Front Porch

San Diego Blues: A Day on the Bay

Los Lobos

Los Lobos

Chris Cain

Chris Cain

Nikki Hill

Nikki Hill

Watermelon Slim

Watermelon Slim

Jazz 88's Claudia Russell and Michael Kinsman at the blues Fest in 2014. Photo by Jon Naugle.

Jazz 88’s Claudia Russell and Michael Kinsman at the blues Fest in 2014. Photo by Jon Naugle.

As the open-air music festival season nears its finale, the city of San Diego, in conjunction with the Jacobs and Cushman Food Bank, has announced its forthcoming 12-bar blues crescendo. The sixth annual San Diego Blues Festival happens Saturday, September 10th, from noon to 8pm, and will once again be staged right on the water at the Embarcadero Marina Park North. Tickets range in price from $25 for general admission to the extravagant Super VIP experience for $250.

Blues promoter Michael Kinsman has put together an enticing and diverse playbill that will appeal not only to the blues enthusiast but all fans of live music as well. Kinsman’s M.O. is straightforward: backload the program with international and nationally known artists, but also show a little love and give some exposure to our amazing wealth of regional and local players. The event is structured over two stages, so that blues flow seamlessly across the marina all day long. Just like a juke joint where the music never stops, the festival happens only outdoors, in a park, and by the bay. It just doesn’t get any better.

When asked what motivates his musical selections Kinsman freely admits, “I have such a deep love of this music… that I make the booking process far more difficult than it should be. I want the festival to have music that inspires people and gives them something they might not have experienced before but that also leaves an indelible impression. I book nine acts a year but I have spreadsheets on 120. I also have about 35 local acts that I consider for just two or three slots.” And Kinsman is only too aware that “it creates a lot of disappointment.”

Hopefully this year that won’t be an issue because the festival lineup is the stuff of legends; headliners include the Grammy award-winning roots rock of L.A.’s own Los Lobos. Currently touring behind their 2015 release Gates of Gold, Los Lobos bring an eclectic mix of blues, rock, folk, and Tejaño influences that have inspired and captivated audiences around the world for more than three decades. Again, Kinsman knows he’s going to takes hits on his choices, “but the whole goal,” he says, “is to come up with something unique. Los Lobos has a deep roots background, but it is not a ‘blues’ band.” That said, most blues fans know that guitarist Cesar Rosas had the good fortune to work with and write with legendary bluesman Willie Dixon. A collaboration that produced the song, “I Can’t Understand.” Even more recently Los Lobos toured extensively with Eric Clapton and are a returning crowd favorite at Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festivals. But, ultimately, Kinsman adds, “It broadens the palette by bringing people to the festival to see someone like Watermelon Slim or Chris Cain, who most San Diegan’s don’t know at all.”

Also on the bill this year is the ageless Louisiana sensation, 2015 BMA Entertainer of the Year and Blues Hall of Famer Bobby Rush. The man is a phenomenon unto himself and one of the few remaining old soul bluesmen. Rush takes the stage as though every show is his last and, without question, the reason he was just honored with the 2016 Living Blues Award for Best Live Performer.

The good times continue to roll with a San Diego Fest favorite, vocalist Nikki Hill. Hill returns to the Embarcadero with her guitar-slinging spouse, Matt, and their rip-it-up, tear-it-up rhythm section. Nikki’s voice has the emotional texture of aged bourbon and the stage presence of a runaway freight train. When this band hits the stage no one can stay in their seats.

As mentioned earlier, the outspoken and gifted bluesman Watermelon Slim makes a rare Southern California appearance. He is a true bottleneck, occasional socket-wrench slide guitarist, and a masterful harp player. His version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’” is worth the price of admission alone. Another party you don’t want to miss is the full, big-band blues of Frank Bey and Anthony Paule. For this San Diego event the Bey Paule band pools talent with yet another 2016 Living Blues Award winner, Wee Willie Walker. Expect amazement.

Northern California bluesman Chris Cain has roots that roll right through Beale Street in Memphis. Having witnessed his first B.B. King concert at the ripe old age of three, it seemed only natural that music would be his destiny. As a multi-instrumentalist, Cain’s versatility expands across all blues and jazz genres. The man is quite simply a master craftsman. The Festival just keeps giving. Junior Watson and our own local harp wizard Billy Watson have performed together on and off for many years. With tongue firmly in cheek, friend and promoter Kinsman refers to them as “the most dysfunctional set of blues twins as you’ll ever find.” Although not related, the Watson blues chemistry on stage is mesmerizing.

The band Holla Pointe represented San Diego earlier this year at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Between harp-playing vocalist Karl Cabbage and the electrified guitar of Jimmy Zollo the Holla Pointe rips a sharp, fresh edge across your blues. Their latest project is titled Down the Road a Piece and it showcases their unique and very raw set of original blues. But be advised, blues fans! You can hear the influence of Sonny Boy, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf in every note they play. It’s the best of both worlds and they do it regularly right here in San Diego. The Holla Pointe is a band you will remember long after the festival ends.

One of the special highlights surrounding the San Diego Blues Fest occurs only for attendees that arrive early. Prior to the official start of the festival, former San Diegan Big Jon Atkinson will jump-start your day outside the concert, gates beginning at 10:30am. His knowledge of the early blues originators and his mastery of style and technique far exceed his years. Big Jon’s blues set the stage and open the flood gates to a truly amazing day of entertainment.

B.B. King used to say, “The blues are a healer and they’re good for what ails you.” In this instance, the blues also feeds and enriches. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the San Diego Blues Festival benefit the Jacobs and Cushman San Diego Food Bank. In just the past five years this blues party has raised $435,000 and has provided those in need with more than 12 tons of food. And this year is no exception; once again, you’re invited to participate by bringing at least two cans of food to donate to the bank.

In case you didn’t realize how important your donations are, consider these heartbreaking statistics.
1) Nearly 500,000 people in San Diego County within the next year may or may not have food to eat tomorrow.
2) One out of five school children in San Diego lives with hunger EVERY day; one out of five.
3) As you read this the Food Bank is providing nourishment to 400,000 people a month, including 28,000 active-duty military and military dependants.

So, don’t wait, make your plans now for a wonderful blues-filled day on the Bay and do it while supporting your community. The sixth annual San Diego Blues Festival takes place Saturday, September 10, noon–8pm at the Embarcadero Marina Park North. General Admission is $25, which is less than what you’d pay to see any one of these artists, and it covers the entire day of music. So, whether you’re a blues purist, sometimes fan, or just want to check out some new music and lay back in the California sunshine, this year’s blues fest offers a variety of styles and presentation all wrapped in a party atmosphere for the whole family. If you need tickets or just want to check out the bands and their music, you can find out more on the San Diego Blues Festival website. Having produced this event for so many years, and knowing full well the logistics, minute details, and a multitude of intangibles that are associated, Kinsman still smiles. “There is no magic formula to determine what people like, so you just go with your instinct and hope for the best. It’s a crapshoot, but when it works, I feel great because I know how good it makes others feel.”

A full day of music and helping those less fortunate, you can feel it already!

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