Festival season being nearly upon us, we thought we'd talk to one of the folks who makes them happen. The Soul'd Out fest, now in its third year, seems the least likely of all Portland's music festivals. It is focused primarily on black music in a city often lampooned for its whiteness, and—despite highbrow offerings from folks like Portland-raised Esperanza Spalding and jazz legend Dr. Lonnie Smith and crowd-pleasing sets from acts like hotshit French electro outfit Justice—it's neither supported by bigtime sponsors or floated by a handful of sure-thing shows. For the most part, Soul'd Out is the kind of festival that makes other Portland promoters scratch their heads and say "good luck with that." It's also on its way to changing the musical culture in Portland.

We talked to co-founder Nicholas Harris about this year's lineup and what the hell he's thinking bringing Maze to Portland.

WW: So, I wanted to talk to you about the fest. Is this the third year you guys have done it?

Is it helpful that you guys kind of get the jump on summer festivals and get the early spot, or is that a hindrance because people aren't quite ready for it?
There's so much happening now as far as festivals go. You know, there's been a 1000% increase in festivals in the last ten years. So there's just so much happening, it's a challenge as far as getting bands locked in. Portland has always been considered a secondary market. For a long time people would just skip Portland altogether, you know bands would do Seattle then San Francisco, that kind of thing. So with that in mind, we're operating a soul festival in a secondary market, and there's definitely some issues that come along with that. There's certain people that are already locked into the summer thing well in advance and just have their West coast availability altered by that, or what have you. So there's always going to be that, the pie is being split up so many more ways now with so many festivals going on that that is definitely a challenge. For us the big thing is the New Orleans Jazz Fest and we do a lot of shows down there as well, so that is really helpful to package the offers, present similar artists down there that we do up here.

That's a rare connection, that New Orleans-Portland connection, not something a lot of other promoters have their hands in.
No, it's not, and that's something we're very proud about. It's one of the first things we really clicked on, as far as our working relationship and our mutual admiration for the culture, and just everything that has to do with New Orleans. Attending Jazz fest every year etc. So getting shows together going on down there, I'm very proud of that, as far as what we've been able to do down there. The stuff we have down there for this year's jazz fest is just unbelievable. If we could ever get shows like that up here…

What's the biggest thing going down there?
We've got a show with Sound Tribe, Thievery Corporation and Midnight on the same bill. We've got a show with Black Star, Galactic and Hot 8 Brass Band on the same bill. A show with Primus, Budos Band, Dead Kenny G's and Tony Clifton. Those are big bills. We've got a few smaller shows that we do down there, etc. So I don't know, it's interesting, why has it been easier for us to break in down there in a way that it's not as easy up here? It's always a learning experience. Putting on an event in Portland and just working with the friendly confines of Portland, and you're always dealing with people's assumptions of what the city is all about. That's the reason we started this festival to begin with, the big thing for us this year is Maze ft. Frankie Beverly. This is literally one of the reasons we started this festival. They close out the main stage at Jazz Fest every year, they've been doing it over 25 years. The reactions we've gotten from the African-American community here in town has been extremely affirming, in a sense this is why we wanted to do this festival here. This idea that Portland is in this box of indie rock and a bunch of white kids who don't want to work, the national spotlight that Portland's got is not really based in reality in my experience. It's fun, whatever, it's kitschy and marketable, but it's not the city I live in. I have a very diverse group of friends, diverse group of people that listen to all kinds of music, etc.

This is a show that nobody thought would ever come to Portland. We've talked to the Observer, the Scanner, they're just flipping out, people are flipping out. In Portland, Oregon, people never, ever thought, you know, this is people that live here that say that. And I have to give a lot of credit to Haytham. This has been his baby for about three years. We've been working on bringing this fest to Portland for three years.

What does that involve?
Well here's the thing, when Portland is competing against New Orleans or Charlotte, and artists go down there and make six figures, for 5,000 people, we can't come anywhere near that. So we have to work with the artists to create surrounding dates to make it feasible for them, or get lucky and have some other shows lock in. It's tough, they've always wanted to do it, they're open minded. There's artists that won't even consider it. That's the thing about the casinos that have really affected things, they have soft money, they can throw unlimited amounts of money at people. 

Yeah, like Al Green playing some casino on the coast.
Right, and you try to put Al Green at the Roseland or something and he says I want X amount of dollars, and you say that's insane, and they say well let's just go play the casino again. You can't really argue with something like that, that's another one of those factors, especially with these types of artists that are making huge amounts of money everywhere, the idea of, why do it? Especially with a band like Maze, we got 31 hotel rooms for these guys, it's a 17-piece band they travel with their entire family, it's a huge organization that we're bringing up here. It's really great and Maze is something we're really excited about. It's about giving an opportunity and catering to a community that's often overlooked in this city. There hasn't been a show like this in 25 years in Portland.

Are you confident that not only that community will come out? I mean obviously the black community is small enough and has been pushed out to the fringes, and maybe not the richest community in Portland. Are you confident that there's enough crossover potential that you'll pack that place?
It's always a gamble. It talks about the faith we have in the community. David Leiken with Doubletee, he's been promoting concerts in this town for 40 years. And he managed Pleasure back in the day, probably the most important band to come out of Portland by far. So the community is there, and they've produced this kind of music, they've lived it. Folks who've been here a long time, the reaction we've gotten is very affirming and I think we'll do really well, as far as making sure people are there. That said, I don't think it's going to be a diverse crowd. I don't see a lot of crossover here. The vast majority of people I know that are not in that community have no idea who Maze is. We'll see how that pans out for us and for the festival. It's something we're really excited about and we're going to stand behind it fully. And we have other stuff on there that's much more in line with that, Justice, Allen Stone, Esperanza. It's going to be a memorable night in Portland, and something that if anybody has an ounce of soul in them is going to be blown away. We're close to confirming a strong support act on there and we anticipate a full house.

I wonder what you have learned in the last three years of booking Portland, how you've been able to stabilize, hopefully not lose money, be able to sustain the thing for more years to come, I wonder what lessons you've learned doing this?
The big lesson is that our original assumption that there's a large segment of the population that's not being catered to, that's not appreciated in the things that are booked. We've become more confident in that reality, that's why we go out on a limb to do Maze. The shows we've done we've been fortunate that they all worked out, for the most part. The lesson is pushing that same button. There are people here that want to see that music, given the opportunity, they will. A great example is Ronnie Laws last year, which was packed, both shows. That's a crowd you don't see out in Portland very often. Obviously that's a much smaller scale show, but that's really encouraging for us. I'd much rather air on the side of real soul music then water it down and even do a Justice type show, all respect due, it's a popular act. That's the focus of the festival for me, we'd rather air on the side of real, authentic soul music. We stretch the limits of what's acceptable, we got a bluegrass show on there this year. That's also fun, it's open to interpretation. Everybody has that connection with music, and when you put that in the communal, collective experience, that's what live music is all about. The big thing to learn is that there are other people in this town that want to come out and see music, just give them the opportunity. That's probably the biggest lesson.

So what is the strength in calling it a festival and not just booking a couple great artists over a few months? For you guys, what's the benefit?
Well we do that all year long. We do shows under the Soul'd Out moniker of artists we're into all year long. That is the broader goal, we're taking that mentality that brought the festival and applying it all year long. We're doing that in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, DC.

So you're kind of laying groundwork with the booking.
It is, it's about education as well, how do you connect the dots. It's the consumer culture that breaks these things down and makes them palatable, spoon fed. People don't realize these are all connected; it all comes from blues and jazz, and how hip-hop is connected to jazz, and why it's important to make those kinds of connections. That's an important aspect of what we're trying to do. It's not just about putting some shows together and hope they work. There's continuity here with these styles and it's all coming from the same place, the creative place. So how do we connect all of these dots that it makes sense to people? For instance, the Wanda Jackson/Sally Ford show. Sally Ford has developed a lot of followers, obviously on the rise, yet I don't think people made that connection, or even know who Wanda Jackson is. Which is insane. That's a big one for us, that's like a passing of the torch type show. These things come from somewhere, it's not just random.

Having this festival, it's kind of when you get your name out there the most.
It's the way festivals are interpreted today in the media. People know what a festival is, they have associations with that, they know what that means. Obviously this is a free from style festival, but until you have like a fairgrounds where you can have that core and close shows around that, we're kind of doing that in reverse, putting all the club shows together in a way we can build up to a major, central location. That's something Portland needs, and there's been talk about it recently, a riverfront amphitheater. As Portland grows as a market, that's inevitable. There's more venues coming, there's more opportunities and outlets for this type of experience. The most exciting thing about Portland for us, is that it's yet to be defined. We're trying to claim that, and say that this is what it can be about too.

There's this community of R&B and soul and blues artists that have kind of been under the radar for years. It seems like some of that is starting to pop out a bit more lately. Often it's people that have been playing in bands for 15 years and they're finally able to see the light of day. Have you noticed that?
I definitely have. We can see that on the bill this year. Not to get too negative, but there are so many bands these days that are fad-created, and once they get on stage there's not much to it. They haven't spent five years as a band honing that sound. It's not authentic. Also, I think people are finally getting over this electronic thing. I hear that a lot. We like to go out and dance and have a good time, but also I wouldn't mind hearing some instruments.

Well you're a hip hop fan, and certainly the hip hop world has gotten pretty far away now from pre-recorded beats, you can't really tour with just a DJ.
Yeah, it raises the standard, and that's really what it's all about. If people don't go out and see these shows, they go away. How people decide to spend their money, and who they support is extremely important, and that's how we start hearing of these artists coming up. If being a professional musician is your only gig, you better be making some money. That requires a serious commitment from the community.

I wanted to talk to you about that Gil Scott-Heron show you had two years ago. That was one of his last performances before he passed. You were at that one I imagine.
Yeah I was one of the people with tears in their eyes throughout the night. And that's why I do what I do. It's funny, months leading up to it, then you get moments like that, the clarity. When Gil showed up and did sound check, he signed a few posters for the festival, and he saw Bernard Purdie on there, and said he was on his first album and hadn't seen him in 20 years. Then he came out and mentioned it during his opening, and he didn't know this but we actually called Bernard who was in town playing the next night and brought him over and he just walked out. To be able to offer that to Gil, it was a fleeting moment, we've got some photos of that that are incredible. That kind of stuff happens at a festival that can't happen at a club show. And there's that kind of magic about it.

He seemed completely with it, and he was so there and perfect, I was shocked when he died, he seemed young. Such a great show.
Certainly a huge highlight, for the first year. That was one of those times when I thought "we should probably keep doing this. If anything like that happens again it'd be worth it to do ten more years."

Is this Maze show the one you're looking forward to most this year?
In a lot of ways it is. It's going to be 95% African-American, it's going to be a show nobody ever thought would happen in Portland. I'm really excited about Allen Stone, that's going to be fantastic. Dr. Lonnie Smith, the Wanda/Sallie Ford thing we're excited about. Midnight is kind of personal, to bring them to the festival is going to be an epic night. They're famous for three and a half hour shows. I'm also a fan of the smaller shows, we got some shows at the Goodfoot this year, Alberta Rose, Bossanova, Mt. Tabor.

What's your absolute dream act if money was not a concern?
I don't know. I don't even want to jinx it, but we were close to having Prince last year. Maybe I shouldn't say close, but it was something we were trying to bring to the Rose Garden.

And that's in that spirit you were talking about, not narrowly defined soul.
And certainly artists who are independent. He caught so much flack for changing his name in the '90s, then all of a sudden he's brilliant because he got out of his record deals and took control of his own music. He caught so much shit, he was widely ridiculed. The independent aspect. These are definitely independent artists and that's something we want to always focus on. Being an independent promoter in a corporate world, that's important to us.