Peter Dammann (Waterfront Blues Festival) Interview

Peter Dammann is a seasoned blues musician that has played guitar professionally for his entire adult life, including twenty years with the legendary late Pacific Northwest blues harmonica artist Paul Delay. At the same time he’s the artistic director of Portland, Oregon’s “Waterfront Blues Festival,” which is the largest blues festival West of the Mississippi River. Peter has been involved with it since its conception in 1987 as the “Rose City Blues Festival,” when John Lee Hooker headlined. The purpose of the festival is to raise money for the “Oregon Food Bank” and they raised over a million dollars last year.

The artistic director is the guy who chooses and decides who is going to play at the festival, and with nearly a hundred and fifty acts booked each year, it’s a daunting job. At the same time Dammonn continues to perform at the festival with acts like the “Portland Soul Allstars” and fill in for no show guitarist’s for other acts. The Festivals lineup from the previous decades includes nearly five-thousand acts that cover the entire gamut of blues and the sub genres it spawned along with the roots it came from. Performances have ranged from Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin and Elvin Bishop to Pinetop Perkins, Koko Taylor and Maceo Parker. There has been blues for every taste, from the hard rock blues of Joe Bonamassa to the country rock blues of Lucinda Williams. Peter took time out of his hectic schedule prior to this year’s festival which will begin in less than three weeks on Wednesday, July 4 and end on Saturday, July 7 to explain to “Blues Rock Review’s” Bob Gersztyn, how it all works. He also shared a hilarious encounter he had with legendary late gospel/soul/blues singer Solomon Burke, when he headlined back in 2001.

When did you first become involved with the blues festival and how did that happen?

This is like year 25 for me as artistic director, but I actually played the very first Rose City Blues Festival with “John Ward and the Jokers,” that was I think in 1987. Then I think that it was the next year that it turned into the “Waterfront Blues Festival” and the “Oregon Food Bank” became the focus. Then about four or five years in, I played with different groups during those years and then the guy who had been the artistic director got a job in the development area of the Food Bank and so the job to curate the festival was open and they offered me the job, because they knew that I kind of knew the blues world and I had been a writer for “Willamette Week,” so I knew how to do press releases and I had been sort of covering the music scene for a couple of different publications and I also had a MacIntosh computer and they wanted somebody who knew how to do page layouts and stuff like that. They offered me the job three times because I really didn’t want to do it because it was too much of a hassle and then none of my musician friends would be my friends anymore if I had the hire or not to hire gig for the festival every year. So I kind of passed on the offer and then eventually I said, alright I’ll try it one year. That was twenty-five years ago.

Is it a paid position?

Yeah, it’s a paid position because in the last decade, it’s developed into a full time gig year round. From January to July, it’s just full on, dealing with sponsors and contracting with hotels and writing contracts for all of the acts. You know I have to schedule one-hundred-fifty separate runs from the airport to the hotel to the stage and then back to the hotel and back to the airport.

That is an insane amount of details to coordinate in a limited amount of time.

Well, like I said, it’s a full year job. Then in the Fall, I spend a lot of time kind of going out to concerts to hear acts and going to festivals in the South to. I like to go to the “King Biscuit Blues Festival” when I can get to it in Arkansas. Then there is the “Jazz Heritage Festival” or the “French Quarter.” There’s some festivals in California I go to if I can get to them. So I spend a lot of time just going out and checking who all is performing out there and what kind of crowds they’re drawing. It’s doing all of this kind of research. Also in the fall I start talking to other festivals on the West Coast. There’s a group of Canadian festivals that I collaborate with and there are a couple in Northern California and we talk about who is on our wish list and how we can develop routing. It’s all about routing. If an act isn’t coming out here and doing the upper West Coast swing then you’re kind of out of luck. Otherwise you have to fly everybody in and that becomes incredibly expensive and not really feasible, so I might check in with the Canadian festivals in September they might say, “we really want to get the Tedeschi/Trucks Band. We’ve got an offer in on them, because they are going to play Vancouver on June 30 and they could probably come down and do the Waterfront on the 3rd of July or something like that. So then I start that negotiation with their agent to pick it all out. So that is how Tedeschi/Trucks ended up playing a couple of years ago. My friends in Canada said, yeah we’re making an offer. In previous years they weren’t coming to the West Coast at all until late in the Summer or early in the Winter or something like that. Most of these acts are only going to come through town once a year, if that. Buddy Guy makes one stop in Portland a year, so is he going to come during the 4th of July or is he going to come August 12th when he can play the zoo or his he going to come in the middle of February and play the Schnitz (Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall)? So all of that stuff is what I have to sort out in the late fall and early winter.

Out of all the years that you have been involved with the festival, what’s one of the most interesting stories that you remember?

(Chuckles) Probably the most interesting act was Solomon Burke the Soul Singer. Solomon Burke was such a character. He was also a Reverend, because he had a couple of churches down in Southern California and he also had a couple of funeral parlors. He was kind of a real interesting wheeler dealer, fabulous singer. He was huge, he weighed like 400 lbs.. Anyway, I started calling down to see if I could get him to come up and he had this thirteen piece band with backup singers and horns and everything. So I called down to his church and this guy answers the phone and says hello, I’m Bob Peterson, you need to talk to me. So I go, okay, alright so how does this work, etc.. We had a series of conversations over a month period to get everything ironed out. So I get the contract rider and here’s what it said. “Red Carpet to center stage, Throne and 24 dozen white and 24 dozen red roses.” I immediately called the guy up and got Bob Peterson on the phone and said, what’s this about 24 roses? And he said no, not 24 roses, 24 dozen roses of both white and red. And I go what is that about? And he goes, “Look this is Solomon Burke, he’s a national treasure, we’ve got to treat him right. He’s like a historic figure in this music and he was. He was the first “Soul” singer that was recorded by “Atlantic Records.” He was also the first crossover Gospel singer and a couple of the “Blues Brothers” covers were Solomon Burke songs. So Bob Peterson tells me that we need to treat Doctor Burke, he called him Doctor Burke and said we need to treat him right, because he’s a good friend of mine, so do your best job. So I go, okay. So then I’ve got to make the airplane reservations and it’s like first class seats and I go, hey what’s this about? He’s just coming up from California, that’s like a two hour flight. He says no, no, no, it’s got to be first class seats. So I go, okay, whatever. Then we have to pick him up in a limo and I go, he’s staying at the Marriott, which is like a hundred yards from the hotel to the stage and I go well…but he says we have to do it! We have to do it! So I go okay, alright, alright, we’re going to bite the bullet and do all this stuff.

So a couple of weeks goes by and the festival is about to happen and I thought that I’d better check in with him and make sure that everything is cool. So I called down there and the guy says hello and I recognized his voice as Bob Peterson and I said hi, this is Peter Dammonn from the Waterfront blues festival. Then Bob Peterson says, “oh hi this is Solomon Burke and I’m so happy to be coming out there pretty soon.” I just kind of stopped right there and said wait a minute, Bob Peterson is like the bad cop or good cop for Solomon Burke. He’s like his alter ego, to do his own negotiating on the phone.

So Bob Peterson was actually Solomon Burke?

Yeah, but by that point I’d already kind of signed on the dotted line and given him everything that he wanted. Then when we got to the show, in the first song of the set, he takes all of the roses and kind of one by one tosses them out to the pretty blondes and redheads in the crowd. That’s where they all went. Five-hundred roses just fly off the stage into the hands of beautiful women in the crowd. He turned out to be a real character and a very lovable guy. He brought up people to renew their wedding vows and actually married a couple on stage during his gospel set. It was unrehearsed. He said, I’m a minister, I can do this. So this couple wants to get married and everything just lined up that way. So they got up on stage and Solomon Burke has these vows and he says repeat after me and the vows started kind of off color and they just started getting raunchier and raunchier. The crowd is howling and the couple is kind of red faced. It was quite funny and pretty endearing to everybody. That was the first wedding that we had on stage, but it wasn’t the only one, we had a couple of them since.

Interview by Bob Gersztyn

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