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Crescent City theme brings many sounds

Blues Festival Preview

Peter Dammann, who reinvents the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival musically every year, has heard the grumbling: This year's event, a tribute to the people and music of storm-ravaged New Orleans, is outside the comfort zone of fans who prefer the gritty, guitar-driven sound of Chicago blues.

'I understand what they're saying,' says Dammann, whose official title is talent coordinator, 'but I sort of disagree. We have made it a theme this year, but that doesn't mean that's all that's happening. I'd be amazed if people can't find something that works.'

Dammann says blues lovers shouldn't make too much of the fact that most of the festival's biggest names - Dr. John, Ivan Neville, Buckwheat Zydeco, Irma Thomas - are closely linked to the Big Easy.

'It's still got more straight-ahead blues than any other festival in the Northwest,' he says. 'We've got a lot of regional acts playing that aren't New Orleans acts, and a lot of the acts that are coming from New Orleans are straight-ahead blues acts.'

Dammann, an accomplished musician himself, is out to remind people that America's northern cities became hotbeds for blues only after the music sprang from the fertile soil of the South along the Mississippi River.

'I wanted to illustrate how the music influenced Chicago,' he says. 'Most of the guys we think of as Chicago blues guys were only a few years removed from the Mississippi Delta. A lot of those roots are in the Gulf Coast.'

A perfect example of that, Dammann says, is 81-year-old pianist Henry Gray (workshop 7 p.m. Saturday, performance 4:15 p.m. Sunday). A Louisiana native, Gray migrated to Chicago after World War II and eventually spent a dozen years as a sideman to the legendary Howlin' Wolf.

Or what of Irma Thomas (8:45 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tuesday), the 'Soul Queen of New Orleans' who is mostly seen as a gospel and rhythm-and-blues singer?

'To me,' Dammann says, 'she is more directly rooted in that blues tradition than 90 percent of the blues acts that tour the country.'

The festival, which has long sought to present a diverse roster of artists, has outdone itself this year.

'We push the envelope musically beyond what a lot of people would describe as the pure blues genre.' Dammann says. 'Buckwheat Zydeco is a good case in point.'

Zydeco music, which has a healthy following in Portland, blends elements of Cajun sounds that migrated south from French Canada with African-influenced Creole culture.

Buckwheat Zydeco (8:15 p.m., cruise 10:15 p.m. Sunday) grew up in rural Louisiana but spent much of the '50s and '60s as a session player on blues and R and B recordings, later returning to his rural Cajun roots.

The commitment to musical diversity at this year's festival goes even beyond the North-South axis. Monday will see performances by British bluesman Ian Siegal (2 p.m. and 3:45 p.m.) as well as Mia Dyson (2:45 p.m., electric guitar workshop 4:45 p.m.) and Harper (1:45 p.m.), two of the top performers in Australia.

Dammann says dedicating an entire five-day festival to traditional Chicago blues doesn't make sense, even if it could be done.

'I don't think you can program a major event that would draw a wide cross section,' he says. 'There aren't that many blues headliners.'

Besides, he says, 'I think it would be really tedious.'

- Eric Bartels

11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Tuesday, June 30-July 4, Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Naito Parkway between Southwest Harrison and Northwest Glisan streets, 503-973-3378, www.waterfrontbluesfest.com, $8 plus two cans of nonperishable food per person per day at gate; $25 five-day passes available from TicketsWest (224-8499) through June 30, subject to service charges