turkey pesto panini.

And rock she did. Giving credit to the blazing sun above, she began with her groovy single “Can You Stand The Heat”. Popovic shined in the sizzling heat of Guerneville. She rocked red stilettos and a short, skin-tight silver dress, her unruly Ke$ha hair swinging side to side. She rested her Fender strat on her right hip with her knee jumping out to greet us.

Popovic’s music and fiery style speak of her volatile political past living in former Yugoslavia. Born in Belgrade, Serbia in 1976 to a musical family, Popovic picked up the guitar at 15 years old. Against the backdrop of the explosive Milosovic nationalist regime, she honed this craft to become the fierce, unapologetic musician she is today.

Perhaps the most surprising asset of Popovic is her powerful vocals. She speaks like Ana Ivanovic but sings like Etta James. Combine that with her electrifying guitar solos and you’ve got a bluesy rock guitarist with the funky, old school vibe of Albert Collins and WAR. She is quite the foxy lady. In fact, she will be joining the Jimi Hendrix Experience tour, along with all-star musicians including Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang and Bootsy Collins.

Following the feisty Serbian was a down-to-earth, multi-instrumentalist whose virtuosity would make Mozart blush. As far as hot trombone/trumpet blues musicians go, Trombone Shorty is a ten. He is the lead of Trombone Shorty & New Orleans Avenue, the funk band that incorporates jazzy tones, hip-hop beats and hints of rock and roll.

His feisty single “Fire and Brimstone” got the audience in the mood to groove. Trombone Shorty illuminated the stage with his compelling solos and sensual voice, while also displaying remarkable chemistry with bass guitarist Michael “Bass” Ballard. His easy way of allowing Ballard to take center stage and show finger-plucking chops gave the effect of a garage band jam session.

Ripping off his shirt in the middle of the performance, Shorty paid tribute to his New Orleans background by gesturing towards an audience member for her emerald green mardi gras beaded necklace. He brought us to his old N’awlins neighborhood, bouncing across the stage and energizing the crowd with his spunky spirit.
Don’t underestimate this fantastic artist by his deceiving nickname, which he earned as a wee little six-year-old musician barely as tall as his instrument.
Shorty is just as unpretentious and irresistible as his music is. His sheer soul and ability to move people made him an incredible performer.

But at the end of the day, there was one man who controlled the river, and his name is Gary Clark Jr. Prowling onstage in a maroon v-neck and black fedora, Clark’s masculinity was very apparent. “I’m in love with you Gary!” was the common crowd murmur, and the self-taught guitarist returned the love with a mesmerizing take on “Bright Lights”. Clark has the keen habit of turning four-minute songs into 15-minute existential experiences, and the anguish and pain from the creases on his face as he felt up the whammy bar made the audience nearly double over in a frenzy.

“I feel good,” the thirty-year-old uttered into the microphone, duly gazing at the river with all of its musically-intoxicated inhabitants. 3,000 heads nodded in agreement, especially those who sailed to the festival via canoes and avoided the $55-a-day cover charge.

All in all, the Russian River Festival brought a big sound to a small town, and the appreciation was felt on every end of Guerneville. Hats off to its creator, Omega Events — this little festival packs a whopper!


This story appeared on page 12 of Thursday, September 25, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.