28 Years of history, hard work, and fun in Portland.
by Keith Laurent
Delmark Goldfarb receives an award for starting the Blues Festival in 1987, before his performance at this year’s festival (2007). photo by Buko
One of the biggest “goodwill events” in the country, the largest festival west of the Mississippi river, and the second largest blues festival in the nation, for the past 20 years Portland, Oregon’s Waterfront Blues Festival has assembled talents from all groups. It’s not just the visible performers who take the stage that make the festival work. The reality is thousands of volunteers, sound techs, stagehands, lighting techs, food and beverage vendors, security, all the sponsor groups, their directors, and the festival coordinators together, pull off this feat. When you’re hosting an event that draws more than 100,000 people during a four day run in your city, you really need the support of your community. Support is what Portland has to offer.
Support has been at the heart of the event from the very first festival. In 1987 when local blues bands gathered in Waterfront Park, the event was titled the “Rose City Blues Festival”. The dream of having a free festival for the city was Delmark Golfarb’s idea. Prior to 1987, the city’s Waterfront Park was used for picnicking; however, you could get a permit and have your wedding there, too. Goldfarb at the time was teaching a class at Portland Community College on the history of the blues. Along with his friends and associates, they all started raising families. Now with children, opportunities to go out to the clubs around town to hear the great blues music being played were limited. Goldfarb put his idea of a free festival in Portland into action. While he was teaching his class, he would introduce the students to the blues by having the local blues artists visit the classroom.
Jon Koonce does a tribute to Fritz Richmond (2007). photo by Buko
Getting to know the musicians, Goldfarb shared his idea. He wanted to create an event that would be free to all and support those with less. He also wanted to create an event that you could take your kids to, even your mom and dad. He wanted to see blues bands at the river. Putting together all these elements and the purchase of the $25.00 permit, the dream was born. Word of mouth was the driving force. With no advertising budget to speak of, Goldfarb organized the musicians to take the music out to the schools and hospitals to promote the blues. Blues Week was launched. To emphasize to the community the plight of the hungry and homeless, Hillsboro based pizza chain Papa Aldo’s sponsored a free pizza party for the homeless in Portland in conjunction with the Blues Week. With the programs called “Blues in the Schools” up and running, local TV stations and newspapers started to cover the story. The media coverage gave the helpful spark to ignite the first free event called the “Rose City Blues Festival.” With word of mouth, volunteers pitched in to make the event a reality. With support of vendors and another of Golfarb’s creations, the Cascade Blues Association, all the donations went to benefit the Burnside Community Council’s projects for the homeless, or known at the time as Baloney Joe’s.
Befriending legend Fritz Richmond, considered the foremost washtub bassist in the world and also the most successful professional jug player, Goldfarb tapped into Richmond’s other skill, recording. Richmond had worked as a recording engineer for many artists, and his credits can be found notably on albums by, Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt, The Doors, and Jackson Browne. Richmond, who was living in Portland, engineered the first recording of the festival. On that 1987 recording entitled “Rose City Blues Festival – The Album”, Michael Burgess wrote: “A day in July. A park on the river. A guest list of 20,000. The Rose City Blues Festival. Happy birthday, blues. An event that put a few new colors in Portland’s musical paint box. For eight solid hours, ten homegrown blues bands filled Waterfront Park with a truly startling cross-section of citizens. All of them smiling, most of them stomping their feet, a few of them spilling their beer. It was the gig one prays for but never really expects. This time the magic worked. Nothing in music is truer than this: If the blues don’t make you feel better, you are probably dead. Anthems of suffering and heartbreak, unspeakable anguish laced with endurance, pride and triumph. The fun things of life in a rock-bottom musical format, like it or not, is going to make you dance. The 1st Annual Rose City Blues Festival. Happy birthday, Portland. Happy birthday blues.”
Panorama of the festival from the Miller stage (2007). photo Buko
Well Mr. Burgess, this “rock-bottom music” has made the folks of Portland and the world dance alright, not only dance, but raise hundreds of thousands of pounds of food and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to now fight hunger.
Goldfarb’s message of a free festival had opened the eyes, ears, and hearts of the people of this city and beyond. His love for the blues moved him to Memphis to work with the Blues Museum for a while. Now back in the area, Goldfarb is still working on music projects. Currently involved with “Give Us Your Poor” / The campaign to end homelessness, whose mission is to create a revolution in public awareness, dispel myths and inspire action towards ending epidemic homeless in the United States. He is participating on a CD project, which is an eclectic collaboration involving homeless musicians and celebrity artists (such as singers Bruce Springsteen, Natalie Merchant, Jon Bon Jovi, Dan Zanes, Jewel, Pete Seeger, actor Danny Glover, Madeleine Peyroux, Buffalo Tom, Sweet Honey in the Rock, John Sebastian, Sonya Kitchell, and actor Tim Robbins), which is being produced and released by Appleseed Recordings. He will also be featured in a film to be released about jug band music called “Chasin Gus’s Ghost”. Others in the film include John Sebastian, Bob Weir, Taj Mahal, Geoff Muldaur, Jim Kweskin and Fritz Richmond to name a few. Goldfarb can still be found performing around the region. If you get a chance to shake his hand, thank him for the Blues Festival.
In 1991 the festival name was changed to what we now know as the Waterfront Blues Festival. To the familiar two-stage format, an additional Front Porch stage was added in 1999, and in 2002 the Ethos stage was added. Also added was the Delta Music Experience Blues Cruises. Cruise the Willamette River on the Portland Spirit and hear legendary blues artists perform on the boat’s three intimate stages. This year, nine cruises were held during the festival; four during the day and five in the evening. With more stages comes a need for more music, and with more music, comes a need for more equipment and more people.
I had the opportunity to speak with a number of folks involved with the festival.
Bill Phillips chats with the Texas horns. photo by Buko
For 17 years Bill Phillips has been behind the scenes of the stages. Starting out in 1990 as a stage manager, he has been the overall production manager since 1995. Phillips coordinates everything to do with the stages including the bands’ gear, the sound and lighting companies schedules’, instrument and amplifier needs, the volunteer crew, and the performance schedule.
Keeping the show working on time is a task by itself. At one show years back, the performer, Guitar Shorty, was exceeding his scheduled time and was really getting into his performance. Phillips had to step in and do something. Trying unsuccessfully to get Shorty’s attention and knowing a little about music, he realized that after the guitar solo was his chance to act. “Coming out of the guitar solo, Shorty, does a front flip and lands on his feet, and as soon as he landed, I grabbed the microphone and to the crowd yelled ‘ladies and gentlemen, Guitar Shorty!’ Shorty got the message and ended the song knowing his time was through.”
Phillips looks forward year after year to the festival. “Once a year this event is about friends and family, not about money; it’s about sharing your resources and talents to benefit others.” Backstage, a sign has a message for all; “no attitudes or egos, the show is out front”. As this twenty-year milestone approached, Phillips recalled chatting with some buddies, wondering how they got the right equipment to the right location, meeting the bands hospitality needs and communicating with the stage and light crews before cell phones and e-mail? Good question.
In the early days as it is today, hard working, dedicated people drive the festival.
Festival Coordinator for the past 20 years, Clay Fuller oversees all aspects of the event. With his responsibilities ranging from obtaining permits, finding sponsorship, site planning, promotions, and including clean up, Fuller enjoys his work. Fuller explains, “when you have a site as wonderful as Waterfront Park, a donation and fund-raiser based event as the Waterfront Blues Festival, and the support of the community and local musicians, it really makes my job enjoyable.”
Finding the talent, another major part of the festival is a task in itself. Thirteen years ago, Peter Dammann became the festival talent coordinator and was responsible to retrieve the services of some 40 acts. That number has grown to 135 groups of talent. Dammann covers all the details of booking hotel rooms, limos from the airport, maps, making sure the right equipment needs of each artists are fulfilled, and putting together performance schedules while taking in to account the arrival and departure schedules of all acts. Finding the artists and contracting them to perform is also his challenge. From courting of the headline acts, working with other West Coast festivals to coordinate artists’ schedules, to searching out talent from places like the New Orleans Jazz Fest, Dammann enjoys the organizational challenge. He relates the challenge to organizing a big museum exhibit or working on a 3-D puzzle to completion. “A great part is watching the festival unfold as it goes from an Excel spreadsheet to a live event.” Over the years performers from local blues men to international stars have graced the Waterfront Blues Festival stages. All of these shows are presented in the spirit of the unwritten brotherhood of the blues.
Tim Rutter goes over the Miller (south) stage schedual w/Coach. photo by Buko
Oregon Food Bank is the benefactor of The Waterfront Blues Festival. The Oregon Food Bank mission: “to eliminate hunger and its root cause…because no one should go hungry,” is indeed an undertaking that has stirred the souls of those who live in the Portland area. Local residents and others from around the region pitch in. Volunteerism is alive and well. Jean Kempe-Ware, Public Relations Manager, says everyone is working together. Thousands of people step up and spend endless energy and time to make the organization work. Volunteers handle everything from greeting blues fans and collecting donations to packing thousands of pounds of donated cans into boxes. One Blues Festival volunteer’s comments sum it up; “I love the sense of community that is fostered by events like this. It gets people together from all walks of life to share something really positive.” All gate receipts and food donations go directly to the Oregon Food Bank. Last year’s total donations recorded were, $545,000 and 103,500 pounds of food. Oregon Food Bank is the hub of a statewide network of 894 hunger relief agencies serving Oregon and Clark County, Washington. The Oregon Food Bank also recovers food from farms, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and individual and government sources. Last year 60.8 million pounds of food was distributed from the Oregon Food Bank Network to people in need.
The goodwill of people from all walks of life drive this wonderful event. Charity and great music blend, as it should. Smiles abound from all those involved; smiles that can be visually seen, to the smiles that can be heard in the voices of the organizations putting it all together. Not to be forgotten, the smiles of those whose hunger is satisfied. Take note that 20 years ago, an idea was born with a great goal in mind. This event has grown into an international gathering, a national award winning Blues Festival, and an avenue to support those with less. If you didn’t know what’s been happening in the last 20 years behind the scenes, I hope this helped. If you have gone to the Waterfront Blues Festival, stand up and give yourself a hand. If you have ever supported any of the organizations that help create this festival, give yourself a hand. Everyone applauding knows that the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival has its own wonderful history, an abundance of inspired and creative hard workers, and above all, great music. This, to me, is 20-years of history, hard work, and fun.