Gregg Allman is out as the top name at this year’s Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival, which begins Thursday. He’s sick and had to bail. Allman was the headlining draw on what, for the second consecutive year, is the festival’s only ticketed day: Sensational Sunday.
It got its name a year ago when the festival, already booked, got a late breaking shot at Robert Plant and his Sensational Shape Shifters project. Plant was routing through the Northwest on his way to a festival at the Gorge Amphitheater that never happened. It was a lucky break, and when Plant was added to a Sunday lineup that already included Mavis Staples and Taj Mahal, the festival—produced by and for the benefit of the Oregon Food Bank—saw an opportunity.
They placed their bet and they won. They raised more than $1 million for the first time in the festival’s history. Which is great. The food bank does important work, and even with the ticketed day, the blues festival is a good deal. But that seven-figure haul guaranteed Dammann, who books the festival, was going to be asked to do it again, and he was.
He got Allman, and Boz Scaggs, Ivan Neville, Lee Fields, and Joan Osborne with the Holmes Brothers, and that’s fine, if not sensational. Booking a blues festival in 2014 has to be at least 70 percent harder than designing a street fee that makes anyone happy.
Dammann got the email about Allman's cancellation yesterday and called Curtis Salgado because when you need a bluesman in Portland, you call Curtis Salgado. It wasn’t the best option. It was the only option.
Dammann told reporters he tried to get Bonnie Raitt to fly in and play a few songs with Salgado, and everyone else was way too expensive, and have you ever tried to find a headliner for a Fourth of July blues festival on short notice? Shit job, but booking blues headliners on advance notice isn’t much easier.
There’s competition from an expanding US festival circuit. He has local competition from Edgefield, Pickathon, MusicfestNW, and the Oregon Zoo (who I do a little bit of work for).
The booking options aren’t getting any younger, and the young acts don’t seem to want in. Gary Clark Jr. is the closest thing to a new blues superhero, but summer is blues festival season, and he's already booked for one—in Ottawa (tomorrow, if you hurry). Why play a blues festival when you can play the Hangout Music Festival and put yourself in the company of Outkast, the Killers, and the Black Keys? (Also, the Black Keys aren’t going to be playing any blues festivals—no matter what Jack White hopes.)
This isn’t a new problem for Dammann. He and I talked about it last year, and I think the year before that. Losing Allman on such short notice highlights the issue, and if the festival is going to continue to grow and raise necessary money for the food bank, Dammann is going to have to figure out an answer. It’s a better job than he had on Tuesday, anyway.