Waterfront Blues Fest to bring feast of sounds to downtown Portland
With the first notes of the Waterfront Blues Festival looming less than a week away, Peter Dammann, the event's longtime artistic director, makes no bones about where the inevitable eleventh-hour logistics tangle leaves his nervous system.
"It's been sort of like living in a swarm of mosquitos," he says of tying up loose ends for the annual event. "I've been a little out of my mind, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel. I can see it. But right now, I can't tell any difference between Blues Fest and an Excel spreadsheet."
The 30th annual music festival, a fundraiser for the Oregon Food Bank, runs Friday, June 30, through Tuesday, July 4, at Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland. In addition to legendary performers like Elvin Bishop, Sunny Landreth, Canned Heat and Oregon's own Curtis Salgado, the event also features plenty of newer and less formally blues-based acts such as Galactic and J.D. McPherson, and headliners Chris Isaak and Joss Stone.
Dammann, a Chicago-born guitarist and former journalist, has curated, booked and coordinated musical acts for the festival, held every Fourth of July weekend, since 1994. A genuine love of blues music still drives him. When it comes to filling four stages over five days on a limited budget, however, he is a realist.
"My sense of the envelope for the (blues) genre is broader than some people's," he says. "To me, any (artist) clearly rooted in blues traditions, but who may veer away from them, is among the acts suitable for Waterfront."
He cites funk-jam band Galactic (9 p.m. Sunday) and British singer/songwriter Stone (9 p.m. Monday) as stretching the blues fest roots-y parameters in appropriately appealing directions.
"Galactic is a New Orleans-based funk band, but to me any band out of New Orleans is blues-oriented," he says. "Joss Stone is a British pop star (whose) breakout album is pure retro, 1960s soul music. Some of that is quite classic blues material."
Dammann, who received negative feedback for booking former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant in a Sunday night headline slot in 2013, realizes he's pushing the envelope with Chris Isaak. On the surface, the Friday night headliner's smoothly atmospheric, Roy Orbison-influenced style may seem several counties away from where Robert Johnson stood at the crossroads, but Dammann believes the connecting roots are there.
"Chris Isaak is a departure. He's always been on my list to consider," he admits. "He and his bandmates are really rooted in Memphis rock, rockabilly and the blues tradition. It's (like a) tribute to (1950s) Sun Records."
Other new acts Dammann is excited about this year include: Bokante (8 p.m. Monday), which he describes as a Caribbean/Creole-based ensemble with pedal steel guitar; Fantastic Negrito (8 p.m. Friday), a style-synthesizing singer/songwriter raised in an orthodox Muslim household who won a Grammy award this year for Best Contemporary Blues Album; and the Big Head Todd Blues Club (9 p.m. Saturday), the long-running Colorado jam band's collaboration with blues masters Billy Branch, Cedric Burnside and Mud Morganfield. The latter happens to be the son of blues legend Muddy Waters, a key inspiration for the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and virtually any blues-loving musician since the early 1960s.
"They've always had this thing for the blues," Dammann says of Big Head Todd. "I think that's going to be a (special treat) for hard blues fans. It's very compelling."
Tara Taylor, who helps organize the festival as a strategic partnership manager with the Oregon Food Bank, says the festival's decision to charge a flat admission fee ($15 a day at gate; $50 for five-day pass) rather than rely on $10 daily donations proved successful when it was implemented last summer.
"A festival of this magnitude is very complex and very expensive to put on," she says, emphasizing that all musicians are paid to perform at the event. "The cost to have 120 acts over five days is just huge. At a certain point, we had to make a tough decision."
For the past several years, organizers determined that 40 percent of those who came through the festival gates did not donate food or funds to benefit the food bank.
"A lot of people thought the city (of Portland) put it on," she says of the event. "Oregon Food Bank even pays for the fireworks. So last year we implemented (the admission fee) in, and it went very smoothly."
With forecasts calling for mostly sunny skies and temperatures from the mid-70s to low 80s, Taylor foresees this year's attendance meeting or exceeding last year's average of about 22,000 each day.
While that's down a few thousand from before the change in admission policy, she believes the less-congested atmosphere creates a better experience for all involved.
"We're hoping again this year it won't be an issue," Taylor says. "Just a little bit less attendance made it that much better of an experience."
"We definitely want people to come down and support it," she adds. "It's a good cause, a great location and wonderful music."