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A Glorious Day of Blues by the Bay: The San Diego Blues Festival

by Ted BurkeSeptember 2018

Festival creator, Michael Kinsman.

Billy Gibbons.

Seth Loveless.

Tommy Castro & the Painkillers.

Kenny Neal.

Sons of the Soul Revivers.

John Nemeth & the Blue Dreamers.

Lightnin’ Malcolm.

Sarah Rogo. Photo by Chase Life Photography.

Chickenbone Slim.

Fred Heath.

That stomp under the sun, the San Diego Blues Festival, is back with us again for its eighth consecutive year. Scheduled for Saturday, September 8, from noon to 8pm on the Marina Embarcadero North, the one-day festival has been a San Diego hallmark since 2011, having presented area audiences a virtual royalty of contemporary blues artists. Past performers include Mavis Staples, Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton, Los Lobos, Eric Burdon and the Animals, among other esteemed alumni. No less than 10 members of the Blues Hall of Fame and four members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have graced the festival stage.

The year’s festival continues its tradition of variety and infectious groove with Billy Gibbons and friends, highlighting the ZZ Top guitarist with his own band; Seth Loveless; Tommy Castro and the Painkillers; Kenny Neal; the Sons of the Soul Revivers; John Nemeth and the Blue Dreamers; Lighting Malcolm; Sarah Rogo; Chickenbone Slim and the Biscuits; and Fred Heath. And, as always, all profits from the Blues Festival go to benefit the efforts of the San Diego Food Bank for the services they provide to the community’s less fortunate. This makes up for a glorious day of blues by the bay under the sun and breeze, elements that have helped make the San Diego Blues Festival from being an earnest, humble event to becoming a cornerstone area cultural event with both a national and international reputation. A key element of that growth and success is the passion and hard work of a journalist, blues lover ,and festival organizer Michael Kinsman.

A journalist by trade, having worked for the Union-Tribune for 25 five years as a business writer, Kinsman began to write music articles for the article as a sideline, and for a time worked as a freelance writer among several publications. Always passionate about music, especially the blues, he developed a desire to produce his own blues festival. After a time, he plunged right in.

“Back in ’98 when I stated that I wanted to do my own blues festival. I’d been attending the Tampa Bay Blues Festival in St. Petersburg, Florida and I looked around and I go, ‘Well, you know, I can do this,’ and I’m totally naive not knowing what is entailed at all. You know, I never I never had a business and never did anything like that, so wanted to do it. I was just a reporter and I decided I was going to do it. So I guess it was ’97 or ’98 and my first blues fest went on for six years at the Embarcadero South. And, finally, it just died because I was having trouble, you know, because I was financed on a shoestring run by me and we just never really got traction. It was a great festival that just never took off. So, I just had to pack it in and it broke my heart. Never wanted to do another one the rest of my life.

“We had a small sponsor back then and his company started in 1998 as well. It’s called AIMLOAN.COM. And it was an online mortgage company. Well, in the years since 1998, it has grown up to be the third largest online mortgage company in the country. Okay, so it’s a pretty substantial business and the owner kept after me to do a blues festival. He’d be giving me five thousand dollars back in the old days. And, you know, if you want to give more I could use twenty-five thousand dollars. That’s not enough. It’s a very expensive proposition.

“He had a second home in Portland, Oregon, where they had the Waterfront Blues Festival, a four-day event over the Fourth of July. He told me to come up and we’d talk about the possibility of doing another San Diego Festival. I went up to talk him out of it .We walked the grounds of the Waterfront Festival and he showed me how it worked. I pointed out what the differences there were between, like what he could get away with in Portland and what you can’t get away with in San Diego. San Diego has much stricter rules. The company representatives met with me and one thing led to another, and they were talking about putting in fifty to a hundred thousand dollars.

“That captured my interest. When I came back to San Diego, we approached the San Diego Food Bank. I told them that I have a blueprint and that I could run it, and then they proposed that they would put up a sum of money, provide volunteers, handle the accounting, and raise sponsorship money. They would keep all the profits. It was a win all the way around They said it sounded great. It was a very risky venture, but we had our first festival in 2011 and it went well.

“We earned $25,000 in profit, raised awareness for the Food Bank and collected some food donations. It’s grown since then. We’ve been at it for seven years and during that time, we’ve raised $755,000 and received about 12 tons of food in donations. I am proud of that.

“Last year we made $180,000; we’ve been growing every year and increasing our profit.We were glad to make as much as we did early on, but now it sounds like a real money. And all proceeds go to the Food Bank. So, you know it’s part of our philosophy. I mean, we want to make money with the Festival so we can give all the proceeds to the San Diego Food Bank and they can do well with their mission.

“My love is blues music. I want to put on a world-class blues festival, and I think we’ve finally arrived at that. The artists get a great gig, the audience gets a great product, and a great cause benefits. I think we’re doing that.”

San Diego’s blues fans are inclined to agree with Mr.Kinsman.

Since 2011, Kinsman and his crew have been providing the area with a high-quality music event that has gained a well-earned national and international reputation, as this year’s line-up indicates. This continues the San Diego Blues Festival’s commitment of presenting a broad swath of variety and stylistic energy, which reflects the music’s connection to its roots and the visionary directions that new generations of artists are taking it.

Billy Gibbons and Friends: Texas guitarist Gibbons, best known for his work with the arena-filling band ZZ Top, is a blues stalwart over everything else and brings his particularly gritty blend of raw-boned blues and boogie to the festival stage. His guitar work has drawn praise from no less than Jimi Hendrix and amply demonstrates a mastery of feeling and phrase with each soulful riff.

Seth Loveless: Notable for his fingerpicking guitar style and soulful vocals, Loveless caught the eye and ear of Billy Gibbons, who has taken up making sure that this young man becomes better known. His 2017 debut album, How Do You Feel, featured platinum-selling guitarist Eric Johnson, and the propulsive work of band members are keyboardist Martin Guigui, drummer Kenny Aronoff, bassist Mike Merritt, saxophonist Scott Page, and Warren Ham on sax and harmonica.

Tommy Castro and the Painkillers: Billboard has exclaimed that Tommy Castro and the Painkillers play “…irresistible contemporary blues-rock” with “…street-level grit and soul,” qualities San Diego audiences know full well through the band’s many area appearances through the years. Castro, a savvy and fluid blues guitarist, gets an able assist from bassist Randy McDonald, keyboardist Michael Emerson, and drummer Bowen Brown, showcasing a stirring combination of original blues, soul, and West Coast rock. Stomping Ground, their latest album, is scheduled for a September 29th release.

Kenny Neal: Veteran blues man Kenny Neal is a triple threat in the blues, being an exceptional guitarist, a solid, punchy harmonica player, and a singer of impressive expressive range. He’s recorded nearly two dozen albums, has been nominated for several Grammy awards, and has received dozens of blues awards over the years. In a rich career that includes getting his first harmonica from Slim Harpo as a youngster and playing with greats like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, Neal’s mercurial band includes his brothers Darnell (bass) and Frederick (keyboards), jobs they’ve held for 25 years.

Sons of the Soul Revivers: The tradition of the gospel quartet just doesn’t have a role in gospel music but casts a strong influence over early blues and R&B groups. This group from Oakland are evidence of that legacy. Their music carries a powerful message delivered in the most passionate way a human voice can. Dwayne Morgan and his older brothers James Morgan and Walter Morgan Jr. form the vocal core of the group. They’ve been singing together in church since they were kids. Walter Jr., who also plays guitar, founded the Sons to continue the quartet tradition that the brothers’ father, Walter Sr., and his brothers started with the original Soul Revivers. The Sons are rounded out by Oliver “Petie” Calloway on drums and bassist “Q” Johnson.

John Nemeth and the Blue Dreamers: This band highlights the fine harmonica work and exquisite, soul-influenced vocals of leader John Nemeth. The music is an eclectic and spirited tour of blues, soul, rock ‘n’ roll styles, and nearly thing else in between. The2017 CD Feelin’ Freaky was a boundary-hopping collection of songs that dipped into themes from social issues such as gun violence and class values to more hedonistic issues of dancing and marijuana. The CD is filled with songs that are melody-driven and simply groove.

Lightnin’ Malcolm: Lightnin’ Malcolm is a human juke joint. Wherever he goes, he brings the intensity of a juke filled with the sweltering bodies of wall-to-wall dancers. It’s the kind of performance that is expected in the Mississippi hill xountry. It’s the way Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside learned, and the method T-Model Ford, Honeyboy Edward,s and Big Jack Johnson employed.

Sarah Rogo: Though she was born in New England, she moved to Encinitas a couple of years ago and quickly has forged her own place in the local music scene. At 25, she plays a mean National guitar and surfs every chance she gets. Whether she’s playing blues or her own brand of Americana, Sarah has an intensity and passionate commitment to her music.

Chickenbone Slim and the Biscuits: Hometown champs Chickenbone Slim, nee Larry Teves, and the Biscuits serve up their energized blend of blues-rock and spicy grit at this year’s festival. Their debut album The Big Beat (reviewed in last November’s San Diego Troubadour) has wound up many top 10 lists and is the first CD from a San Diego band to land on Living Blues magazine’s charts last year. This band will definitely sock it to you.

Fred Heath: Guitarist Fred Heath remembers being only six or seven when he heard Elmore James’ slide guitar on the record player at his aunt’s Linda Vista home. Fred got his first band together in his early 20s but spent most of his life caring for his family and never really had time for a music career. He did play here and there over the decades but only when he had a chance. He became known for his Elmore James licks. Fred still tended to family obligations until he felt the freedom to play more, establishing himself as a firm devotee of Elmore James, with the ability to make this grand master’s approach to guitar shimmer and quake that has left audiences stunned and moved.

More information about the performers, showtimes, and admission costs is available at www.sdbluesfest.com. Information about The San Diego Food Band and their services can be found at www.sandiegofoodbank.org.

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