Waterfront Blues Festival 2012
July 4 – 8, 2012
By Bob Gersztyn
Portland, Oregon’s 25th annual Waterfront Blues Festival began on Wednesday, July 4, and lasted 5 days, with over 150 acts performing on multiple stages. The event was attended by over 120,000 blues fans from the far corners of North America, and even included blues cruises on the Willamette River. The inauguration of the 2012 event took place at noon when Mr. Nick & the Dirty Tricks hit the main stage, fronted by Nick David, a former Oregonian who now lives in Boston, and was a student of the late Paul DeLay.
The rest of the first day presented some of the best of Northwest blues artists, including Too Slim & the Taildraggers, Tony Furtado, the Ellen Whyte Big Band, and a tribute to Etta James, featuring the stellar voices of Linda Hornbuckle, Lisa Mann, Duffy Bishop, Rae Gordon, Amy Keyes, Lady Kat, and LaRhonda Steele. The Front Porch Stage featured “Journey to Memphis” finalists and winners, as well as Norman Sylvester and Bill Rhoades. The biggest acts of the day were Chicago bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, who as usual blew the crowd away with his harmonica expertise and urban blues, and, closing out the night’s music, one of Oregon’s most famous blues personalities, Curtis Salgado. Salgado featured cuts off his new release on Alligator Records, Soul Shot. Salgado underwent successful surgery to remove a cancerous growth in his left lung on July 18 after the festival ended. The first night concluded with Linda Hornbuckle singing the National Anthem to Fourth of July fireworks exploding over the Willamette River above the Portland skyline.
Thursday began with the gates opening at 11 a.m. and Jesse Samsel at 3 p.m. on the Blues Stage Jim Mesi followed on the main stage until Scott Pemberton hit the alternate stage playing a wild and dissonant guitar as he rocked the crowd. Next on the main stage were the Stooges Brass Band playing their wild and crazy brand of blues, mixing contemporary rap with jazzy blues. The Monophonics began the next set on the Blues Stage, where they rocked out, at the same time that the Front Porch Stage featured the Suburban Slim Band with Jim Wallace.
Booker T Jones hit the stage at 7:45 and told the crowd that he was glad to be in Portland as he played “The Bronx,” a song off his last album, The Road From Memphis. Then he followed it up with another song off the new album titled “Walking Papers.” The sound was funky with Jones bopping out the notes on his signature Hammond B3 keyboard. Then Jones picked up a Fender Stratocaster and played one of the most famous blues songs that he wrote back in the mid 1960s when he was Albert King’s record producer at Stax Records. “Born Under A Bad Sign” was co-written with his then writing partner William Bell and released on King’s 1967 album of the same name. After bringing down the house, he segued into a song that he told the audience he wrote when he was a senior in high school back in 1962 called “Green Onions.”
Toots and the Maytals was the closing headline band for Thursday night and they hit the stage with an explosive set that began with “Pressure Drop,” their first big hit from 1969. Then they led the crowd through a singalong of “Higher and Higher,” with Frederick “Toots” Hibbert asking the crowd if they wanted to get higher. “Yes,” they screamed as a cloud of ganja smoke drifted by. By the time that the band began playing “Bam Bam,” Toots took up an acoustic guitar as he sang –
“That’s if you trouble this man it going to bring a going to bring a bam bam.”
One song led into another as the band ran through the gamut of both familiar and unfamiliar tunes while the crowd was immersed in the complete blues experience, as it ecstatically danced to the Caribbean counterpart. From “Tree Top Dancing” to a reggae gospel version of “Amen,” Toots and the Maytals left no doubt about why they were closing out the night, as the spent throng exited.
Friday was another beautiful day, with Terry Robb coming on the main stage at 3:45 with his complete band, as he rocked out on his Fender Stratocaster, in support of his latest album, Muddyvishnu. The band was comprised of Jeff Minnick (drums), Dave Kahl (bass), and Mitch Kashmar (harmonica) as they seamlessly drove through most of the songs off the new album.
The Eddie Martinez Band hit the Blues Stage at 4:30 p.m. and the quartet rocked the crowd with everything from original material to an Eric Clapton cover. Simultaneously, on the Front Porch Stage, which features Zydeco and swamp music, King Louis and Baby James were performing with electric guitar assistance from blues festival talent coordinator Peter Dammon. At 5:15 p.m. the Soulmates hit the Main Stage combining jazz, blues, and funk into an infectious mix. The band’s instrumental arrangement was reminiscent of the Doors, minus Jim Morrison, with lead guitarist Jay “Bird” Koder, whose style was similar to Eric Johnson; drummer Reinhardt Meltz; and, keyboardist Jarrod Lawson, who also provided vocals.
At 6 p.m., on the Blues Stage, the Otis Taylor Band began their set, with Taylor on guitar and lead vocals, Anne Harris fiddler extrordinaire, Larry Thompson sitting behind the drums, Shawn Starski also on guitar, and bassist Todd Edmunds. Taylor asked the crowd, “How are you guys doing?” Then he encouraged everyone to squeeze up to the stage as close as they could. “Hey Joe” was performed with a completely different arrangement than normal, with a hard-driving rhythm and animated fiddle playing by Harris. Couple that with heavy guitar riffs, backed up by thudding drums and thumping bass that assaulted the ears through sonic vibrations that reached every fiber of one’s physical being and you begin to get the picture.
The Mannish Boys‘ new singer, Sugaray Rayford, just finished starring in the play Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues. Now he’s part of the Mannish Boys’ latest configuration, singing about “big booty women…I got holes in my pockets and I got patches on my pants. I feel like leaving – I got no whiskey…” Rayford howled. Kid Ramos stepped forward and began the song “How Long” with a guitar solo as Rayford crooned, “The way she is sometimes she makes me want to drink.” Then Ramos ended the song with another wailing solo on his Fender Stratocaster with Willy J. Campbell thumping on the bass. Kirk Fletcher and Frank “Paris Slim” Goldwasser also shared lead guitar duty to pack a maximum wollop. “My Baby Don’t Have To Work,” they sang after calling out one of the oldest original band members, Finis Tasby, as Randy Chartoff played his harmonica and Elvin Bishop even came out to perform a few numbers with the band, including “Born Under A Bad Sign.”
The Pimps of Joytime were reminiscent of a cross between Prince and Sly & the Family Stone, as they sang “I Want To Take You Higher.” Especially with their full-afro wigs, as they played their funky/soul style, ala San Francisco, their home base.
Elvin Bishop returned to the stage to perform his own headlining set to end the night. It was his third appearance at the Waterfront Blues Festival and he talked about his album Euphoria and then performed “Let It Roll” and “Fish, Fish on the Line.” A regular part of Bishop’s act is when he goes out into the crowd with his guitar and finds a beautiful lady to help him out. After he returns with her to the stage he lets her strum while he controls the fretboard. This time he had a wild one who hit power chords that rocked the house, until he took back over. When James Cotton came out, he was introduced by Bishop as “Super Lungs,” as well as being from Chicago, where Bishop first made his name in the blues when he was part of the Butterfield Blues Band. Finis Tasby came out at one point and sang as Cotton wailed on harp and Bishop fingered his fretboard, as he closed the night in the City of Roses with a barnburner set.
Saturday, July 7, was another beautiful day of perfect weather, with clear skies and the temperature in the high eighties. The day would include a non-stop Zydeco Swamp Romp at the Front Porch stage from morning through the night, along with dance lessons. Cedric Watson and Creole Bijou’s five-piece ensemble comprised of washboard, fiddle, saxophone, bass, and drums, played next to the dance floor.
The Main Stage began with the Usual Suspects, then a repeat performance by The Mannish Boys, until they gave way to the Northwest’s “Women in Rhythm and Blues.” Marquise Knox and the Otis Taylor Banjo Project wound up the crowd from the Blues Stage, preparing the everyone for Lloyd Jones and his Big Band. Jones brought out LaRhonda Steele and they sang a tune from New Orleans called “My Wife Can’t Cook.” The duo sang as Lloyd played his jazzy guitar with Steele dancing and singing back up on “Give A Little.”
Bettye LaVette ascended the Main Stage at 5:15 p.m. and joked with the crowd about her fiftieth year anniversary of performing and the resulting series of shows, labeled the “Who the Hell Is She Tour.” She sang “Time to Cry” and “It’s Over,” as she danced on center stage reminiscent of Tina Turner, while she belted out equally powerful vocals. LaVette talked about meeting Lucinda Williams, the only woman she knew who could out-drink her, as an introduction to William’s composition “There Goes My Joy.” Lavette sang “Your Turn To Cry,” a 1972 song that she just recently re-released, “…since it never sold the first time,” she told the audience, and then dove into “You Don’t Know Me” as she traversed from R&B like “I’m Not Coming Back” to the Who’s “Love Reign Over Me,” from Quadrophenia. As the great lady of soul concluded her set she told the audience that her new CD, Thankful and Thoughtful, would be released in September.
Cedric Burnside is R.L. Burnside’s grandson and is considered one of the best drummers in the blues. He also played guitar with prowess, as the band performed “Rolling and Tumbling.” He played slide guitar and sang, “If the river was whiskey and I was a diving duck, I’d dive to the bottom and drink my way back up.”
At 7 p.m. the Bobby Rush band hit the Main Stage with an act that was reminiscent of a 1950’s carnival burlesque show. The show followed a vaudevillian tradition with a juxtapositioned comedian between two sensuously-clad, voluptuous women. The band came out first and played a couple of numbers before Bobby Rush hit the stage like a meteor impacting the earth. Then two amply-endowed ladies wearing skin-tight outfits that didn’t hide their exuding femininity, took their places on both sides of the headliner, as he admonished the congregation, “If a woman is over 35, she shouldn’t do this,” as the ladies jiggled. “Do you want some?” Rush asked, as he called upon B.B. King and Dr. John to validate him. “I want to talk to you a minute and I want you to get serious for a minute. I’m in love with a fat woman and there’s shade by her when she’s standing or laying down.” Rush is a true master of the sexual innuendo and beyond, which his six-decade-spanning set demonstrated.
Vocalist and saxophonist Patrick Lamb began his set on the alternate stage at 8 p.m. He is a native of Jackson, Mississippi, who now resides in Portland, Oregon. His style of jazz and R&B was infectious as he opened with a brass-backed rendition of Cat Steven’s “Peace Train.” He wailed on his saxophone as the crowd danced with the sun setting in the west bringing a cool breeze off the Willamette River, filtered by a backdrop of bridges. Lamb’s set included foot-stomping, ear-ringing covers of some of the best soulful funk to come out of its golden age during the 1970s. Tunes like “Tell Me Something Good” by Chaka Khan, “Pick Up the Pieces” by the Average White Band, “Funky White Boy” by Wild Cherry, and “Signed Sealed & Delivered” by Stevie Wonder drove his set. At the same time he was promoting his recent CDs, like It’s All Right Now and Soul of a Free Man.
The headline closing band for the night was Galactic from New Orleans, bringing its combination of brass, funk, and R&B to the Northwest. Tonight the lead singer was Corey Glover, from Living Color. Backing him up were Ben Ellman on harps and horns, Robert Mercurio on bass, Stanton Moore on drums and percussion, Jeff Raines on guitar, and Rich Vogel on keyboards, all of which made up the core of Galactic. By the time that the band was a third of the way into its set, Glover was leading the crowd in a hand-waving chant that went, “Rolling, rolling, rolling, hey!” The band played some pretty heavy funk with a style that varied from rap to rock and back to funk. The band cut its teeth playing at Mardi Gras, which they demonstrated with songs from their backlog of albums along with their latest release, Carnivale Electricos.
Sunday, July 8, was the fifth and final day of the festival, and it was also the hottest, reaching into the 90s. Since it was the Lord’s Day gospel music was part of the itinerary, featuring Linda Hornbuckles’s Old Time Gospel Hour and members of the Northwest Community Gospel Choir, rocking the house singing about the love of Jesus.
Roy Rogers & The Delta Rhythm Kings hit the main stage at 4 p.m. and began their set with a searing version of Slim Harpo’s “My Little Queen Bee.” As usual, Rogers performed some amazing slide guitar on the double-neck guitar. He did a Robert Johnson song called the “Patron Saint of Pain, then, after a couple of songs, he switched to a single-neck acoustic guitar and began singing “Girl, your head is in trouble…,” as he attacked the six strings. Bass guitarist Steve Ehrmann and drummer/percussionist Billy Lee Lewis made up the rest of the band as they provided the musical backdrop for Rogers to demonstrate why he is considered to be one of a handful of expert slide guitarists in the world today.
The California Honey Drops came on with the legendary soul/gospel song from 1965, by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, “People Get Ready.” The band hails from San Francisco, California, although its leader, Lech Wierzynski, was originally born in Warsaw, Poland. Lech explained that where they live, it’s always cold, even in the summer as he moved from vocals and guitar to trumpet, as the set progressed.
James Hunter was introduced as the next wave of the British blues invasion, as he took the Main Stage with his band. “This is one off my new album with no name yet, due out in January, titled “Gold Mine.” “Your love is like a gold mine,” Hunter crooned into the microphone as he danced with his guitar. He did some songs by the “5″ Royales, a 1950’s soul pioneer band from North Carolina that combined gospel, doo-wop, and jump blues and influenced everyone from Ray Charles to Mick Jagger. Hunter squealed and screamed as the sax took over, with him playing guitar while hopping all over the stage on one leg, as the Hammond B3, stand-up bass and drums hammered out the rhythm. He ended the first part of his set with “The Chicken Switch” and left the stage to be brought back out by the crowd’s clapping, whistling, and hooting. This was Hunter’s second appearance at the festival and he was well received as he played “Jacqueline” ( song for Hunter’s wife who passed away last year) and “Monkey Ride” in his unique style.
Duffy Bishop began her set in the middle of the crowd with a radio microphone, as she sang to audience members while working her way to the stage. “You make my blood run cold,” Bishop sang, while her fire-red hair made her easy to locate in the crowd as video cameras projected her image on a giant screen located in between the two main stages. As she ascended the stage the band continued to belt out their funky jazz as Duffy’s soulful voice sang “I feel like I’m dying. I’m still in love with you and it feels so bad inside.” Before the final act of the festival came out on the main stage, festival promoters came out to thank the crowd and to announce that a new record of $902,000.00 was raised, along with 116,584 pounds of food, for the Oregon Food Bank.
The first third of the Steve Miller Band’s set was comprised of some of their greatest hits from the pop/rock charts, beginning with “Jungle Love,” “Take The Money and Run,” “The Stake,” and “Abracadabra.” The crowd was an enthusiastic mixture of young and old, who were familiar enough with Miller’s repertoire that they were singing along without even being coaxed. Some medical marijuana patients were passing around cigar-sized joints, as Miller dedicated “Living in the USA” to the men and women serving in the armed forces. The rest of Miller’s set included a blues segment with Curtis Salgado and Roy Rogers jamming on Robert Johnson and Otis Rush songs, and a bring-down-the-house return to more greatest hits. All stage performances concluded by 9:15 p.m. as the crowd began to filter out into the street and roadies began packing up band equipment while vendors were breaking down their sites.
For more information about the Waterfront Blues Festival and the great work they do for the Oregon Food Bank, go to to their site. Next year’s Waterfront Blues Festival will be held Thursday, July 4 through Sunday, July 7, 2013.
Be sure to check out this week’s Photo Page to see a slide show of Bob Gersztyn’s photography from the festival.
Bob Gersztyn is a contributing editor at BluesWax.
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