The Front Street Prophets come together for Ashford Gordon at this year’s Key to the Highway Blues Benefit

by Michael Aushenker
aushenker@aol.com

Yes, R&B fans, the Fourth Annual Key to the Highway Blues Benefit is upon us again. Unfortunately, after years of co-staging this benefit to help others, renowned local bluesman Ashford Gordon suddenly finds himself both a participant and the beneficiary of this year’s fundraiser. Last year, the blues singer/guitarist learned he had prostate cancer, undergoing 11 biopsies in November.

The Hoodoo Hounds, 50 Sticks of Dynamite and Kelly’s Lot are just a smattering of acts set to jam on Sunday. The most exciting aspect of this year’s Key to the Highway, however, will be the reunion of Gordon’s former band, the Front Street Prophets, with featured performer Guy Martin and special guests Alastair Greene, Jon Gindick, Bryan McCann and Kiley Ki. Doug Johnson will lead a culminating All-Star Jam.

“It’s very touching, very eye-opening,” Gordon told the VCReporter. “Musicians in the Ventura area are a special kind of a club. I never thought I’d be in this situation, but I am grateful.”

Event organizer Lillian Schwartz knows why everybody is rallying. “He’s a very kind, gentle soul,” she said. “He’s spent so much of his time supporting other people’s causes. I’ve never seen a mean bone in his body.” Schwartz and the veteran musician (who just played Hong Kong Inn on March 6) go way back. Schwartz had known Gordon back when the blues musician lived in Mesa, Arizona, before his move to town.

Ventura is the greatest home Gordon’s ever known. “The mountains, the ocean,” he said of why he loves it here. “My children, they’re all mixed-race and Ventura is very accepting.”

The bluesman has been part of the local fabric since 1995, having raised three of his seven children in town. Locally, he started out jamming at the now-defunct Main and Palm coffeehouse Café Voltaire run by “an eccentric owner who would rather feed the musicians than pay them,” he said, laughing.

“Back in the day, he used to play at Eric Ericsson’s [Fish Company] every Sunday,” Schwartz recalled. “When it came time for my 40th [birthday] party, in the middle of our last El Niño, I booked him. After that, we just became very good friends.”

Four years ago, they began mounting Key to the Highway to support Khepera House, a rehabilitation center. Both had had children who suffered from drug addiction (as did Gordon) long ago. “Those people really helped me so much,” Schwartz said of Khepera.

Both Schwartz and Gordon found it a necessary, if unsexy, cause. “People don’t want to talk about addiction and recovery,” Schwartz observed. “It’s a disease that affects all walks of life. If you would have told me it would affect a member of my family, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

To their surprise, Ventura’s music community was unanimous in its reaction to Key to the Highway. “The local musicians pulled together,” Schwartz recalled. “It was just amazing. Everyone was like, ‘Yes, I’m in.’ ”

Gordon’s diagnosis while planning 2016’s benefit proved a curveball. That’s when Schwartz had an epiphany. “I said, ‘Oh, this is ridiculous. Let’s do the benefit and let’s have Ashford be the beneficiary,’ ” she recalled.

The silent auction and raffle will include items from Current Hair Removal, Pure Skin Wellness Spa, Grapes & Hops, Betty Belts Jewelry, Pure Body Works Massage, tickets to a Hans Ottsen Jazz Trio concert, a gift certificate to Winchester’s Grill, two sets of Ventura Roadshow Revival passes, private dinner for six at an Ojai ranch and more. “The music is going to be phenomenal and I just want a really fun event,” Schwartz said, smiling.

Front Street Prophets originally dissolved because half the band did not want to play as much while “half of the band went with me,” Gordon said. Now, after an eight-year hiatus, they’re back! “They’re very excited about this reunion,” Schwartz said. “I’m overjoyed!” Gordon added. “Our lead guitarist is coming all the way from Rhode Island to take part in this reunion.”

Expect the Prophets to perform the title track of their 2000 album, “Somewhere Down the Line” (“always a favorite,” Gordon said) and “All These Blues,” a Paul Butterfield Blues Band tune that featured the late, great Chicago guitarist Mike Bloomfield. They’ll maybe even slip in “Out on the Pier,” inspired by Gordon’s Eric Ericsson’s residency 20 years ago.

Despite his prognosis, Gordon is keeping busy. This month, he’s involved in recording two albums – one in Los Angeles, another in Arizona with another former band, the Second Hand Blues Band (so named because “two of us worked at a pawn shop at the time”). Gordon loves being a part of the great American blues tradition as the genre is the bedrock of jazz, rock, rap and all forms of contemporary music. “Many of the originators are leaving us, sadly, but I think blues is quite alive and well,” he said.

Gordon is currently exploring holistic treatment and continues the best therapy he knows: playing music. “It’s good for the mind, it’s good for the body,” he said. “Entertaining people is really my life.”

Key to the Highway Blues Benefit starts 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 20, at Discovery Ventura, 1888 E. Thompson Blvd. Admission: $10. For more information, contact ktthbb@gmail.com. Those unable to attend can make a check out to Ashford Gordon, c/o Sterling Business Services, 1520 Thrasher Court, Ventura, CA 93003.