PICTURED: Crooked Eye Tommy Marsh and Paddy Marsh with Craig Williams. Photo by Bo Rothschild

by Tim Pompey

It may seem like an oxymoron, but people in Ojai are ready to welcome back the blues.

It’s good news, then, that after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Ojai Blues Fest is returning to the Ojai Art Center.

Black Market III perform at Ojai Blues Fest. Photo Submitted

Initially launched by blues artists Tom “Crooked Eye” Natzke and Oatley Kidder back in 2015, the festival has had its challenges over the years, including its most recent break due to COVID-19. But the blues is a strong force, and Natzke insists that there’s good reason to be optimistic about this festival and those yet to come.

The original blues festival, the Bowlful of Blues, also started at the Ojai Art Center. The promoters eventually moved it across the park to the Libbey Bowl when it outgrew the center. Then, for several years, Bowlful stopped. Natzke and Kidder wanted to fill that void 

“Back in 2015,” Natzke recalled, “we were sitting around after performing together and drinking tequila. Oatley suggested we do a little festival, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

Beyond the music, the festival will benefit the Ojai Art Center, which has become the Blues Fest’s adopted home. The concerts will be held in the courtyard, which can handle up to 300 concertgoers.

Natzke says musicians will cover a lot of ground during the festival’s seven hours of performance. This includes Guy Martin’s Texas blues, Ray Jaurique’s soulful sound (close to Motown, according to Natzke), Chuck Strong’s harmonica and Mississippi influence, Sandy Haley’s Janis Joplin singing style, and Crooked Eye himself offering what he termed “old school, broken life story blues.” Local musician Milo Sledge will play acoustic blues between the plugged-in acts.

Natzke used to live in Ojai but relocated to the Nashville area several months ago to take advantage of the numerous musical opportunities in the city. But his heart remains tied to the Ojai Blues Fest, and live blues remains his constant source of inspiration.

“Live blues has the most soulful connection of all the music styles,” he said. “You watch the performers, and you see them pouring themselves into every note, every stanza. It’s just something that the performance will draw you in way more than the guy who can just shred his guitar. It’s so heartfelt.”

The art center is in the hub of Ojai, located near Libbey Park and many different restaurants, all within walking distance. While the concerts are ongoing, you can come and go as you please between acts and enjoy the area’s offerings.

“This festival is set up as a listening festival,” said Natzke. “We have an in-and-out policy. If people want to leave and come back, that’s fine.”

Ojai Blues Fest, Saturday, June 4, 2-9 p.m at the Ojai Art Center, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai. For tickets and more information, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/ojai-blues-fest-2022-tickets-97590703421.