'Bad to the Bone' blues to rock waterfront
In 25 years of organizing Portland's Waterfront Blues Festival, director Peter Dammann has acquired some skills and expertise, but he rejects any notion that he's got the production "down to a science."
"There's nothing science about it," he says. "This is all art, but very little science. It's like a new jigsaw puzzle each year."
The 31st annual music festival, a fundraiser for the Oregon Food Bank (OFB) and new partner Sunshine Division, runs from Wednesday, July 4, through Sunday, July 8, at Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland.
Headlined by venerable boogie-blues rockers George Thorogood & the Destroyers, the Independence Day-centered event also features veteran acts including: Robert Randolph & the Family Band; Commander Cody; Curtis Salgado; and newcomers including Atlanta duo Larkin Poe, New Orleans-based Marc Broussard, Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Beth Hart, Denver jam-fusion ensemble The Motet and alt-country stalwarts The Mavericks.
Dammann, a musician himself who's been known to sit in with bands, said he's looking forward to several of this year's performers. He sees Larkin Poe, a duo of Atlanta sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell, as having the potential to bring blues to a younger, wider demographic.
"They look like they could be young pop stars," he says. "They're straightforward blues rockers. They have these great harmonies and cover Son House songs. They're one of the most refreshing acts I've seen come down the pike."
In Charleston, South Carolina-based Ranky Tanky, Dammann hears a unique twist on the Mississippi Delta blues tradition.
"It's got jazz with a little bit of soul (influence)," he says. "It's really cool.
"Mark Broussard we've been trying to get for a number of years. He's kind of a Louisiana bayou version of (Oregon's) Curtis Salgado," Dammann adds. "He has great, swampy soul tunes."
The onstage flamboyance of The Mavericks, who have combined Roy Orbison rockabilly, California country-rock and Texas swing since their 1991 debut album, initially puzzled Dammann when he caught them last fall at Revolution Hall in Southeast Portland.
"I felt like I was watching an Americana version of the Village People," he recalls with a chuckle. "After about three songs, I thought 'These guys are so cool, one of the best (bands I've seen). I'm really looking forward to them and think it will be a fun experience at the festival."
George Thorogood & the Destroyers — who broke through on rock radio in 1982 with the party anthem "Bad to the Bone" — have been on the festival's short list for years.
"They've been around for a long time. He's a perfect fit with our (new) partnership with KGON," Dammann says. "He's one of the most heavily played artists on that station. It's a perfect fit for us."
It took a logistical dovetail to get the legendary Delaware band to rock the Portland waterfront.
"Sometimes it takes years before these things line up," Dammann says. "Ultimately it kind of all depends on when so and so is gonna be cycling through the Northwest."
Although it won't change the experience for attendees, the festival has undergone some behind-the-scenes changes since last year. Founding organization Oregon Food Bank, while still a beneficiary of Blues Fest's proceeds, withdrew earlier this year from its role as event producer.
Dammann and Waterfront Blues Production LLC have since partnered with Sunshine Division, which is looking to stock its two food pantries to benefit schoolchildren in need during the summer.
"During the school year, Sunshine Division is focused on kids on free and reduced-meal plans," Dammann says. "When all those kids are on summer vacation, they're not getting fed, so that's what (they're) focusing on this time of year. There's a desperate need for families with young kids."
OFB, he says, decided its staffing and resources were spread too thin producing and providing volunteers for a major music festival, and are refocusing efforts on direct donor solicitation.
"We had a two-year transition plan in place, (but) in December (2017) they decided they needed to move on," Dammann says. "(OFB) is remaining on as a beneficiary and will get a percentage of the net, and a cash payment depending on how well we do."
Another change involves the event's radio station sponsor. Entercom radio, which owns Portland rock stations KGON and KNRK, has taken over from longtime Blues Fest sponsor KINK, whose contract ran its course last year. KGON was an early sponsor of the blues fest.
"It's kind of come full circle," Dammann says. "They've been great. Not just KGON, but the rest of the sort of (radio) family. KNRK was the station that helped get The Revivalists, a buzz act from New Orleans that was a big hit last year ... Entercom is fun to have on the team."
Despite the radio sponsor changes, festival performances will continue to be broadcast on community radio station KBOO, at 90.7 on the FM dial.
Last year's switch from a donation-based entry to a flat $10 per day or a weekend pass largely proved successful, Dammann says. To make up for lost revenue, however, this year's daily admission fee will be $15.
"Attendance was down very slightly (last year), but the amount of crowd-related problems we had almost completely evaporated," he says. "We found that (requiring an actual ticket) kept people out of the event who didn't really want to be there who wanted to hang out and stir things up. The beer lines were shorter and traffic flow was better. It made it a better experience for those willing to spend $10."
With artists fees "outpacing inflation considerably," Dammann says, he still finds the blues fest to be a great holiday weekend bargain, particularly given its role in fighting hunger and supporting a Portland institution.
"The weekend pass is still $40, which is unbelievably cheap," he says. "Forty bucks for four days seems like an incredible gift to the city to me."
Tickets for the Waterfront Blues Festival are $15 per day and $40 for the weekend. For more: www.waterfrontbluesfest.com.