SaRon Crenshaw has never seen someone openly cry while listening to him play the guitar, but there have been times when, after a performance someone has approached him, held his hand in gratitude and walked away, leaving him holding a $100 bill.
“They would tell me how I’ve touched them,” said the New York City-based blues guitarist, who will be playing the first set in Lionshead on Thursday for the 19th annual Vail Jazz Festival’s first Jazz at Vail Square performance of the season.
Touched as audiences may be, the heartfelt donations his fans have made aren’t that surprising if you consider that Crenshaw’s a guy who’s been caught wandering through the crowd in the middle of a song playing his guitar with his tongue.
And he’s only part of the show tonight. Internationally-touted vocalist and saxophonist Curtis Stigers will fill the other half of the two-hour performance and both artists will pay tribute to “The Red, White and the Blues.”
Needless, to say, the latter color represents Crenshaw’s specialty. When asked about details of what the audience should expect from his performance, he simply said, “something they’ve never seen or heard.”
Non-traditional jazz purveyors
As far as “jazz” goes, neither Crenshaw nor Stigers are traditional representatives of the genre. Stigers, who melted the vast audience at Ford Amphitheater last year with his show, has made a name for himself as not only a jazz vocalist but also as a saxophonist, guitarist and songwriter. The eclectic gamut of big names with whom he’s performed and recorded also speaks to his versatility: Prince, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, Bonnie Raitt and Rod Stewart to name just a few.
You also may recognize his music from the theme song and soundtrack of the hit TV series “Sons of Anarchy” and also from his 10th studio album — “Let’s Go Out Tonight,” featuring songs by Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, David Poe and Richard Thompson.
“I’ve keep poking my foot through the side of the box,” Stigers said of his genre-straddling talent.
For Crenshaw, whose career has just begun to blossom, the “blues” moniker has been the one he’s heard the most, and to prove it, his guitar is adorned with a signature from the king of blues himself … B.B. King, that is.
“It was in Lynchburg, Virginia at B.B.’s show,” Crenshaw recalls of procuring the signature. “Yes, I was nervous, and I wanted to play something for him.”
Then, a couple of years ago, Crenshaw actually shared a stage with King, opening the show, but his idol has yet to personally hear Crenshaw play.
“B.B. didn’t hear me because he was still on the bus,” Crenshaw said. “But his staff and Tony Mason loved it and wanted my info.”
‘Telling someone a life story’
With his soulful vocals and thumping command of every song paired with his fiery guitar, Crenshaw’s sound has been compared to the likes of King as well as Albert Collins and Buddy Guy.
Known to meander from heartfelt blues into strains classified by some as “jazz,” Crenshaw discerns the two genres by pointing out that “with the blues, you can be telling someone a life story and don’t know it.”
When it comes to writing his own songs, the process is more cathartic than it is calculated.
“There have been times I just might feel a groove when I’m playing and make it up,” he said. “Other times it would be something I went through.”
Of all the large stages and jazz festivals Crenshaw has played in recent years, his most memorable shows to date are those played at one of his regular venues — Terra Blues in New York’s Greenwich Village.
“When I stop or end the song, people went clapping, whistling so loud that my ears went ringing,” he said.
Be ready for him to have the same effect on the crowd during his first ever Vail performance tonight.
Stigers, who has performed in Vail several times over the last 20 years, is excited to return with his band, long-time collaborators Matthew Fries (piano), Keith Hall (drums), Cliff Schmitt (bass) and John “Scrapper” Sneider (trumpet).
For the Independence Day show, Stigers will focus on the influence blues music has had on his recordings and his sound.
“I always look forward to returning to Vail to play music and to visit the many friends I’ve made here over the years,” Stigers said. “I love this town.”
The Jazz Tent at Vail Square heats up at 6 p.m. with SaRon Crenshaw, followed by Curtis Stigers after the 6:45 intermission.
Shauna Farnell is a freelance writer contracted by the Vail Jazz Foundation. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.