Waterfront Blues Festival
bands and five days of terrorism-free fun
expect one huge exhibition of teeth-biting-lip-White-man's-shuffle-blues-dancing
at the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival, one of the biggest such
gatherings west of the Mississippi.
But on the Fourth of July, during a mild, terrorism-free day, we
can't be too disappointed that most everyone is sitting on a high-tech
folding chair or scruffy blanket.
Alice: Why can't mother kick it up like that?
We hear things heat up as the day marches forward. Soon enough
the blistering sun breaks through some fluffy white clouds. Unfortunately,
we forgot our hats. Soon we're sweating like crazy.
A set at the Front Porch Stage would seem to promise a relaxing
time, but folkie grande dame Alice Stuart won't allow it. Decked
in bright red denim, Converse sneakers and the inevitable "USA"
T-shirt, Stuart wrangles a warm-toned Fender Telecaster through
45 minutes of folk-influenced rock-tinged country blues.
I tell you what, I wish my mother kicked it up like that.
The great thing about Stuart is her voice, poignant and forceful
at once, like a strong cup of honey-lemon tea. Her set is varied,
with each particular influence controlling the tone of the song.
But the brief set doesn't seem to suit her band (or the many others,
for that matter). Just as they get warmed up, their time is up.
And it's time to start people-watching again, or move to another
stage where another band is just starting.
We weave through bikini-clad hippie chicks, shirtless teen louts,
types who might blast past you on the freeway in a lowered Honda
Civic, and various other incongruities. Where are all the bearded
bikers? The beer-bellied businessmen? The tight-jeaned, 40-something
SUV-driving couples shaking their hips? The people that make our
blues community thrive? Is the blues fest turning into an under-attended
teen pick-up party?
Ellison tears it up and kisses the ladies.
Now it's Saturday, and the weather is beautiful. The fest rolls
on, still with plenty of space to sit, shuffle or whatever.
Scott Ellison and crew tower over the fans from the South Stage.
There's aged, stooping Howard waving nimble hands over the B-3 organ,
conjuring aerial solos and swelling chords. Big, futuristic-looking
Jan, with bald pate and fly glasses, slaps out steady, tight swing
on drums. Southern sun-worn hepcat Stan pulses bubbling blues-blood
on bass while Scott, a pale Oklahoma vampire with dark glasses and
pointy cowboy boots, leads the show.
He trades guitars throughout a tight set of catchy blues-rock;
his raspy voice an accessory for his true showmanship on the guitar.
His solos read the idiom of the blues near perfectly, becoming long,
emotive sentences full of spoken inflection, spontaneous within
the tight construction of the form. Plus, he knows how to please
the crowd, walking out for a solo, and then jumping from the precipitous
stage (he says it helped a kink out of his spine) to tear it up
again and kiss the ladies.
And the blues just keeps going. This five-day festival more
than 70 bands helps the Oregon Food Bank feed needy families
through food and monetary donations.
It's a great cause, but the sun is getting to us. The possibilities
are literally exhaustive, so we'll leave it for another year, and
stagger back across the muddy Willamette, with so much trouble on
our minds that only the soothing blues can save us.