It was literally the best of times and the worst of times. The Watefront Blues Festival brought huge acts to Portland—Buddy Guy! Allen Toussaint! Macy Gray!—and raised upwards of $850,000 for hungry Oregonians. Each year the ambitious festival is a real feat of community and ingenuity, and this year was a shining example of what smart people with big ideas can put together. Oh, but it was hot. It was stupidly hot. And the hotter it gets at a blues festival, the more hairy dad- and grandad-bods you're going to encounter. Being totally surrounded by leathery retiree-skin in 100-degree weather starts to play tricks on the mind after a while. But let's just focus on the best stuff, shall we? There was, after all, plenty of blues-based goodness to go around.
All photos by Kenton Waltz.
Biggest Blues Badass: You don't need a damn air conditioner—you just need more Buddy Guy in your life. After he hit the stage on July 5 to close the hottest Waterfront Blues Festival ever, he cooled the audience a bit more with every screaming lick emanating from his icy 78-year-old fingers. Guy, who wore a wry smile along with a white baseball cap and pink patterned Hawaiian shirt, spoke, sang, and hip-thrusted his band through a set of classics, showing jus the sort of poise you expect from an AARP-card holding six-time Grammy winner. It was all good news from a blues world filled with steadily aging heroes, one still reeling from the loss of BB King—because Buddy Guy doesn't just still play the guitar, he still plays the everloving shit out of it. And, as far as I can tell, his favorite word is still "fuck." "I don't know if you know it, but they don't play this kind of fuckin' blues on your radio anymore," he declared loudly to the crowd after a burning solo. "But I'm not going to stop!" He'd better fuckin' not. I can't think of another elderly man I'd rather see hump a guitar, then play it with his teeth, then yell at the audience to sing louder, all as the hot July sun slowly fades with him, into a seemingly endless twilight. PARKER HALL.
Best Back-to-Back: Christone "Kingfish" Ingram doing "Hey Joe," ending it in snarling feedback, then doing "Purple Rain." People went apeshit. CASEY JARMAN
Best Cover: Macy Gray and Galactic covering Outkast's "Git Up Git Out." There was a tenuous agreement between Friday night's fans and Gray stating that, because she was playing the festival with a full-on New Orleans' jam band, her late 1990s soul-pop counted as proper Blues Festival material. This agreement was temporarily voided, much to the delight of myself and every other millennial in the audience, when she and the band launched into a track from 1994's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. PH.
Best Sign: "Sorry we have no product for Kingfish. We are so sorry."—Music Millennium booth, after Christone Ingram's set. CJ.
Best Headwear: Ural Thomas' gold cowboy hat—a victory cemented by the fact that Buddy Guy showed up only in a simple white baseball cap. PH.
Best Heirs to the Cherry Poppin Daddies: The Bridge City Crooners, who sang extensively about their jelly roll. CJ.
Best Place to Sit (A Four Day Journey):
Day 1: Didn't want to be a lazy asshole with a lawn chair watching a big-screen TV of the shows happening 500 feet away. Stood 100 feet in front of the two main stages, and wondered why I couldn't hear any drums or bass, or really anything besides vocals and the lead instrument the whole day.
Day 2: Still don't want to be a chair-person, but I did realize the sound was better if I positioned myself right by the sound booth on either stage, about 50 feet further back and to the side.
Day 3: Walked by the chair people on the way to get a crawfish sandwich. Realized they had giant PA speakers set up in the middle of a lawn next to the TVs for a reason. Stood for a second, enjoying a good mix, questioning everything.
Day 4: Brought a goddamn towel with me on the MAX and joined everyone else on the hill between stages. The sound was much better, and a kind gentleman in a "festival benefactor" lanyard gave me a free strawberry ice cream bar while I was sitting there. That's the life. PH.
Best Zydeco Accordion: Chubby Carrier, the Grammy-winning Jimi Hendrix of the bellowed reed instrument, with fingers that blaze pentatonic lightning over those tiny white buttons that nobody understands. Come to think of it, I don't know if I ever heard an accordion that wasn't Carrier—his band played five times in four days. PH.
Best Water-Spritzer Dude: The dancing one with the Dog the Bounty Hunter haircut and dense salt-and-pepper chest hair. CJ.
Best Blues Festival Attire: The teenage kid wearing a shirt with a picture of Swervedriver's Mezcal Head on it. Awesome, but strange. CJ.
Best Response to an Epic Technical Mishap: Allen Toussaint, who, after an explosive burst of feedback at the start of his set, stood up from his piano and pointed to the city skyline, smiled, and said "Isn't that something!" to his nervous band. Then he started clapping and slowly walked off stage (where we can only assume he unleashed a profanity-laced tirade on some hapless volunteer). Then more smiling. CJ.