By Tom Dellinger //
Portland is a remarkable city. It’s a city I’ve found to be one of the most hospitable I’ve ever encountered, and it was once again a great pleasure to cover their annual Waterfront Blues Festival over the Fourth of July weekend.
Now in its 29th year running, the Waterfront Blues Festival remains an anomaly in the world of modern music festivals. With a daily entrance cost of only $10 per day, though other levels are available like patron and benefactor which offer more perks, they continue sell out at all levels and annually raise surprisingly large amounts to donate to the Oregon Food Bank. This year they once again raised a stunning $1 million dollars! Represented in the musical lineup were artists ranging from the Portland area to California, Louisiana, Brazil and Nigeria with several of the higher-profile artists — JJ Grey & Mofro, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Samantha Fish, The California Honeydrops and Femi Kuti — also appearing at High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, Calif., over the weekend.
Over the course of four days, there was a lot to take in. The festival featured two large stages at opposite ends of the main field, and beyond that, there were also a couple of smaller intimate stages — one offering a one-on-one opportunity with festivalgoers and the other with a dance floor. Both Portland and the Northwest in general have a wealth of excellent musicians to pull from, and every year I see a few new faces in addition to some I’ve witnessed a few times over the years. Local guitarists Ty Curtis and Ben Rice have become a couple of my favorites, and the soulful vocals of Andy Stokes and LaRhonda Steele never fail me. They always seem to provide memorable performances.
There were many memorable moments over the holiday weekend, but one in particular came late in the day on July 4th as Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Ty Curtis sat in with Samantha Fish. At just the age of 17, Ingram already has a few years of touring and recording behind him and has always been considered to be one with great potential. During his set on Saturday, it was obvious he was making good on that. He had a stronger stage presence, his voice more matured and the guitar work more expansive. It was a solid set that was well-received.
But on the festival’s final day as he, Curtis and Fish were taking things “out there,” Ingram let loose with some blistering hot runs, which in turn drove Curtis and Fish all that much harder. And the fans were loving it as if they were on a wild ride with no limits. Once the dust settled, everybody knew this was one of the great moments of the weekend with smiles all around.
Another standout performance came from Portland-based vocalist Liv Warield, a member of The New Power Generation who performed alongside Prince for several years. She reached out to members of TNPG as well as other locals to put together a tribute for Prince in a way she said he would want to be remembered. In addition to some Prince songs, there were also some of her own (Prince co-wrote songs with her) as well as from other artists whom Prince liked to play or cover. It was a riveting and powerful performance.
I always appreciate an international element at music festivals, and we had a few overseas acts again this year. The great Femi Kuti & The Positive Force played a stunning set with a large band that was heavy on horns, percussion and dancers as they worked a passionate performance in the Afrobeat style of his late father, Fela Kuti.
Hailing from Brazil was the Igor Prado Band, whose passion and understanding of this very American music form is undeniable. Prado is riveting on guitar, both for his playing and for his stage presence. The man knows how to work a crowd. They were also joined by keyboard ace Jim Pugh (who was in on many sets over the weekend) and Portland-based Curtis Salgado on harp and vocals.
Another big surprise came from Bay Area artist Aki Kumar. With a strong backing band at the singer’s side that featured Christoffer “Kid” Andersen on guitar, Derrick “D’mar” Martin on drums, Vance Ehlers on bass and Jim Pugh on keyboards, they played a wildly fun set that featured blues mashed up with Bollywood. It worked very well, and the crowd loved them.
There were artists who stretch what we might expect at a blues festival. Few embody that idea more than Los Straightjackets. Sure. Why not? We all need surf music from time to time, and these guys are fun to watch as well.
Bay Area collective Royal Jelly Jive defy categorization. With strong elements of swing, they nevertheless have a very modern sound with smart, well-crafted songs that both swing and rock a crowd, which is exactly what they did. In addition to being a fun band to watch, their unique sound and style made them a standout.
Ayron Jones and the Way were interesting. Though they are heavily blues-based, at times it felt like head-banging metal. What a kick that was!
Few bands seem to be so universally loved and admired more than Tedeschi Trucks Band, and on the festival’s opening night, they gave us one of their sublime sets. It was a perfect night in Portland with the Willamette River in the background and the band running through another one of its flawless, tasty performances, marking an elegant start to the festival.
Over the weekend, many names we’ve come to know and love made an appearance. Maceo Parker, Dr. John, Jimmie Vaughan, ZZ Ward, JJ Grey & Mofro and The California Honeydrops were all exciting sets to see. It was a festival that was rich in many ways. The diversity. The quality. The vibe. Even the weather was about perfect (last year it was in the 90’s).
Portland remains an impressive city that knows how to throw one hell of a party. I continue to be impressed with all they are able to accomplish, and this festival is at the top of the list. Big props to the city, the artists, the staff and the volunteers who make it all possible. I can’t wait for next year.