Waterfront Blues Festival Review

Music festivals have been going on since 1959 when the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals first began. By the end of the 1960s gigantic, eclectic music festivals were common place with landmark festivals like 1967’s “Monterey Pop,” 1968’s Miami Pop” and 1969’s “Woodstock.” The first festivals were a showcase for the roots that pop music was born out of in the form of blues, folk and gospel. Seminal artists like Mississippi John Hurt, Sun House, Bukka White, Odetta, Pete Seger, Cisco Houston and John Lee Hooker, who were featured along with new acts like Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, the “Butterfield Blues Band,” and Bob Dylan to name some.

Since that time festivals have evolved and multiplied just like the myriad of music genres that they represent. The blues genre is one of the most popular musical forms that inspires countless festivals around the world. One of the largest in the USA is the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon, which has been taking place annually since 1987, when John Lee Hooker headlined. This July 4th marked the thirty-first year that the festival took place over a four day period with nearly 150 different acts appearing on four different stages. Then there were after hour venues and even a two hour blues cruise on the Portland Spirit featuring a half dozen acts as it sails on the Willamette River. All the proceed go to support the “Oregon Food Bank.”

This year the festival began on Wednesday, July 4 with the Robert Randolph and the Family Band and ended Saturday, July 7 with George Thorogood and the Destroyers. Most blues novices won’t be aware of the significance of that choice of acts to open and close the show. Blues music dances between the sacred and the profane, dark and light, ying and yang, good and evil, the two paths or whatever you want to call it. Randolph’s act is church based representing the sacred, while Thorogood’s stage persona is one of the bad boy criminal type representing the profane.

It was impossible to see everybody, unless you only watched half the act and ran to another stage to catch half that act. Sometimes we did that and other times we just sat in one place for the entire show. The idea was to enjoy the experience and record the result. We arrived on Thursday afternoon to see Johnny Rawls on the South stage singing “Did Lucy get juicy way down in Georgia?” Then on the Front Porch stage the “Bayou Boyz” announced at 4:20 PM that they were deliberately singing “Let’s Get Stoned.” McKinley Moore fronted a soul band in the 1960’s tradition and even performed “There Goes My Baby” by Ben E. King and the Drifters and “Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding.

Beth Hart performs at the Waterfront Blues Festival.

The first time that I saw Kid Ramos was when he was playing lead guitar for the “Fabulous Thunderbirds” after Jimmie Vaughan left in the late 1990s. This time he was playing his unique style of slide guitar, influenced by Chicago’s Hound Dog Taylor with Mitch Kashmar. Beth Hart played with an intensity that transcends the sacred and the profane as she lays her soul bare “Broken and Ugly” all the way to “Hello California.” The “Dirty Revival” preceded the New Orleans based “Revivalists” who rocked the house in a style reminiscent to “The Band.” and closed the second night.

Day three began with Seth Walker playing his brand of down home country rock on the South stage with “Kelly’s Lot” immediately following on the North stage with Kelly Z exuberantly fronting her hard rocking blues band that included festival music coordinator Peter Dammann for a few songs in one of his multiple appearances playing with the bands.

“Sister Mercy” a gospel blues act hit the South Brewery stage with the intensity of a Pentecostal church service with a 6 person mini choir accompanying lead singer April Brown and her kick ass band, as they performed everything from “Cry Me a River” to Santana’s “Oye Como Va.” Pacific Northwest, legendary blues harmonica/vocalist, Curtis Salgado and his band raised high heaven with songs like “Low Down Dirty Shame.” Louisiana native Marc Broussard played and sang his funky blues rock churning out a metallic sounding version of “Lonely Night In Georgia.” “The Mavericks” hailed from Miami and lead singer/guitarist Raul Malo has been fronting the band since the 1980s. they played a brand of Tex/Mex rock & roll similar to that of Los Lobos or Los Lonely Boys, ranging from Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” to a Jimi Hendrix inspired guitar performance segueing into Mariachi music with lead accordion.

Saturday was the last day of the festival and the temperature continued to hit the 80s making it perfect weather the entire week. David Vest is a piano player originally from Alabama, who hit the blues big time in Portland, Oregon in 1999 when he released a solo album and played with the Paul deLay band. The rest of the day was made up of the Cajun sounds of Dexter Ardoin & “Creole Ramblers,” the hybrid gospel of “Ranky Tanky” and the rocking rhythm & blues of the “Polyrythmics.” Ruthie Foster took the stage as a gospel blues trio playing electric guitar instead of an acoustic with drums and bass accompanying her. She sang songs inspired by Bobby Blue Bland along with Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, carrying on the gospel tradition like a younger version of Mavis Staples. “The Motet” was a hard driving horn driven seven piece band from Denver, Colorado.

George Thorogood performs at the Waterfront Blues Festival.

The night and festival culminated in the performance of George Thorogood and the “Destroyers,” who took the stage by storm as a voice announced their entrance as if it were a big time wrestling match. Thorogood took center stage as he started his set with “Ain’t Coming Home Tonight” and ran through his greatest hits playing raging slide guitar. Thorogood is one of a handful of successful blues rock musicians that have made a career of keeping traditional blues alive by producing covers of original blues and early rock & roll compositions that sound current, the same way that the “Rolling Stones,” “Canned Heat” and Led “Zeppelin” did. He performed everything from John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Bee” to his own alcohol inspired “I Drink Alone,” while he stood center stage doing some amazing guitar work with his tongue hanging out. The night ended with “Bad to the Bone and had Thorogood bringing down the house with a raging blues rock guitar solo in the spirit of Hound Dog Taylor that faded into the ether.

Review by Bob Gersztyn

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