For 26 years now, Portland, Oregon’s Waterfront Blues Festival has brought top-notch musicians from all around the world to perform to the masses with the idyllic cityscape and Willamette River as the perfect festival backdrop. All of the proceeds raised during the festival, which was more than $1.3 million dollars, benefited the Oregon Food Bank.
In many ways, this festival acts as a convergence of many different worlds and people. First, and most importantly, this festival serves a greater purpose in the community. Since 1988, the Oregon Food Bank, a non-profit charity, has been committed to making sure no one in the community goes hungry. The teaming up of the Waterfront Blues Festival with The Oregon Food Bank has been a tremendously beneficial collaboration for the greater Portland community.
From a musical perspective, the convergence takes place between an assortment of living legends who headline the festival such as Robert Plant, Mavis Staples, John Hiatt, Taj Mahal, Eric Burdon, and Karl Denson, and the next generation of musical up and comers like Robert Randolph, Scott Pemberton, Hot 8 Brass Band, Allen Stone, March Fourth Marching Band and the North Mississippi All-stars. The convergence between the longtime musical icons and the emerging talent looking to get their musical message to new ears is exactly what this festival is all about.
As far as the location of the festival is concerned, the juxtaposition between the urban and the natural gives this festival a unique feel. This balance is essentially what Portland Oregon is all about. The festival’s boundary on one side is the Willamette River, where many boaters tie their boats together to create a temporary interconnected flotilla. Kayakers and swimmers enjoy themselves in the water throughout the weekend, with a view of Mt. Hood peaking out over the hills. The other boundary on is the downtown Portland city skyline of skyscrapers and bridges that make every view an interesting one.
The waterfront is not the only place where the festivities are taking place. Although there are the traditional four performance stages inside the festival grounds, there are also multiple blues riverboat cruises, late night ballroom dance parties, and hosted potlucks. Downtown Portland was a musical playground for four days, and folks were more than happy to celebrate.
The first night, which happened to be July 4th, was headlined with Portland’s own March Fourth Marching Band. With acrobatic stilt walkers, costumed dancers, a full horn and drum section, singers and all around vaudevillian party vibe, the M4 crew has earned their place as the headliners for the first night. They also welcome their youth based crew of Joy Now to dance in front of thousand of cheering onlookers. It really was a sight to behold, and example of how tied to the community the March Fourth crew truly is.
The MVP from day one was former Tower of Power and Santana keyboardist Chester Thompson. He nimbly navigated from the full band main stage set with the funky “Soul Vaccination,” directly to his own question and answer session, hosted by his group, Hammond B3. Both sets were really engaging, and while the Soul Vaccination set was focused on delighting the masses, the Q and A session was held in an intimate setting, which was a special moment for all involved.
One of the questions asked of Thompson was what was his favorite song to jam? Thompson responded by not only answering the question, by telling us about his classic Squib Cakes, but he also played the tune. Another highlight came upon being asked how he plays baselines with his foot pedal alongside another electric bassist in the band. Again he answered the question verbally, but then went on to “show” us what he meant, and locked in with the two other members of his trio.
Right before the fireworks began to celebrate Independence Day, local soul singer Linda Hornbuckle serenaded the crowd to an emotional rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Accompanying her was a trumpet player, who was playing a flame-throwing trumpet. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Day two focused on a broad variety of Blues genre spin-offs that showcase how far the musical evolution of blues has come. Hot 8 Brass Band, who have been featured in HBO’s show Treme, headlined a raucous afternoon set, which had concertgoers feeling like they were traveling south to New Orleans. Allen Stone was another act that really stood out this afternoon. His band had a swinging soulful sound, and as a front man, he knew how to build the energy of the set slowly and steadily until he had people responding with the typical call and response that a true front man performer can achieve.
Night two, headlined by Eric Burdon and the Animals, led the audience through a nostalgic trip back through familiar classics from the Animals as well as fun cover songs. They never strayed too far from their pop blues roots, and songs like “Spill the Wine” and “Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood”were greeted with great fanfare. Burdon brought the audience to a standstill with an emotional rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.”
There were a lot of great musicians gracing the stage on day two, but Karl Denson and the Tiny Universe really stood out. He headlined a sunset show on the Blues Stage and drew a huge crowd around his powerful soulful sound. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe also headlined the late night show, with Allen Stone as the opening act. The late night shows were held in the nearby Marriott and were a really tough ticket to get for the Portland scene. Having never seen the venue before, I was pleasantly impressed with the wide-open space. There was a poster gallery from past Blues Fests decorating the halls. Musically, these two bands really worked well together.
When Denson took the stage for the second time this day, he didn’t hold back. The entire set was fierce and focused and the dance floor was packed. Denson has been a mainstay of the funk music movement for the more than 20 years, and Karl D as his fans often refer to him, steadily brings the funk like no one else.
Denson brought along some newer members of the Tiny Universe with him that really impressed the crowd. Guitarist DJ Williams had the bluesy and funky chops and was perfectly matched with this ensemble. The new drummer was a bouncing ball of energy up there, making it hard to look away. Along side the newcomers were some staples from the Tiny Universe like trumpeter Chris Littlefield and bassist Chris Stillwell, who both are perfectly matched with this groove based ensemble. Karl, as always, is the quintessential funk front man. There are few bands out there that can hold their own with the Karl D. late night get-down.
Day 3 started strong with the rocking young Portland talent, the Scott Pemberton Band. Their mid-afternoon set was hot and heavy and seemed to draw more and more folk as the set went on. Pemberton’s fiery guitar work, won the crowd over in quick fashion, and highlights from this set were his naughty ditty “Let’s Play House” and his funky rocker “Elbow Grease.”
Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp band had two sets this day and really shone bright in their Blues Stage set. His accordion mastery and Zydeco infused dance music had fans ecstatic and dancing throughout his set. When a band can take The Jefferson’s theme song and give it some zesty zydeco seasoning, people will just want to boogie.
John Hiatt closed out the Main Stage on Saturday night, supporting his Mystic Pinball Tour, and the capacity crowd was enthralled with his soulful and bluesy renditions of songs from the across the last 30 years of his vast repertoire. He is such a gifted songwriter and he truly had the audience zeroed in on each and every note of his inspirational set. He played many of his fan favorites, including “Cry Love” and “Tennessee Plates,” both of which drew an impressively enthusiastic response.
Late night duties were held down by the power combo of the North Mississippi Allstars and Robert Randolph and the Family Band. NMAS opened the show up and wasted no time in laying down some southern-cooked swamp rock. They weaved in and out of their songs, and even in and out of their instruments as drummer Cody Dickinson left the drum kit to take up the electric washboard, and their bassist/guitarist, Luther Dickinson, switched their respective instruments to jam.
The true highlight of the day followed with Robert Randolph’s Family Band’s incredible set to close out the late night show. When Randolph first took the stage, he launched into 40 minutes of inspired musical excellence that covered only the first two songs of his set. For the third song of the set Randolph slowed things down and turned to his cousin, Danyel Morgan. “Press On” is an inspirational number that encourages all of us to move past any hurtle presented to us in life, and Morgan’s vocals carried true emotion behind the message. Randolph added his own take on a few of the lines of the song, and the message and meaning was received loud and clear. Later in the set, he played the Slim Harpo song made famous by the Rolling Stones, “Shake Your Hips” and welcomed all the ladies from the audience on stage to dance alongside him.
Sunday of the festival was almost an independent festival in itself. Headlining the night, and truly the entire festival was Robert Plant and the Sensational Shapeshifters. They opened their set with the hauntingly beautiful “Babe, I’m going to Leave You,” a song Led Zeppelin made famous, although it was originallywritten by Anne Bredon.
There was no let down to their impassioned set, and the audience was focused and energized throughout. The set featured Zeppelin songs “Going to California,” “What is and What Should Never Be,” and a Medley of “Whole Lotta Love,” with a bit of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” tucked inside the middle.
There were also some great cover songs chosen to honor at the Bluesfest. The classic “Spoonful” and Bukka Whites’s “Fixin to Die” were showcased in this incredible set. Plant commented multiple times about the incredible energy coming from the crowd, and he was right, the place was on fire this night. For the second encore, Plant began to explain the long and storied shared history between Great Britain and the United States, and how classic music from hundreds of years of history have been passed this way along on ships. He then explains that the song they are going to play to end the show, actually arrived hundreds of years ago on the Mayflower and then humorously launched into “Rock and Roll.”
Another major highlight of the Sunday show-case, was the Taj Mahal Trio set on the Blues Stage. Opening up with the classic combination of “Corrina” and “Fishin Blues,”. One of the more interesting aspects to watching Taj Mahal perform is his ability to sing in two distinctly different ranges. It is almost like he is performing his own duet. One voice is the classic, bluesy and soulful voice, and the other is the raspy and rough growling voice. He closed his set with the appropriate song choice for a blues festival with, “Hey Hey, the Blues is Alright.” You get the sense in watching him perform that he still really loves what he does, and the audience really loves what he does right back at him.
Mavis Staples powerful vocal performance followed and gave a gospel vibe to the festivities. She covered a wide range of classic songs, including Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it is Worth,” and The Band’s “The Weight.” Following “The Weight,” she called on the audience to collectively give love to the recently departed Levon Helm, serving as a beautiful moment.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band got to follow up their inspiring late night romp, with a daytime set for a much larger audience. They got everyone moving with their catchy and optimistic “Good Times,” and even gave a little “God Bless America” slide guitar jam that continued to honor our Independence Day. He also gave a shout out to Plant by saying how excited he is to play before him, and he then added his own “Whole Lotta Love” tease. For Randolph’s final two songs, he invited Taj Mahal up to play along side him. The collaboration of the two was truly one of the more memorable moments of the weekend, which led directly into Plant’s festival closing set.
all photos by Greg Homolka