2016 Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival in Review

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All you need to know about the blues you can learn July 1-4 at the 2016 Portland Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival. From the deepest roots of blues music, its spread across borders and generations, to the multiple genres that blues has influenced, this year’s diverse lineup offers a chance to see and hear it all, and inexpensively—120 acts on four stages for a mere $10 per day, a third or less of daily admission to most multiple day festivals—all in support of Portland’s food bank.

“We’ve got one of our strongest, most eclectic lineups ever,” said festival director Peter Dammann. “Ranging from some of the finest blues artists on the planet (blues deities Derek Trucks and Jimmie Vaughan, fast-rising young stars Kingfish and Samantha Fish), to Louisiana’s most compelling zydeco/cajun acts (Steve Riley, Chubby Carrier), to cutting edge neo-blues acts (ZZ Ward, the Record Company, JJ Grey & Mofro), to the toughest, most soulful funk band on the planet (Maceo Parker), to New Orleans hottest brass band (Soul Rebels) and living funk/R&B legend (Dr. John) to Liv Warfield & the Prince NPG Hornz remembering their late friend and mentor, in a powerful performance I suspect we will never forget.”

Headliners

Acts headlining the festival’s two main stages represent a dazzling array of blues styles and all its many spin-offs, including funk, soul, blues fusion, rock, and more. Perhaps no one represents the fusion of soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues that is funk better than saxophonist Maceo Parker (appearing Saturday). James Brown originally only hired Parker in 1964 as part of a package deal to get Parker’s brother to join his band as a drummer, but soon the sound of Brown calling out “Maceo!” on stage during his shows made Parker one of the world’s most recognizable side men. Parker went on to work episodically with James Brown for the next 24 years.

In the meantime, Parker also starred with a who’s who of funk artists, including Parliament-Funkadelic, funk-punk rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prince, as well as De La Soul, James Taylor, and the Dave Matthews Band. While in Parliament, he learned an entirely different approach to funk. Bandleader George Clinton was fiercely experimental, and at first Parker was unsettled by the bizarre space costumes and the lack of James Brown regimentalism. But as Parker put it, Clinton flatly stated “We know funk. And this is the way we do it.” Parker put his funk mastery to work for himself when he began his solo career in 1990. To date he has recorded 11 albums, and his band is often called “the greatest little funk orchestra on earth.” That band will take the stage Saturday night.

JJ Grey and Mofro, appearing Sunday, is a neo-soul phenomenon from Florida whose fine-grit sandpaper voice goes from bad boy sass to the personification of longing and loss as he toggles between funk, dirty rock, and wrenching ballads that often mourn the industrialization of the Florida he deeply loves. Grey’s success over the last decade is largely down to his tenacity—he once named an album “Georgia Warhorse” after the impossible-to-kill grasshopper of northern Florida—relentlessly increasing his fan base a festival and club date at a time. So universal is Grey’s appeal that he fits as easily on stage at Bonnaroo as he does on Austin City Limits, and his soulful intensity has made him a repeat favorite at Portland Waterfront.

ZZ Ward (Sunday) represents a new generation of blues, beat-heavy and hip-hop influenced, but built on chassis of blues and classic soul. Her voice bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Amy Winehouse, and its plaintive power led the New York Times to enthuse that “her energy evokes Tina Turner’s, her chops Aretha Franklin’s and her soul Etta James’s.” ZZ Ward’s career has been as brief as it has brilliant. Her 2012 debut album achieved the kind of mainstream success most blues artists can only dream of after a decade or two of effort, including songs on soundtracks of The Good Wife, Shameless and Pretty Little Liars. Her song “365 Days” served as the opening theme song for The View, and she has appeared on the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and Good Morning America. She will appear Sunday.

Hearing Afrobeat legend Femi Kuti (Friday) for the first time is like meeting a long-lost cousin from another nation; the details of borders and languages are instantly breached by the familiarity born of a shared heritage. Femi Kuti is of Nigerian musical royalty; his hugely influential father, Fela Kuti, invented Afrobeat, a patois of traditional Nigerian and Ghanian music, jazz, funk, rock and West African rhythms. Femi Kuti worked as a horn player with his father as a teen, starting his own band, Positive Force, in the ‘80s. Afrobeat is new to many Western audiences, but its rhythms and vocal style immediately make apparent its common ancestry with Caribbean music. Femi Kuti has collaborated with a pantheon of American and European stars, including Mos Def, Common, Macy Gray, D’Angelo and Nile Rodgers. Femi Kuti and the Positive force will appear Friday.

Jimmie Vaughn (Saturday) and the Tedeschi Trucks Band (Friday) are two guitar-driven main stage acts that blend Southern Rock and blues sounds with rock and roll to strikingly different but equally powerful effects. Both guitarists Jimmie Vaughn and Derek Trucks are of Southern music aristocracy; Vaughn is the brother and former bandmate of Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Trucks is the nephew of Allman Brothers founding member Butch Trucks, as well as a former member of the Allman Brothers himself. Trucks, who with wife Susan Tedeschi founded the Grammy-winning Tedeschi Trucks Band, uses a distinctive slide guitar technique inspired by Middle Eastern and east Indian music that makes his sound instantly recognizable. Paired with Tedeschi’s scorching blues and soul vocals, the band occupies a territory all their own. Vaughn’s style is more traditional, but no less virtuosic; Guitar Player Magazine said “he is a virtual deity—a living legend.” Vaughn co-founded The Fabulous Thunderbirds with Kim Wilson in the ‘70s and brought blues rock into the mainstream in the ‘80s with back to back hits “Tuff Enough” and “Wrap It Up,” sparking a blues revival that continues to this day. Jimmie Vaughn will appear with the Tilt-A-Whirl Band and long-time collaborator and vocalist Lou Ann Barton Saturday; see Tedeschi Trucks on Friday.

Curtis Salgado (Monday) is literally the original Soulman—his friendship with John Belushi resulted in Belushi patterning his Blues Brothers character “Joliet” Jake Blues on Salgado. In 40 years of making music, Salgado has built a legacy matched by few. His credentials include co-leading the Robert Cray Band, making nine albums of his own, and touring with Steve Miller and Santana. Salgado is also a three-time winner of the Blues Music Award for Soul Blues Artist of the Year, and in 2013 he won the BMA for B.B. King Entertainer of the Year—the highest honor the blues world has to offer—and took the statue for Soul Blues Album of the Year for Soul Shot. Blues Revue says Salgado’s music is “triumphant, joyful, blues-soaked R&B” and declared him to be “one of the most soulful, honest singers ever.” Salgado appears Monday.

Three young artists, Samantha Fish, Kingfish, and Ayron Jones, provide a road map to where blues is headed. Guitarist Samantha Fish was an immediate festival circuit sensation when the young Kansas City native’s blistering guitar leads and mature blues voice astonished blues fans upon the release of her first album Runaway. Still only in her mid-20s, she is touring her third album Wild at Heart, an explosive combination of crunchy rock guitar and sweet blues licks. She’s devoted to blues, but not afraid to rock out on any stage; a recent appearance at the Winthrop Rhythm and Blues Festival culminated in a surprise rendition of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.”

Yet younger is the Mississippi Delta prodigy Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (main stage Saturday). At just 17, he has been playing bass for 11 years, drums for eight, and guitar for six. In spite of his youth, he has already had a significant career, touring the world, playing at the White House for the Obamas, and appearing on numerous national television shows. Ingram’s nimble guitar and smooth vocals cleave fairly closely to the classic blues of those who inspire him, including B.B. King, Albert King, Big Jack Johnson, Albert Collins, and Freddie King. Ingram is proof that while blues may continue to be reinterpreted and remixed, the tradition of the blues will never be lost. See both Samantha Fish, as well as a guitar slam featuring her and Kingfish, Monday.

Before he became a force to be reckoned with in the Pacific Northwest, Ayron Jones (Sunday) once was a regular at blues jams in Seattle. Barely old enough to get in, he would astonish musicians more than twice his age with his uninhibited original music that channeled both Johnny Lang and Jimi Hendrix. His music made a believer of Seattle rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot, who pronounced Jones “easily the best talent in Seattle right now,” and offered to produced Jones’ debut album.  Ayron Jones and the Way’s unique blend of grunge, hip hop and blues quickly amassed a large following, and the young band wound up on the region’s biggest stages, including Bumbershoot, Summer Meltdown, and a spot opening for B.B. King at the Moore Theater; they appear at the festival Sunday.

The festival also honors and remembers Prince as Liv Warfield (Sunday), a former member of Prince’s New Power Generation, presents a tribute to the enigmatic superstar, whose untimely death shocked the world April 21. Warfield got her start in Portland and was once named “Portland’s Most Soulful Singer” until a Youtube clip of her singing “Gimme Shelter” earned her a startling phone call. Prince had seen it and was so impressed that he invited her to audition for his backup band The New Power Generation. Warfield appeared on the 2010 Prince album Lotusflow3r, and after the New Power Generation was retired in 2013, Prince continued to mentor her, producing Warfield’s album The Unexpected, for which he also wrote the title track. Warfield has enjoyed enormous individual success since embarking on her solo career, which she credits in large part to Prince, saying that he taught her how to be great both in the studio and onstage.

Blues from the roots
Throughout the four days of the festival, blues fans will be able to trace blues music back to its earliest incarnations. Leo “Bud” Welch, 84, offers Portland blues fans one of the last remaining chances to glimpse the rural Delta roots of the blues. Welch grew up in the tiny Mississippi Delta community of Sabougla, performing on guitar from the age of 15 on but earning his living as a logger. For more than 60 years he played gospel and blues around sparsely populated Calhoun County, unknown outside the region, until a video of him playing at a birthday party in 2013 brought him to the attention of the wider world. When his first album Sabougla Voices was released to rave reviews just before his 82nd birthday, he had never been on a plane. That year, though, he got a lot of flying miles to Europe and around the United States, including a trip to Portland Waterfront two years ago. Friday he returns to the Front Porch Stage with a drummer and a brand new album.

Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons (Friday) of Seattle, winners of the 2016 International Blues Challenge in the solo/duo category, are considerably younger than Welch, but the music they play harks back even further, to the days and sounds that birthed the blues, including Southern prison work songs, field hollers, banjo and fiddle music, proto-jazz, and jug band sounds. The multi-instrumental pair, now at work on a documentary about the music of today’s Mississippi river, offer an unparalleled window into the origins not only of blues, but all American roots styles, many of which are represented at this year’s festival. See them Friday on the Front Porch Stage.

Portland music historian Mary Flower is at the heart of two of this year’s roots blues acts, Mary Flower and the Barbecue Boys (Saturday), and the Ragpicker String Band (Sunday), both of which appear on afternoon cruises. Flower, who specializes in lap steel and finger picking, invokes the tradition of the early women innovators of blues such as Odetta and Memphis Minnie so well that Acoustic Guitar Magazine enthused, “Mary is deep in the pocket of the country blues and there are few musicians in the genre bringing as much creative spark and low-key mojo to this century-old music.”

Louisiana
While blues was developing in the delta region, a related art form, the frenetic accordion and washboard-based zydeco, was brewing in Louisiana, born of the centuries old Creole culture that flourished there. Rooted in the same African rhythms as blues, zydeco incorporated French and traditional Creole sounds and eventually absorbed jazz and post-war blues to become some of the world’s most danceable music.

Portland this year continues a long relationship with the music of New Orleans—last year the festival invited many Louisiana artists to help mark 10 years since Portland rallied in response to Hurricane Katrina—with no less than seven artists from Louisiana. There is no artist more quintessentially New Orleans than pianist Dr. John (Sunday). The gravel-voiced singer-songwriter traces his ancestry back two centuries in Louisiana, and he takes his name from a storied Bayou Road voodoo practitioner. Already well known in the Crescent City in the 1950s, Dr. John worked as a session player as part of LA’s fabled Wrecking Crew in the ‘60s until his 1968 album Gris-Gris launched his solo career. Since then he has won six Grammys, has been inducted into the Rock-and-Roll hall of Fame, and is widely regarded as the personification of New Orleans music.

The roots of Gulf Coast music is represented on the Front Porch Stage Saturday and Sunday by Grammy-nominated Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, who bring 300 years of Cajun French tradition to the music they play. Chubby Carrier, Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble, Terry and the Zydeco Bad Boys and Roddy Romero and the Hub City All-Stars electrocute the dance floor with traditional and contemporary zydeco. And the great tradition of Louisiana brass—the result of African musicians jazzifying European military marching instruments—is updated by the Soul Rebels, who draw on hip hop, funk, soul and rock. The Front Porch Stage is devoted to the Zydeco Swamp Romp all day Saturday and Sunday.

Up and Coming
Portland Waterfront is host this year to a collection of innovative and intriguing groups from across the nation, thinking people’s groups that are far from household names but that have built die hard cult followings with their ingenuity that is at once retro and cutting edge. The California Honeydrops (Monday) sound like an amalgamation of all that was hip in the 1960. In a single set one may hear what sounds like an undiscovered Percy Sledge cut from a FAME studio vault in Muscle Shoals, gospel-tinged R&B reminiscent of Soul Train, and New Orleans trad jazz. The Record Company (Monday) will instantly captivate fans of Americana and blues rock. Gritty and and sometimes dissolute vocals are exquisitely accompanied by an unbelievably catchy rhythmic pedal steel guitar, acoustic guitar, melodic bass that reminds one at time of the White Stripes, and the stripped down songwriting that once made legends of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The Rad Trads (Monday) have the insouciant charm of the pre-invasion Beatles, if the Beatles had been led by Dr. John and sung about hungover mornings instead of Hard Days Nights. Irreverent and diverse, they draw on early jazz, New Orleans brass, R&B, the Chicago and delta blues, and rock and roll. San Francisco’s Royal Jelly Jive (Friday) is equally diverse, but an hour in their company leaves one feeling refreshed rather than exhausted. The sophisticated musicians at one moment produce the muted haunting trumpet of Miles Davis, the next a smooth Latin groove, followed by horn-rich big band swing, all ornamented by Lauren Bjelde’s breathy retro vocals.

Global blues
Some of the blues bands most representative of familiar blues styles come to Portland from other nations. That is not without precedent; it was English devotees of roots blues that brought about the main stream renaissance of the form in the United States in the 1960s. Today, it is artists from Canada, Brazil, India, and even the Yankton Sioux Nation of South Dakota that are performing blues that is both creative and firmly rooted in the genre.

Hailing from the Yankton Sioux Nation of South Dakota is the all-Native blues powerhouse Indigenous (Saturday). Founder and guitarist Mato Nanji inherited the blues traditions from his father, a respected spiritual leader whose band the Vanishing Americans toured in the ‘60s, opening for acts such as Bonnie Raitt. While still in his teens, Nanji formed the band Indigenous with his sister, his brother and a cousin, and they have been touring ever since. The music of Indigenous will be familiar fare for fans of modern blues, with Stratocaster-fueled, heavy motifs after the manner of Jimi Hendrix and Robin Trower and the overdriven intensity of Joe Bonnamassa and Gary Moore.

From Canada come the 24th Street Wailers (Saturday), a clever jump blues band featuring Lindsay Beaver on drums and vocals, who sings with the ragged edge of Nikki Hill while maintaining a driving jump swing beat. Even on “Where Evil Grows,” a cool original number that harks back to the classic tremolo-drenched sound of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang, Bang,” and that could easily go on a James Bond or Quentin Tarentino soundtrack, the guitar solo is pure classic electric blues.

Arriving from Brazil is Igor Prado (Monday), who delivers a spot-on horn driven, classic Motown sound, with big Hammond B3, upright bass, and a soulful horn section. The resulting music sounds as if Prado might have come to the festival straight from Muscle Shoals instead of South America. Perhaps the most authentic Chicago blues sound on the lineup is delivered by harmonica player Aki Kumar, who originated in India, and who will appear with the Little Village Cavalcade o’ Stars (Monday). At a recent show with Jr. Guitar Watson, Kumar channeled Muddy Waters to an extent that was spooky.

The festival will also feature a trio of acts deeply informed by Latin music, including California’s Mariachi Mestizo, surf masters Los Straitjackets (Friday) and Portland’s Latin-flavored Bobby Torres Ensemble (Friday). The all-youth Mariachi Mestizo hails from Delano, California, once central to the farmworker activists led by César Chávez. The consists of eight girls and eight boys between the ages of 9 and 18, playing mariachi, a style born in Western Mexico of indigenous instruments and Spanish brass and guitars that were modified to suit the style that has become representative of Mexico itself. Mariachi Mestica will be joined by veteran blues vocalists Curtis Salgado and Mother Earth frontwoman Tracy Nelson.

Mariachi deeply influenced surf music, and Mexico has deeply influenced surf deities Los Straitjackets (Friday); they perform in Mexican wrestling masks. Los Straitjackets play surf in its purest all-instrumental form, and the band has released 16 albums and played thousands of concerts all over the world. The Bobby Torres Ensemble features Latin percussionist Bobby Torres, whose 40-year career began at Woodstock with Joe Cocker. Torres has also performed or recorded with the Beach Boys, Jackson Brown and Etta James, among others. The Oregonian describes the Bobby Torres Ensemble as “Latin jazz with enough flavor and spice to satisfy your body and soul’s need for rhythmic harmony.”

Loaded with locals
The festival lineup this year is chock full of top acts from around the Pacific Northwest, a region justly famous for its blues and soul innovators, but also home to multiple music scenes producing inventive pop, world beat and much more. So blessed in strong women blues singers is the Pacific Northwest that there is invariably at least one retrospective band of Northwest Women in Blues performing in the area and this year is no exception; look for guitarist Sonny Hess’ latest roundup of NW Women in R&B (featuring Lisa Mann, Vicki Steves, Lady Kat, Kelly ierce, Myrtle Brown and more) on Sunday afternoon’s “Sail on Sister” cruise. Local blueswomen to watch for include The Ellen Whyte Plus Sized Band with Sue Orfield, Sister Mercy, Liz Vice, Sportin’ Lifers, Lady Kat True Blue, Karen Lovely, and Grace Love and the True Loves.

Ellen Whyte was recently inducted into the Oregon Hall of Fame after 35 years of writing and performing her signature blend of gospel, Americana, blues, jazz and rock. She is joined by veteran saxophonist Sue Orfield, well known and loved for her joyful performances. April Brown heads up Portland’s Sister Mercy, supported by the backing vocals of her sister Kelsey Brown. The group represented the prestigious Cascade Blues Association at the International Blues Challenge last year, at which they made it to the semi-finals. Lady Kat True Blue’s big-voiced sound reflects her Northwest childhood spent with blues and country music, and so popular is she regionally that she has performed at the last eight Portland Waterfront Blues Festivals.

Liz Vice of Portland (Sunday) achieved national attention upon the release of her debut gospel album There’s a Light, leading NPR’s Mountain Stage to say of it that the songs on the album “feature dynamic, soulful vocal, with lyrics that are classically influenced enough to feel timeless and reference her deep-rooted spirituality.” The sportin’ life once referred to the life of cat houses and faro tables, and The Sportin’ Lifers of Portland have the sassy, brassy attitude to match. Lead by vocalist Erin Wallace, the band plays timeless songs from Dinah Washington and Louis Armstrong to Ray Charles and Ruth Brown, as well as a growing group of original tunes that falls right in the same pocket.

Karen Lovely burst onto the national scene from Portland in 2010 with a second-place win at the International Blues Challenge and three 2011 Blues Music Award nominations for her contemporary vocals and songwriting. In 2016, on the heels of another album, Ten Miles of Bad Road, she was again nominated for a BMA for Best Contemporary Blues Female Artist. Grace Love and the True Loves (Saturday) are quickly building a stronghold in Seattle, where City Arts last year named them one of the city’s top 10 artists of the year. Backed by a nine-piece band, Grace Love has a huge voice that can turn on a dime from a tender keen to a full-throated wail. The band, though still new, already made a fan of Saundra William of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, who exclaimed, “I love this band, you will too! I’m a fan from day one!”

Other local acts include Seattle’s African-beat band the Polyrhythmics (Saturday), Portland’s powerhouse Sultans of Slide, with more yet to be announced. The Polyrhythmics describe themselves as “Afro-psycho-beat,” combining complex rhythms with a melodic horn section and a hard-driving bass and keys to produce an altogether new kind of funk that has fueled successful national tours and high profile shows in New Orleans over Mardi Gras and Jazzfest.

The Sultans of Slide (Saturday) are a showcase of some of the Northwest’s finest slide guitar wizards, including Portland’s Big Monti, Seattle’s Rod Cook, and Portland’s Kevin Selfe. All three as individuals have been foundational to the Northwest blues scene, and as a group, the Sultans of Slide have released an album together and have toured Europe.

Great music, great setting, great cause
This year’s Waterfront Blues Festival includes five non-stop days and night of some of the top musical talent on the planet. But it’s about more than that, said festival director Peter Dammann. It’s about community, deep engagement with music, the energy of the hundreds of thousands of visitors gathering together, and the celebration of the Fourth of July.

“Waterfront has always been more than just the sum of its headliners and touring acts,” he said. “It’s the synergy, critical mass and spectacle of it all: the zydeco and swing dance classes, the harmonica and slide guitar workshops, the blues cruises on the Willamette, the after-hours shows, the non-stop world-class performances on four stages, the fireworks, the fabulous downtown riverfront setting with Mt Hood regarding us from afar….” Furthermore, he said, the festival, with the assistance of its 2,000 volunteers, is the major annual fundraiser for Oregon Food Bank, which produces the event. To date the festival has raised over $10 million to fight hunger in the region. “This is not just a world-class music festival, it’s one with a righteous mission,” he said.

Admission: 4-day passes begin at $35; daily passes for $10 will go on sale June 1. For those unable to afford the admission, a limited number of passes will be available at the gate on a first-come, first-served basis for those with Oregon Trail Cards. For more info www.waterfrontbluesfest.com

Posted in PDX Blues Event