Blues Fest opens to perfect weather

Ross William Hamilton / The OregonianJuly 03, 2008

As outdoor music festivals go, it’s hard to imagine a more picture-perfect start than Thursdays kickoff of the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival at Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

waterfrontjam‘It’s perfect,’ said Jean Kempe-Ware, the public relations manager for Oregon Food Bank. ‘We couldn’t have better blues-festival weather. It’s not too hot. It isn’t raining. And we got rid of that lightning.’

The festival, now in its 21st year, is the largest blues festival west of the Mississippi, and it’s a major fund-raiser for the Food Bank. The admission of $10 a day plus two cans of non-perishable food helps people who are hungry throughout Oregon and southwest Washington. This year, organizers are hoping to raise $500,000 at the gate, as well as 110,000 pounds of donated food.

Tualatin’s Karl Jensen and Seattle’s Don Davis are veteran blues festival-goers, having attended every year since it began. This year they plan on being there all four days. The draw is simple. ‘It’s the music, the music, the music,’ Jensen said. ‘And the atmosphere, too. The river, the fireworks, it’s just unbelievable.’ Ross William Hamilton / The Oregonian7-Month-old Halen Nordstrom, of Homer, Alaska hangs with his parents Josh and Lisa, left, well protected from the sun Thursday evening.

By late afternoon Thursday, the main bowl of the park was a tapestry of blankets and early stages of sunburn, with thick crowds jockeying for space near the festival’s Miller Stage, where Portland’s Norman Sylvester stoked the crowd into waving its arms and dancing. ’If you want a piece of the action, let me hear you say ‘yeah,’ ‘ he growled into his microphone.

Sylvester, who’s nickname is ‘The Boogie Cat,’ focused his set on the Memphis R&B sound, dedicating a medley of Otis Redding songs to the memory of Bo Diddley, the legendary blues singer and guitarist who passed away last month. As he sang ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,’ fans near the stage swayed to the beat.

As she looked over the scene, Food Bank Executive Director Rachel Bristol said she was wowed by the size of the crowd. ’Look at how early people have showed up,’ she said. ‘I think this is going to be one of the best festivals ever.’

The festival is known for its amped-up electric guitars and blues belters, but some of its quieter moments showcased the diversity of the music. On the A&E Front Porch Stage, which puts an emphasis on acoustic performances, Mark Lemhouse and the Hollars offered a mellow set combining blues with American roots music. And on the intimate Workshop Stage, lap steel guitar player Colin Lake described the intricacies of the instrument, commenting on the nuance that comes from playing it with his fingers instead of using picks.

One new feature this year is the Louisiana Blues Pavilion located near the Front Porch Stage, which features New Orleans-inspired paintings and photography, an array of Mardi Gras beads and information on local Zydeco dance groups. Adjacent food booths picked up on the Cajun-Creole groove, dishing up New Orleans steak sandwiches and sugar-coated beignets. With a portion of all food sales going to the Food Bank, you could munch without feeling any caloric guilt.

The festival continues through Sunday, with the biggest crowds of the weekend expected today for fireworks at approximately 10 p.m. This year’s display is twice as big as what the festival has offered in the past. Two separate barges will anchor on the Willamette River, with one positioned north of the Hawthorne Bridge, and the other to the south. Festival organizers say the addition of the second barge makes the Blues Festival fireworks twice as large as any other display in Oregon.

Kempe-Ware says the bigger display is a result of the Food Bank having friends in high places: ‘We asked the city if they would help fund it. They said ‘yes.’

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