As soon as gates opened at 11 a.m. for the 31st annual Waterfront Blues Festival on Wednesday, July 4, at the Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park, ecstatic crowds lined up and trickled in by the hour.
Once the bands begun, crowds flocked toward the music snacking on chips and giant root beer floats. Within an hour the main stage field was a sea of rainbow lawn chairs, though nearly half of them were empty as people stood instead, swaying with the music. Two big screens played the performances live for everyone to watch and even boats, previously docked, floated carelessly in the Willamette River.
Organizers said they expected nearly 20,000 people to visit the festival Wednesday.
The festival boasts 15 food vendors, 19 shopping and promotional booths and eight sponsor vendors. Its main focus is fighting hunger through attendance.
The Sunshine division, an organization founded in 1923 by the Portland Police Bureau, will be collecting food and clothing donations throughout the four day festival. The organization split from the bureau around 1960 but still partners with Portland police, said officer Matt Tobey, who represents the Sunshine Division.
"Food is important, donations are important but the most important goal is to raise awareness about what Sunshine Division is," Tobey said.
He said it's one of the few organizations that operates around the clock, seven days a week with locations in North and East Portland.
Tobey said this is the first year being represented at the blues festival. The organization has 300 volunteers at the festival and 100 people have stopped by the group's booth within the first few hours of the festival, expressing interest in volunteering.
Tobey said one way Sunshine Division helps families is through emergency food boxes, which contain 40 pounds of non-perishable food, stored at the Portland police station and can be asked for through the non-emergency line.
"There's so many people hungry," Tobey said. "Really, for me, it's one of the best, easiest tools we can have. It's cross-cultural."
Looking for shade
A 10-piece blues-funk-rock group "The Lightning Kings," was the first act to take the blues stage at noon. Audience members stood front row as they rocked onstage with brass, dancing vocalists and a heavy handed drummer, nailing the beat. But the electric guitar stole the show as he simultaneously sang and took a solo.
Marie Mintz, who travelled from California's Bay Area to listen to the music, is a Zydeco dancer. She said she loves the music and the dancing because both create a great community. "I love the water too!" Mintz said, lifting up her gray hydro flask.
This was Mintz's fifth year at the festival. But this year she's competing in the " 'Bring the Heat' Blues Dance Contest: Muddy Waters Tribute," with her significant other, Murray, who said they've only practiced "behind closed doors" until now.
Twenty-eight groups performed on Wednesday and 84 more will perform for the festival's following days, July 5 to 7.
Two friends from California, Jenifer Orr and Ginger Koel, said they came for the music and plan to visit the festival the rest of the week. Orr said she's always liked the blues. "I think it's maybe our age group," she said, noting there aren't many millennials walking around. "We're from the '60s and '70s."
Koel said she loves the festival so far, but wishes there was more shade. "I mean, look how red her face is!" She said, pointing to Orr's rosy cheeks and laughing.
A culture shock
Jarrod Lawson and Tahirah Memory took the stage with the American Music Program, a group of Portland high schoolers, around 3 p.m. "What's up ya'll, how are we doing Portland?" Lawson announced while a roaring audience replied.
Without letting a second pass, he started singing "I've Got A Woman," by Ray Charles and playing the keyboard.
Memory came on next, laughing and saying "Look at these kids, just digging in and playing whatever we tell them to." Both sang with a smooth and powerful tone while backed up with strong solos from the high-school students.
Dennis Woods, from South Dakota, Zander Nelson, from Seattle and William McCarthy from Michigan said this was their first time to the festival. The trio works in construction, currently working on the new Amazon building in Troutdale.
"We had a really screwy day yesterday," Woods said, describing what pushed them to come to today's festival. "We wanted to party."
For McCarthy, Portland as a whole took him by shock. "The Pacific Northwest is a trip," he said. "It's a culture shock if you're from the country."
Woods said he's glad they came because of the atmosphere. "Anytime there's music, alcohol and the outdoors you can't go wrong," he said. "Everyone's just on a common ground whether or not you like blues music."
'Just so grateful'
Across the field, "LaRhonda & the Steele Family Band" struck up a song. Her powerhouse voice drew large crowds to the front of the stage while a guitar player complimented her with blues riffs on the off-beats.
"The babies are seeming all grown up now," Steele said about her two daughters, Lauren and Sarah Steele, who sang beside her.
Sarah Steele, a senior at Jefferson High School, and Lauren Steele, a senior college student were the stars of the show as their mother doted on them. LaRhonda Steele said Lauren has several original songs on iTunes and their set featured one of them, titled "Insecurities."
Steele said her family was grateful to be invited to the festival and presented by Sunshine Division, the local organization accepting food donations. "We are so proud to be a part of a festival that gives food to the community," she said. "We are just so grateful."
Reporter Hailey Stewart contributed to this story.
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