The Portland, Oregon Waterfront Blues Festival started in 1987 when John Lee Hooker headlined what was a one day event. Since that time it has grown into an international event held at Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park on the South bank of the Willamette River annually. It takes place on eight acres containing four different stages featuring over 100 different acts during a four day period over the July 4th weekend. At the same time it’s a non-profit event that has raised over $10 million dollars to fight hunger. This year 45,108 people attended from all 50 states and a number of different countries.
This year marks the 36th time that the festival has occurred and it features a variety of established and blossoming acts from headliner Buddy Guy to up and coming blues rock acts like GA-20. Each stage features a different aspect of the festival and at least two of them have live performances occurring simultaneously. There are also Blues Cruises on the Portland Spirit traversing the Willamette River with three stages featuring a half dozen acts performing during a two hour trip.
Saturday, July 1st kicked off with “The Strange Tones” on the Blues Stage and the “Too Loose Cajun/Zydeco Band on the Front Porch Stage. The Front Porch stage included a large dance area for people to express themselves physically as over a half dozen different Zydeco bands including Rusty Metover and the “Zydeco Crush” performed throughout the day. Sister Mercy played “Oye Como Va,” Tito Puente’s song that Santana turned into a top 40 hit. Amythyst Kiah was performing an acoustic set on the Crossroads stage that had solo acts along with workshops and new bands. It would be impossible to comment on all the acts that occurred over the four day period so this article will only cover some of the most outstanding performances that were witnessed.
“Lightning in a Bottle Records Review” featured Andrew Matthews and Brady Goss on guitar and even keyboardist TJ Wong picked up a guitar halfway through their set. Their performance concluded with Johnny Wheels playing harmonica. The “Greaseland Allstars” played on the main South stage for two different sets. The first was with Nic Clark on acoustic guitar and harmonica and D. K. Harrel dressed in a white suit performing stinging electric guitar runs reminiscent of BB King. The second performance was backing Alabama Mike on vocals with Nick Currin on harmonica and emceeing. Mike sang about the first woman that he fell in love with from Pine Bluff, Arkansas and then had the crowd chanting M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I a dozen times and concluded his set by blessing the crowd and admonishing them to “take the Lord with them.”
“GA-20” is a new addition to the blues rock family and was first formed in 2018 with Pat Faherty on guitar and vocals, Matt Stubbs on guitar and drummer Tim Carman. They began with “Dry Run” from their 2022 release Crackdown. The band is unique in the fact that there are two lead guitars and no bass. Another newcomer Amythyst Kiah took the South stage with her band and proceeded to up the decibel level a couple of notches as she opened her set with “Black Myself.” Her set was comprised of bone rattling ether throbbing bass lines and screaming guitar riffs embellishing her stellar vocals. Towards the end of her set she performed an old Appalachian song titled “Dig a Hole” while she accompanied herself on banjo as she sang.
The “Los Lonely Boys” began their set with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou.” The trio of Garza brothers formed a triangle in front of the drums as they jammed together. A fourth member playing a conga and snare drum was added as they began playing “I’m a Man Yes I Am” by the “Spencer Davis Group” and then “Chicago.” This was followed by “So Sensual” and then their set concluded with an encore performing their signature song “Heaven.” The closing headliner band for the night was JJ Grey and MOFRO whose set began with a harmonica solo followed by telling the crowd how good it was to be back in Portland. JJ alternated front positions with band members as their set progressed through songs like “99 Shades of Crazy” and “Orange Blossoms.”
Sunday featured more Zydeco on the front porch stage with Jordan Thibodeaux “Et Les Rodailleurs” and a half dozen others. Local chanteuses Ellen Whyte and Larhonda Steele held the audience captive as they performed throughout the afternoon. They were followed by the entertaining performance of Rick Estrin & “The Nightcats.” Shemekia Copeland with special guest Ruthie Foster rocked the Blues Stage with their stellar vocal performance of songs like “Barefoot in Heaven” and John Prine’s “Great Rain.” Cory Wong closed the night with his jazz tinged guitar work as he pumped out viscerally motivating tunes like “Assassin” and “Meditation.” His amazing band supported him throughout their instrumental performance while the crowd grooved.
Monday was another gorgeous day opening with former B. B. King drummer Tony Coleman’s Tribute to The Three Kings. Lloyd Jones on guitar and Rick Estrin on harmonica helped with the tunes by B. B., Freddie and Albert King. Coleman told the crowd that B. B. King fired him 5 times but hired him 6 times before they played “Everyday I have the Blues.” Local guitar hero Terry Robb took the Blues stage with his band and played a variety of guitars and styles and sang original songs and covers. Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s he collaborated with legendary guitarist John Fahey to produce and be produced by him. A little later in the day Robb and his band backed up keyboardist/vocalist David Vest.
Kim Field and the Perfect Gentlemen played on the South stage beginning with “Sweet Thing” followed by “Heavy Breathing” by Billy Boy Arnold. Field explained that he helped Arnold write his memoire and rocked out on harmonica. Vocals were shared by Field and other band members and before bass player Albert Reda started singing he announced they were heading South, “that is South Philly.” The band included the Soul Survivors horn section that blew their hearts out on songs like “Natural Ball” and “Tall Women” accompanied by ringing guitars and a throbbing beat.
One of the most visually entertaining acts of the day was “Cha Wa” from New Orleans singing about “rich people, poor people, most people, my people!” They had three front men alternating with vocals, trombone, sax and percussion and two of them were dressed in traditional Mardi Gras Indian feathered outfits. After dedicating a song to fallen soldiers who sacrificed themselves on the battle field they introduced “Iko Iko” the 1963 hit by the Dixie Cups that was originally written and recorded in 1953 by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford and his Cane Cutters. Singer/songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist Celise has played with Lizzo and Mariah Carey to name some and she performed blues and R&B that included Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools. Her band was a power trio with bass, drums and her on vocals and screaming feedback laden guitar riffs.
When Eric Gales took the South stage with his band the decibel level once more increased a couple of notches as he performed a song off Crown his latest album called “The Storm.” He talked about being nominated for a Grammy for the first time as he broke into “Come Together” by the Beatles. After performing more songs from the new album with great screaming guitar runs he concluded with a bring down the house version of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child Slight Return.” Neal Francis had a 1960s vibe and was reminiscent of the “Doors.” His quartet performed original compositions that Francis melodically performed on the keyboards along with “I’m Waiting For the Man” by the Velvet Underground.
Buddy Guy took the South stage with his band to conclude the night but before he began his set a short ceremony took place. One of the city council members officially declared that it was Buddy Guy Day in Portland, Oregon as members of the crowd held up large placards with letters that spelled “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues.” When Buddy took the stage he talked about how he was going to be 87 years old and didn’t see running water till he was 17 years old when his mom used to get water from the creek and boil it. He introduced a Willie Dixon classic the “Hoochie Coochie Man” and then began singing “I just wanna make love to you” as the crowd sang along. “Purple Haze” followed as he told a story about how he’s released so many albums that one time a guy wanted him to sign an album that he never heard of. It was amazing how much stamina and energy he exuded in his performance by standing the entire time since most performers his age sit in a chair.
The final day was Tuesday, July 4 which began with local guitar phenomenon Ty Curtis who has released eight albums and performed with his band on the South stage. The Dusty 45’s were a tight band with a signature sound and have shared the stage with everyone from John Prine to Lucinda Williams and even backed “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame” member Wanda Jackson. Other North West artists like Tyrone Hendrix & the PDX Soul Collective featured multiple singers like Arietta Ward and Saeeda Wright. Another legendary Portland performer who played on the South stage in the early evening was Curtis Salgado who Billboard calls “a tour-de-force…hard-nosed blues, beautifully nuanced R&B, phat and funky” performer.
Miami’s “Mavericks” were the final performers of the festival with their funky brand of Tex/Mex Country rock that they mesmerized the crowd with, playing songs like “Come Onto Me” and “Back In Your Arms Again.” They were like a combination of Santana and Chicago. The day and festival closed with Portland vocalist extraordinaire LaRhonda Steele singing the National Anthem A cappella. A massive fireworks display over the Willamette River followed her performance to conclude the night.