They did it again. In the fading hours of its fourth day, the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival announced it had tentatively passed its $1 million fundraising goal for the second time, with $1,114,004 for the Oregon Food Bank, to be exact. Final numbers will be released after the festival.
The total fell short of 2013's $1.315 million record, but not every year has Robert Plant headlining — or, as with this year, Gregg Allman canceling, for that matter. Stepping into his shoes was Curtis Salgado, who played the festival in its 1987 debut and sung at plenty since.
Allman's absence had been a concern given Sunday's ticketed entry, and while crowds were lighter than the previous three days, the audience still stretched from end to end of the Waterfront Park as the July heat neared 90 degrees. Salgado opened his set with a dedication to the late Janice Scroggins, a name that was on the lips of many local performers over the weekend. He also addressed the last-minute switch, promising the crowd he and his band would do their best as they took on soul and sounds from Chicago and New Orleans.
Those who left after Boz Scaggs' crackling late afternoon performance missed heat of a different kind: Salgado's yearning vocals, which reached soulful highs and lows during the nonstop set — an instrument second only to his harmonica solos. His rhythm section kept the music bouncing, while a trio of horn players chipped in with passionate punctuation.
It was a weekend of powerful Miller Stage headliners, from Maceo Parker's world-class funk to the American Music Program's big band bombast (a welcome showcase for not just students, but Andy Stokes and LaRhonda Steele) to Los Lobos' cross-cultural dance party. While the foundational image of the blues, a man and his pain hunched over a guitar, is often absent at the event, the Waterfront Blues Festival never strays too far from its name, with soul, gospel, funk, rock, jazz and zydeco performers mixing influences throughout the weekend and always paying their respects to the music that led to their own.
While it wouldn't hurt the festival to bring in some newer blood — how about some hip-hop acts? — it deserves credit for staying true to its traditions, and providing a yearly stomping ground for many of Portland's best talents. Salgado, Stokes, Steele, Louis Pain, Renato Caranto, Linda Hornbuckle, Duffy Bishop: the list goes on. They won't be here forever: Scroggins, who died in May at 58, would've joined Hornbuckle on Sunday. "It's sad and bittersweet," Hornbuckle said, dedicating her set to the keyboardist. And a tribute to Jim Miller, the festival's late production manager, launched a jam worthy of a New Orleans wake on Saturday.
It was a special moment, but not an entirely unique one: on any given night, you can find many of these artists at Jimmy Mak's or Duff's Garage or a half-dozen lesser-known venues that the city's "Portlandia"- generation scenesters would do well to visit more often. But they can count on the crowds at the Waterfront Blues Festival. And we can count on them.