Show Review: The 2023 Waterfront Blues Festival

Highlights include Nashville’s Sunny War.

Waterfront Blues Festival (Connor Meyer)

In our ever-changing city, it’s reassuring to know there’s at least one thing we can rely on: the continued existence of the Waterfront Blues Festival. The four-day event has been a constant of the concert calendar since 1988, with only the lineup and scope of the event altering from year to year.

For the 2023 edition, organizers played it a little safe, leaning on reliable names from the old guard of blues and zydeco (Buddy Guy, C.J. Chenier, Rick Estrin) or young acts that color within the same crowd-pleasing lines (Cory Wong, Yates McKendree). Whatever your feelings about the lineup, the schedule—on the two days we were able to attend before deadline, at least—resulted in scores of Portlanders descending upon downtown to gently cook in the early July sun.

It also put the quieter and slightly more offbeat acts at a bit of a disadvantage. Sunny War, the folk artist from Nashville, took a little longer to win over the beer-swilling crowd with her finger-picked acoustic guitar and hushed vocals. But during both of her sets Saturday and Sunday, she eventually had everyone within earshot—even those rubberneckers on the Hawthorne Bridge—leaning in so as not to miss a single detail of her finely textured songs.

War’s Saturday set was marred only by location: the Crossroads Stage, the small platform set in the middle of the grounds. The sound bleed from the larger stages was impossible to ignore. So much so that when the PDX Jazz Collective and Bridge City Quartet, two local jazz ensembles made up of players still in their teens, played, I feared they would get overwhelmed by the added noise. Credit to them, they held firm and played strong sets filled with wide smiles and a keen understanding of their chosen genre’s history.

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