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Spend the Fourth at Portland's Waterfront Blues Festival

2007 Waterfront Blues Festival

Daniyl Hicks

In Portland, Fourth of July weekend means plenty of people sitting by the waterfront wearing red, white and listening to the blues. The 24th annual Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival starts July 1 and this year lives up to its promise of great hunger-fighting music.

What started out as a food drive for the Oregon Food Bank is now the second largest blues festival in the United States and the largest west of the Mississippi. From headlining acts such as recent blues hall of fame inductee Robert Cray, three-time Grammy award winner Lucinda Williams and six-time Grammy winner Buddy Guy to local Northwest favorites and kids workshops, the blues festival has something for blues-lovers everywhere. 

Robert Cray

Courtesy of Waterfront Blues Festival

Tom McCall Waterfront Park will be teaming with syncopated rhythms and blues aficionados from around the world. Last year the Food Bank invited festival-goers to mark on a map where they were from and there were dots on all 50 states and 18 countries.

“You will see everyone at the festival,” says Jean Kempe-Ware of the Oregon Food Bank. “It brings everyone together in Portland.”

But the key to a successful festival is the local acts. Oregon Art Beat favorites like Mary Flower, David Vest and Curtis Salgado share the stage with blues festival first-timers. You’ll see the Backyard Blues Boys, a group of talented students from Cleveland and Franklin High Schools, the Northwest Community Gospel Choir, Portland Police Chief Mike Reese’s band The Usual Suspects and even some Safeway employees in Triple Threat. All make their festival debuts this year.

If the plethora of fantastic acts aren’t helping you decide which day to head to the Waterfront, here are some things to keep in mind: Saturday is all about Zydeco dance, a style originating from the Cajun and Bayou culture. Sunday will be full of Gospel music, and the festival finishes with a bang with Monday night fireworks.

Go See It!

Waterfront Blues Festival

Regardless of when you go, be sure to roam around and explore the festival.

“My very favorite things to do are at the Fedex workshop stage,” says Kemp-Ware, “It’s a small intimate little space with amazing workshops. Professional musicians can get tips from the best in the world and we have workshops for kids, because kids can get the blues too.”

Small changes from last year include designated smoking areas and the edition of a Louisiana Pavilion. Located next to the Oregonian stage, the pavilion will be full of art and photos from Louisiana complete with beads and feathers to make you feel like you’re back in New Orleans.

In the midst of all the excitement, Kempe-Ware is quick to remember why the festival was started.

“The important thing is that this is for the Oregon Food Bank. The need for emergency food in Oregon and Clark County is at record high levels and we encourage people to be generous in their donation,” she says.

The Food Bank hopes to raise $650,000 to help fight hunger and food insecurity. What better way to spend the Fourth than fighting America’s hunger while enjoying America’s music?

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