San Francisco Blues Part 1

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If you’re going to San Francisco, you can wear flowers in your hair if you like but if you want to stay anywhere you should not forget to book well ahead of time. Since Hurricane Katrina, the city by the bay seems to have taken up many of the conventions, conferences and events that might once have been in New Orleans. The undoubtedly beautiful location also makes it a tourist Mecca.
I stayed at the Redwood Inn on Lombard Street; just a few blocks walk from the San Francisco Blues Festival in the Great Meadow at Fort Mason. It is a 15-minute walk to Fisherman’s Wharf and is well served by buses. The rooms are relatively cheap (US$90 + tax a night for the weekend), large and well maintained. There is an excellent little grocery store just around the corner, run by a delightful Palestinian gentleman who has been there for 30 years. You can get your supplies there and he makes an excellent sandwich. There are plenty of other places on Lombard if you want a wider choice.
My favourite place to stay in San Fran is the Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin, but it is pricier (US$135+ a night) and was booked out for the entire festival weekend and several days beforehand.
The San Francisco Blues Festival, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, seems to reflect the laid-back nature of the locals and its producer Tom Mazzolini, who also presents a weekly blues radio show on KPFA. Apart from an article on John Hammond in Thursday’s San Francisco Chronicle there was not a huge amount of publicity for the event. I recall being surprised last year at how few people turned up to see Little Richard. Tom says that there is a lot of competition with other events, including the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival the very next weekend with its fabulous line-up.
The blues festival setting is fabulous. Last year we could watch the fog roll in across the bay and its famous bridge every afternoon, this year the weather was slightly warmer. There is one main stage with a reserved seating area (US$80 a weekend) and a general area (US$35 a day/US$55 a weekend) beyond that section. It is easy to get a spot near the stage or you can sit further up the hill and enjoy a panorama of the bay on one side and the city backdrop on the other.
I arrived at the festival around midday on Saturday and managed to find a place under some shade from one of the large palm trees to the left of stage. Not that I was worried about getting sunburnt (no hole in the ozone layer here) but it made it a little more comfortable. Later, when it cooled down I was forced to put on a jacket.
John Nemeth kicked off the day and was followed by pianist Dave Alexander. Chicago’s Nick Moss & The Fliptops put in an impressive, rocking set. I was moved to buy their latest CD. Then Eric Bibb appeared to calm the mood somewhat with a lovely acoustic set, with guest harmonica player Grant Dermody.
Billy Boy Arnold introduced his song ‘I Wish You Would’ as the one that The Yardbirds had a hit with back in the ‘60s. That shows his history! He also performed ‘Wandering Mind’ and introduced singer Deitra Farr as one of Chicago’s finest vocalists. Farr said that her favourite part of Chicago was the airport!
Tommy Castro and his band put in a solid set and on ‘Too Many Bad Habits’ featured a powerful horn section that recalled the Stax sound.
The highlight of the first day, however, was headliner Robert Randolph and The Family Band with special guest Calvin Cooke. I am not sure how many bands have featured two pedal steel players but this was a killer outfit. The set started with ‘Good Times’ and then Cooke chimed in with ‘Wave My Hand’ and ‘The March’ while soon afterwards he got into an extended jam with Randolph on the gospel-infused ‘What Happens?’ Randolph then offered ‘Nobody’ and then an extended ‘Voodoo Chile.’ The encore was an epic ‘Help Me Make It Through’ which left everyone on a high. After three albums, Randolph’s career has not quite ignited the way we thought it might but there is no doubt that everyone at the festival thought they had seen something special and that Randolph is one of the most exciting performers to take the stage at any festival.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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