By now everyone has rambled on down the road leaving me to decipher sixteen pages of notes in bad penmanship. I didn’t know what to expect from four days of blues that ran from July 1 to July 4, but it was more music than I’d experienced in the last few years. Blues Fest may have been more blues centric when it started thirty-five years ago but its evolved to include blues off shoots like roots, zydeco, soul and rock. Clanging guitars and honking horn sections impressed me more than I imagined.
Arriving the first afternoon, we got the lay of the land. There wasn’t a rush to get to the downtown Waterfront, where the event was held. An afternoon arrival still meant at least six hours of blues. We waded into a sea of people catching the scenic views of the river full of boats, one flying a giant American flag. Music blared.
We headed to see Tevis Hodge Jr. at the Crossroads Stage. I had seen his appearance on The Peasant Revolution Band Variety Hour. He played authentic blues on a steel guitar. Tevis encouraged a dancing couple, “Loosen them bones,” he said as he played a song by a train hoppin’ hobo. I was pouring over the schedule making the plan. As soon as Grace Potter plays the Ooh La La song, I thought, we’ll run to the Front Porch stage and catch the James Brown Tribute. My quest to race from stage to stage changed when I realized there was more magic in random unplanned moments. Tevis played the fishing song, a nice bookend to Taj Mahal’s version we would see on Day 3. He told the audience about riding his bike to Blues Fest during his high school days when the admission fee involved can donations. Back then he dreamed of playing the festival. His love for the Blues made the living the dream adage come to life.
We noticed the multitudes wearing music related t-shirts unrelated to blues: Kiss, Clash, Slash, Stevie Nicks 2022, Ramones, Primus, Dead and many others. The more appropriate Johnny Lee Hooker shirt didn’t appear until Day 3. On Day 1, my wife Ronna and I were mystified, yet excited for some reason, to see two different Reba shirts. Any shirt is better than no shirt at all.
Introducing the Robert Randolph Band, Dan Tolkin from KOIN 6 made a lead balloon of a stage diving joke but he wasn’t far off. The band revved up scorchingly heavy blues featuring Randolph’s distorted lap steel. When the sun sunk low, Grace Potter scooted across the stage, moves that could have been inspired by sharing a bill with Mick Jagger and the Stones. Her suggestive comments about a limp microphone had a fan behind us shouting, “we’re listening.” It was a sultry romp bordering on a starlet parody and a Jennifer Jason Leigh movie. None of that mattered. Grace and her band rocked. Loud, abrasive at times, rollicking; I knew the Ooh La La song. It seemed destined to be the closer. Before the set ended, we were rocked out and needed to pace ourselves. I settled for hunting for a live version of Ooh La La on YouTube as we scurried home.
After catching Son Little on the Blues Stage, we wandered toward the back of the festival dominated by Zydeco music. Accordions and wash board contraptions get anyone within earshot bobbing. Chubby Carrier was doing his thing with the Bayou Swamp Band bringing the spirit of New Orleans. Standing by what Ronna called the “bear cage,”Chubby announced we were all members of his “Zydeco Family” making Blues Fest a family reunion. My feeble attempts at dancing made me feel like the black sheep of the family.
We headed towards the Crossroads stage where Zach Person was cranking the sound that’s bringing him fame outside of Austin. He slipped in classical music riffs, the dance of the sugar plum fairy, I was told, before playing a Hendrix song. The Crossroads Stage was a victim of its own success becoming standing room only unless you arrived early.
The festival scene became a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds. A taco walking down the esplanade was a costume and not a hallucination. Diunna Greenleaf taught me a cool stage move. When you’re done, reach for the sky, yelp and walk off stage. I understand show business but as a curmudgeon, I don’t like to be told what to do. Don’t tell me to put my hands together. Don’t tell me to give some love to anybody. Blues Fest introduced us to many artists we wouldn’t have known otherwise. I recalled Lady A’s battle with Lady Antebellum when they wanted to undixiefy their name and use her’s, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling her “Big Mama.” Ronna explained her Sugar Honey Ice Tea reference. We’d all slogged through and stepped in it during the pandemic.
Performers of all kinds gave their all. This made Duffy Bishop’s efforts even more impressive. She hit the stage clucking like a chicken, her jewelry rattling. You would assume she was just an elderly woman but she belted out song after song. It hit me. All bands need horn sections. I’ll never see the Foo Fighters unless they add one. Duffy left the stage to sing in the crowd. This was a transcendent moment that elated the audience.
Son Little played a second set on the smaller Crossroads Stage. The dusky evening vibe felt like quintessential Portland. Random people connected, a woman, alone at the side of the stage swayed to the music and a guy in a Denny’s bacon costume jitterbugged with his lady. In front of us, a man drummed along to Son’s cozy minimalism. His subtle, southern riffage, angular and choppy, was supported by keyboard bass notes. Later the same man shared his vape pen and danced with a couple. We sang along to the Blue Magic song feeling like there had been magic in being able to, once again, see performers and be around the characters that give local shows their Portland charm.
A few licks into Artis Jordan’s set on the Blues Stage had me thinking, “guitar hero.” The guy wailed. I was distracted by a guy who spilled beer down his shirt, slurped from his buddy’s flask and washed it down with a joint. The Parks and Rec department outlawed smoking. Most people complied so there was little need to crack down. Artis reminded me of Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel. We experienced a Portlander we hadn’t heard of before.
Beer was a big part of Blues Fest. At seven bucks a pop I found it amusing, yet irritating, that it was sold full to the brim in small cups leaving people to slosh and weave through the crowds. Spillage was unavoidable. I laughed about the crowd management worker in a Steeler knit cap checking the ID of a man with a giant beard that looked like it took ten years to grow. A festival wouldn’t be festive without jostling with the crowd. A guy made a joke of my wife’s lack of a use of a turn signal while she was walking. Another element was encroachment on our space. We laid down towels to claim space. This felt like our lawn. I became that get off my lawn guy. One lady proceeded to move my bag—shocking! You never touch a guy’s bag without asking. This is what I’ve missed from rarely going to concerts.
An 80 year old Taj Mahal ended the evening in strong voice. He still had it. My favorite part was when he told his horn section to, “horn me!’ I was enjoying my lack of expectation from a legendary artist I should probably know more about. In an ageist world, it was nice to see old folks kicking ass.
We stumbled onto a blues dance competition with a judge wandering through the pairs, taping some, which either meant they were in or out. Of course a competitive dancing subculture exists, this was my first up close encounter. The dancers wore special shoes and I’m still unsure how people dance to the blues. I was lacking stamina for the last day, worn out from so much music. Despite the grind, there were several acts I wanted to catch. I flashed back to Woodstock. How could they have taken sleeping in the mud and being high for three days? Heck Jimi’s Monday morning performance might have seemed like a mass hallucination if somebody hadn’t filmed it. But it’s all about the music and we had the luxury of sleeping in our own bed every night.
I was excited to see Femi Kuti. I knew something of his lineage, but not much. I was glad to see that Blues Fest parameters were not rigid enough to exclude afrobeat. The horns kicking in were pure joy. The sparkling dancers shook while Femi stalked the stage in a green kung fu suit. Most performers had avoided political statements but this was Femi’s act. His songs spoke of corruption and coming from a place where people fight their government for health care, decent roads, even electricity. I read up on Femi’s father, Fela, finding out he’d spent time in jail for his beliefs. Femi’s message warned of a battle of political will brewing. “Let the storm be our storm,” he said. “Let that storm be love. Let that storm end pain.” Music, the family business, had Femi ready to pass the torch, bringing his son on stage to finish the show.
We decided not to move claiming our space by the South Stage and watching performances from the Blues Stage on the telescreen. There was no point in moving back and forth when it wasn’t possible to see much with people standing in front of the stage. Judith Light’s performance revealed her incredible voice and admirable guitar skills. Her band included family members. She introduced her keyboard playing mom as “the funkiest mom on the planet.” Her Dad’s introduction included a bass solo.
I was in line getting Ethiopian food as Andy Stoke’s band was setting up. I was feeling judgmental. I hadn’t even seen Andy in his stage clothes. There was a guy at the Crossroads Stage who had done historical research for a purebred blues sound and a parade at the other side of the Festival that I thought deserved my attention but it was too much to dash back and froth. As we ate, Andy Stokes won me over with passionate soul singing and showmanship. While I was feeling sluggish, like the bottom heavy six string bass groove, Andy pumped out his new take on his ballad, “I Don’t Give a Damn,” that was a resurgent hit. He offered up a pun on his name telling the audience we were going to get “stoked.” He reminisced about his twelve years playing the Candlelight Lounge while making good use of his talented background singers.
Cedric Burnside did double duty this day performing for the dance competition then following Stokes. The energy had been sapped out of the “room” so to speak. Stokes proved a tough act to follow. Grumblings from a guy behind us had me thinking that this may not have been the best act for the time slot. Burnside had an innovative, simplistic approach to his Mississippi Hill Country Blues, influenced by his grandfather R.L. Burnside. It took him awhile to get cooking.
The Blues Fest ended in a huff with drunken chatter becoming a distraction. I had to wonder why I was worked up when I was listening to a band named Lettuce. They were a funky, jazzy band. Their main ingredient: a horn section! It was polyrhythmic and fun, fun lost on the chattering people around us. Who goes to a concert to listen to themselves or others talk? They had it all wrong. It’s about the music! It got worse as Lettuce pumped up the audience. People crowded around us, a guy started talking to us about weed and he got too close. All the standing meant we couldn’t sit and relax to watch the Fourth of July fireworks after the show. We managed to catch some of the display before hustling away from the blues into the darkness of night.