Wednesday, February 8, 2023     Volume: 23, Issue: 49

Santa Maria Sun / Music

The following article was posted on May 12th, 2015, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 10 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 16, Issue 10

The Cliffnotes perform swampy blues rock in Nipomo and Santa Maria


No other genre of music elicits the kind of creative nicknames given to blues artists. According to Cliff Stepp, known as “Crawdaddy” among band members and fans of his band The Cliffnotes, a blues artist is given a nickname, they are never self-imposed.

“They usually come from other musicians,” Stepp said. “I came by mine honestly, because people come up to us and they struggle to describe our sound, and the word that always comes up is ‘swampy.’”

Cliff “Crawdaddy” Stepp (pictured center) leads The Cliffnotes, specializing in bluesy rock ’n’ roll with a swampy feel.

“Crawdaddy” Stepp admits that the swampy sound comes from a number of Southern influences, including some time spent working on a documentary film about Creole culture in the 1980s. It’s a sound that influenced other California blues-rock artists, like John Fogerty, Stepp explained. Fogerty famously penned “Born on a Bayou,” despite growing up in the Bay Area.

Stepp’s band, The Cliffnotes, represents a wide range of talent and experience that straddles several styles. Stepp is the group’s lead singer, rhythm guitarist, and songwriter. Lead guitarist Al B Blue, vocalist Valerie Johnson, blues harp player Joey “Five & Dimes,” bassist Dr. Stan “the Bassman,” and drummer Daniel “Grasshopper” Ruben join the “Crawdaddy” to complete the group’s rockin’ sound.

“When we all come together, each player adding their own unique style, that’s what gives us a sound unique in this area,” he said. “It’s not just all blues, some of it is an alternative country, Americana sound, some of it is pure rock ’n’ roll, and some could even be considered punk-rock influenced.”

An encyclopedic knowledge of blues, country, and rock artists spanning a century aids Stepp and his cohorts in deciding the eclectic range of tunes the band covers, all with their collective sound. From well-known blues masters like Howlin’ Wolf to cult rock-funk groups like Little Feet, The Cliffnotes have a diverse palette to choose from.

Two members of the group specifically, Stepp explained, aid the ensemble’s elasticity when selecting and performing covers. Al B Blue and Valerie Johnson, who are married, both have a range of stylistic ability. Blue, Stepp explained, is comfortable with funky rhythms, ripping leads, and swampy slide guitar. Johnson, a celebrated vocalist, can emulate Etta James for one number, and Janis Joplin for the next. Johnson has even performed with Big Brother and the Holding Company, one of Joplin’s famous collaborating ensembles.

The group is not just a cover band, though, Stepp explained. He writes originals that are peppered throughout The Cliffnotes’ sets. Writing something original can be challenging when working in a genre that glorifies three chords, but Stepp finds plenty to write about, often taking inspiration from the canon of music he enjoys.

Get The Cliffnotes
The Cliffnotes perform live on May 15 at 6 p.m. at the Rancho Nipomo BBQ and Gold Rush Cantina, 108 Cuyama Lane, Nipomo. More info: 202-4655 or
The Cliffnotes are the featured band for Burgers, Blues, and Brews at The Market on May 19 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., Town Center East, Santa Maria. More info: 925-7766.

“I have a song—it started out as a parody way back when I came across the automobile metaphor songs,” he said. “There is a lot of innuendo in those songs and it kind of tickled my funny bone, so I wrote ‘Let Me Be Your Midas Man.’”

The group enjoys performing up and down the Central Coast at local venues known for dance music, as well as the number of winery gigs and benefit shows. Wherever there are shoes ready for dancing, the group is ready to jam, Stepp said.

“I think a lot of it is the attitude of the people who live in this area, they are friendly and really enjoy the music and dancing,” he said. “And there is nothing better for a band than an appreciative audience.”


Contact Arts Editor Joe Payne at

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