SINGIN' THE BLUES, DOWN BY THE RIVER
If you go
What: Waterfront Blues Festival, showcasing blues, R&B, soul and cajun-oriented bands on four stages
When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday, July 4 through Sunday, July 7
Where: Tom McCall Waterfront Park, downtown Portland (south and north of Hawthorne Bridge)
Admission: $50 for four-day pass; single-day passes $20 in advance, $25 at gate
When Waterfront Blues Festival Artistic Director Peter Dammann first heard Christone "Kingfish" Ingram perform at a musical event in Mississippi, he was duly impressed with the then-11-year-old's prowess on bass guitar.
When a friend suggested that Dammann hear the Clarksdale, Mississippi, native play lead guitar, his level of intrigue increased.
"The next time I went down (south), I heard him play and was like, 'Wow, this kid is really good!'" Dammann recalls.
When he ran into Ingram, he invited the teenager to play the annual Waterfront Blues Festival in 2013.
"We put together a really good band behind him ... a first-class backing band, and he came out and just absolutely blew everybody away," says Dammann, a veteran guitar player. "I've heard it all, but Kingfish was, like, a different level of the game ... not just virtuosic, but also with this deep gospel connection — really deeply soulful."
Needless to say, "Kingfish" Ingram — who so impressed guitar legend Buddy Guy that he invited the kid onstage during his Portland debut — was invited back to Waterfront Blues. The now 20-year-old is among dozens of artists who will perform on four stages from Thursday, July 4, through Sunday, July 7, at Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland for the 31st-annual blues, R&B and zydeco music festival.
As always, the event is dedicated to helping the hungry in Oregon. Portland-based Sunshine Division receives 100% of donations from the four-day food drive to stock its two emergency food pantries. The same goes for donations made at the gates, which topped $10,000 in 2018, as well as a portion of festival sponsorship fees.
Headliners on the South Main Stage this year include — respectively July 4, 5, 6 and 7 — Robert Cray Band, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue.
Dammann's palpable enthusiasm for Waterfront Blues and music in general is undiminished by his 27 years in the role. He's been around the block enough to know a solid assemblage of new and well-tested talent when he sees one.
"The lineup feels good to me. It feels strong and interesting," he says. "I'll check some of it out if I can tear myself away from spreadsheets and contact info lists. But I think it's a really interesting and diverse lineup."
Having guitar legend Cray, whose ties to the Oregon music scene go back to Eugene in the late 1970s, close out the Independence Day lineup marks a slight change in course for the festival.
"The July Fourth lineup is really powerful," Dammann says. "We've always kind of gone light on that lineup. The fireworks show draws a crowd no matter who was on stage, so we tend not to load up that lineup, but (Cray) was only available on the Fourth. It's been four or five years since he was here, so we said 'Yes, we'll do it.' It should be really exciting."
Lesser known to the general public, but just as thrilling, Dammann feels, is Sunday headliner Troy Andrews, aka "Trombone Shorty" & Orleans Avenue.
"Trombone Shorty doesn't get played on the radio around here, but he can sell out any venue anywhere," Dammann says, noting the New Orleans bandleader's first major gig was at Waterfront in 2010. "Nobody really know who he was, but he was a phenomenon in New Orleans. ... We've been trying to get him back ever since. He's bringing a lot of guys he's been playing with since high school. It's a really cool ensemble."
Other acts Dammann and his crew — after years of trying — finally succeeded in landing include Los Angeles-based Vintage Trouble and St. Paul & The Broken Bones.
"Vintage Trouble is a modern take on blues rock," Dammann says. "They have a great vocalist (Ty Taylor) out front who has a little bit of Sam Cooke in him. There's also a rock edge to what he does."
Describing St. Paul & The Broken Bones as a "really fun horn band," Dammann admits experiencing cognitive dissonance when he first laid eyes on lead vocalist Paul Janeway fronting the band.
"He's a very nerdy, accountant-looking guy who sings like Al Green. He looks like he works for H&R Block or something," Dammann says, "but he's a spectacular vocalist, so there's a sort of comic edge to the whole thing ... like, 'You don't think I can do this, but I can.'"
Dammann also sounds pleased to welcome back Larkin Poe, two harmonizing sisters from Georgia, for their second visit to Waterfront, as well as Southern Avenue, featuring another pair of sisters from Memphis, Tenn.
"They're really, really great. One plays drums and the other is a vocalist out front. They're really dynamic — almost like a young, modern version of Tina Turner," Dammann says.
If it's gospel-rooted blues you're looking for, Waterfront Blues delivers Tyler, Texas-bred Sugaray Rayford and Sons of the Soul Revivers.
"He's really fabulous," Dammann says of Rayford. "And Sons of Soul Revivers may be the the best old-school gospel going these days."
Despite the headaches and intermittent hiccups during planning — and a seismic shakeup when Oregon Food Bank abruptly withdrew its organizer role before last year's event — Dammann considers himself extremely fortunate to be associated with Waterfront Blues.
"It's such a cool event. I'm lucky to be part of it," he says. "To me it's always brought to the surface everything that is great and cool about Portland. It couldn't happen the way it does here anywhere else: the venue, proximity to downtown and the river, and the desire to help the needy. Then you combine all of that with a party that's really great."
For more, see www.waterfrontbluesfest.com.
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