By Don Campbell
By all accounts, last year’s Waterfront Blues Festival was a smash – another beautiful Fourth of July weekend run along the Willamette River. What many don’t know is the underlying turmoil that nearly closed the gates for good. Festival ownership changes, management shakeups, and new sponsors and beneficiaries – all late in the game – put the fest on the brink.
It took some muscle, grit, huge leaps of faith, motivated new partners, and a little luck, but the 2018 edition came off without a hitch. With a fest led by a strong roster of national, regional and local talent that included not only the traditional side of the blues, but some new acts who are fearlessly pushing the boundaries of the genre and bringing something new to the party, few can dispute the event’s success last year.
And that includes what lies and continues to live in the fest’s DNA – a strong sense of community. New beneficiary, the Sunshine Division, continued the event’s long lineage of letting music help those in need.
The good news is the 2019 version, set for July 4-7 at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, is on firm footing and firing on all cylinders. Even as operating costs skyrocket and shifting demographics continue to alter the music landscape in general, the fest’s heartbeat is strong and, per its long history, remains rooted in and deeply committed to the music.
A full slate of passes and ticket options are available to get you through the gates again this year (visit www.waterfrontbluesfest.com for complete information) but don’t dawdle – they sell out fast.
Fest-goers can take in the full experience, with two main (and alternating) stages, the Front Porch and Crossroads stages, the Louisiana Pavilion, after-hours shows and cruises, blues-swing and Zydeco dance lessons, Fourth of July fireworks, a full complement of food, beverages and fest merchandise, and more. Even the canned food drive is back, with all proceeds going to the Sunshine Division.
Unlike other major festivals, the backbone of the WBF has always been a strong inclusion of top-flight local and regional acts, many of whom have built strong careers here and gone on to greater heights. This year is no exception.
Familiar names include Alligator Records artist Curtis Salgado, Portland’s own MarchFourth marching band, guitarist and producer Terry Robb, former Portlander and now Nashville resident Big Monti Amundson, the mighty Andy Stokes (who recently landed on the Billboard charts), Arietta Ward (daughter of the late, legendary Janice Scroggins) debuting with her own band, Farnell Newton and his Othership Connection James Brown tribute show, soul and worldbeat vocalist Lilla, acclaimed guitarist and vocalist Mary Flower, saxman and New Orleans expat Reggie Houston, the young and talented Samuel E-M (Eisen-Meyer) and his boundary-pushing band Joyful Noise, the legendary Ural Thomas, the mesmerizing Saeeda Wright (Prince’s former backup vocalist) debuting her own project, Washington’s Tim “Too Slim” Langford and his Tail Draggers, Seattle’s Birch Pereira and the Gin Joints, LaRhonda & the Steele Family Band, Ty Curtis and Karen Lovely.
There’s no dearth of major-league talent either. Native son Robert Cray and his band return after a long absence and will help fuel the four-day run along with the explosive Trombone Shorty (who played his first big Northwest gig at WBF in 2010) and his band Orleans Avenue, New Orleans royalty Cyril Neville, Shemekia Copeland (who nabbed two BMA awards recently for Album and Contemporary Blues Album), the hard-working Karl Denson and his funky Tiny Universe, the rowdy St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the well-traveled California Honeydrops, and blues-rockers Vintage Trouble.
And don’t miss the sizzling guitar work of Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who also got a big break at WBF in 2015 when Buddy Guy called the youngster on stage for his headlining set, a spectacular guitar duel that led to Guy’s producing the new Kingfish recording, just released on Alligator.
For the purists, don’t miss vocalist Sugaray Rayford (a recent BMA winner for Soul Blues Male Artist), newcomer to the fest Delta guitarist and vocalist Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, Bakersfield’s own Brother Yusef, Canada’s Harpdog Brown and his Uptown Blues Band, the fiery Arkansas born-and bred guitarist and showman Lucious Spiller, and singer, saxophonist and guitarist Vanessa Collier (also a recent BMA winner for Instrumentalist-Horn).
If you’re looking for something fresh, try Hawaii’s Ron Artist II & the Truth, and the pure African influence of Mali’s Songhoy Blues, led by Oumar and Aliou Toure.
Fans of TV’s “The Voice” can catch newcomer Sarah Grace and her band the Soul. She packs a big soulful punch in a pint-sized package, and is a triple threat on vocals, trumpet and the mighty Hammond B3. She may surprise you.
Zydeco and Cajun lovers are in for another solid flight of the rollicking party music. Chubby Carrier makes a return to the fest with his Bayou Swamp Band. Check out Louisiana’s Feufollet, Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble, Wayne Singleton and the Same Ol’ 2-Step, and Lil Pookie and the Zydeco Sensations.
This is just a taste. The list goes on, from the Brazilian beat of Bloco Alegria to the traditional blues of Dan Nash, and from the West Coast sounds of Lydia Pense and Cold Blood, Terry Hanck and Roy Rogers with Carlos Reyes, to the gospel goodness of the Sons of Soul Revivers and the NW Women in R&B Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
It’s a bountiful four days. Get some rest and remember to hydrate.