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Aural Report

Portland Waterfront Blues Festival
70 bands and five days of terrorism-free fun
by Kurt Dahlke

e expect one huge exhibition of teeth-biting-lip-White-man's-shuffle-blues-dancing at the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival, one of the biggest such gatherings west of the Mississippi.

But on the Fourth of July, during a mild, terrorism-free day, we can't be too disappointed that most everyone is sitting on a high-tech folding chair or scruffy blanket.

Go ask Alice: Why can't mother kick it up like that?

We hear things heat up as the day marches forward. Soon enough the blistering sun breaks through some fluffy white clouds. Unfortunately, we forgot our hats. Soon we're sweating like crazy.

A set at the Front Porch Stage would seem to promise a relaxing time, but folkie grande dame Alice Stuart won't allow it. Decked in bright red denim, Converse sneakers and the inevitable "USA" T-shirt, Stuart wrangles a warm-toned Fender Telecaster through 45 minutes of folk-influenced rock-tinged country blues.

I tell you what, I wish my mother kicked it up like that.

The great thing about Stuart is her voice, poignant and forceful at once, like a strong cup of honey-lemon tea. Her set is varied, with each particular influence controlling the tone of the song. But the brief set doesn't seem to suit her band (or the many others, for that matter). Just as they get warmed up, their time is up. And it's time to start people-watching again, or move to another stage where another band is just starting.

We weave through bikini-clad hippie chicks, shirtless teen louts, types who might blast past you on the freeway in a lowered Honda Civic, and various other incongruities. Where are all the bearded bikers? The beer-bellied businessmen? The tight-jeaned, 40-something SUV-driving couples shaking their hips? The people that make our blues community thrive? Is the blues fest turning into an under-attended teen pick-up party?

Great Scott: Ellison tears it up and kisses the ladies.

Now it's Saturday, and the weather is beautiful. The fest rolls on, still with plenty of space to sit, shuffle or whatever.

Scott Ellison and crew tower over the fans from the South Stage. There's aged, stooping Howard waving nimble hands over the B-3 organ, conjuring aerial solos and swelling chords. Big, futuristic-looking Jan, with bald pate and fly glasses, slaps out steady, tight swing on drums. Southern sun-worn hepcat Stan pulses bubbling blues-blood on bass while Scott, a pale Oklahoma vampire with dark glasses and pointy cowboy boots, leads the show.

He trades guitars throughout a tight set of catchy blues-rock; his raspy voice an accessory for his true showmanship on the guitar. His solos read the idiom of the blues near perfectly, becoming long, emotive sentences full of spoken inflection, spontaneous within the tight construction of the form. Plus, he knows how to please the crowd, walking out for a solo, and then jumping from the precipitous stage (he says it helped a kink out of his spine) to tear it up again and kiss the ladies.

And the blues just keeps going. This five-day festival – more than 70 bands – helps the Oregon Food Bank feed needy families through food and monetary donations.

It's a great cause, but the sun is getting to us. The possibilities are literally exhaustive, so we'll leave it for another year, and stagger back across the muddy Willamette, with so much trouble on our minds that only the soothing blues can save us.

E-mail Kurt at orangeandorange@msn.com, and don't miss his previous reports.

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