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Back Door Memories 

Tom Mazzolini speaks proudly of his San Francisco Blues Festival. But each musician is proud for a different reason.

Wednesday, Sep 15 1999
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At 1995's San Francisco Blues Festival, every time a limo pulled up on the grassy knoll at Fort Mason, people were looking for John Lee Hooker. The rumor among the performers milling around the tents backstage at the Great Meadow was that this would be the blues legend's final public performance. "It was just somehow out that it was like John Lee's last concert. That was the vibe," recalls Brenda Boykin, a singer who then fronted the Johnny Nocturne Band. The vibe was wrong. Hooker will be back onstage Sunday, when the sun sets on the 27th annual San Francisco Blues Fest.

When the limo doors did open at the 1995 event, they revealed up-and-comers like Santa Cruz vocal powerhouse Sista Monica, who was stepping out like it was the debutante ball. Boykin says she then saw her contemporaries and the festival in a slightly different light. "She was styling," she says of Monica. "Building her good reputation. And I'm saying to myself, 'I came with my friends in a Datsun. I'm a baby, I don't know nothing. But she knows how to work this thing.' "

"This thing" is the brainchild of producer Tom Mazzolini, who in 1973 took advantage of a city arts program to put together a relatively modest one-night indoor show at UC Extension featuring Jimmy McCracklin and Charlie Musselwhite. If, back then, you'd asked Mazzolini whether he thought there would be a second San Francisco Blues Festival, he wouldn't have been able to tell you. But it's come to consume most of his professional life; wary about some subjects, Mazzolini gets rhapsodic when it comes to the festival. "It's about authenticity. It's about the real thing being there," he says. "It's about trying to keep something. It's about mythology."

But at first, it was just about following his natural instinct. Mazzolini, 57, moved to the city in the late 1960s to soak up what was left of the beat scene, absorbing the explosion of literary and musical arts while working on a history degree at San Francisco State. He found his way to the blues through what became a well-traveled path for a new crop of white listeners: folk music to country blues, country blues to electric blues. Along the way, he took in Hendrix and Cream, Paul Butterfield, Albert King, and Muddy Waters. But he pushed it further than most. Combining his interests, he got to know blues musicians living in Oakland, Richmond, and the Fillmore District, interviewing artists for oral histories. He hit juke joints and produced shows with lost legends, discovering, for example, that Tiny Powell, author of a memorable tune called "My Time After Awhile" -- recorded most famously by Buddy Guy -- was working as a skycap at SFO. (Powell performed at the 1977 fest, the fifth overall and the last to be held on a hillside at McLaren Park.)

"My whole intention at that time was to put everybody onstage who had ever performed or recorded the blues in the Bay Area," says Mazzolini. "People could be found working as janitors or in the post office, people who had walked away from their careers so many years ago. It was an era filled with passion for me and it was all-encompassing in my life. I was consumed by it."

Mazzolini's approach is different now, but it is still all-consuming. LPs fill the available shelf space in his home office in Noe Valley, rows of CDs jut out on the floor, and festival posters from previous years adorn the walls. He's hosted a blues show at KPFA for two decades, and received a W.C. Handy Award -- the blues equivalent of a Grammy -- for his work with the festival. He's the impresario behind the Battle of the Blues Harmonicas each winter, has produced European tours for a Bay Area blues caravan, and has seen a handful of festival performances released on CD and LP. These days, through music publications, new releases, and an endless stream of phone calls with artists and agents, the blues world comes to him.

While some roots festivals glory in musical gluttony -- the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest has perhaps a dozen stages cranking simultaneously for the better part of two weeks -- Mazzolini's show is tightly wound: 20-minute sets for the acts who open the days' proceedings, 45 minutes or so for the headliners who appear before sundown. Nineteen acts, two days, one stage. Mazzolini watches from the edge of the stage, introducing performers to the crowds of up to 10,000 who fill the meadow.

"There isn't a need to hear somebody for an hour and a half," Mazzolini says. "I think an artist can do it in 30 or 40 minutes. Look back at the Apollo Theater, all the great shows where the artists all did two or three numbers at most. When you go to a festival what you want to do is sit in front of one stage and see the greats and not-so-greats, whatever, and get a taste of it."

"You have to be ready to hit the stage running," says guitarist and singer Tommy Castro, one of the rare blues artists who has actually cracked rock radio and headline gigs at larger rooms like the Fillmore. "There's not a lot of time for a sound check, and you have to start kicking ass the minute you get up there."

Over the years nearly every bright star in the blues universe has done a turn at the fest: B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray. Mazzolini talks about booking the shows as though it's a form of alchemy. He speaks of the "yin and yang" of local and national acts, and says finding artists on the wax -- rather than wane -- is a matter of feel. As local harmonica player and singer Big Bones, who has performed at various Mazzolini functions, puts it: "It's not like sports. He can't just judge you on timing."

Mazzolini is not one to talk numbers, but promoters of other blues festivals say top acts -- such as this year's headliners Hooker, Dr. John, and Jimmie Vaughan (former Fabulous T-Bird and brother of Stevie Ray) -- can command between $10,000 and $20,000 for a set. The festival year gets going in January for Mazzolini and other producers. Richard Burleigh, co-producer of the Fire on the Mountain festival in Sonora, says, "We start planning the next one pretty much as soon as it's over" in August. The battle for artists, he says, becomes "a feeding frenzy in January and into the spring." While producers are looking for the big draw and a lineup that will create sparks, artists are hungry for an "anchor" date for a Northern California swing, or in some cases a gig to fill out a tour.

One Mazzolini trademark is putting together revue-style packages to briefly showcase more talent. This year, a few one-of-a-kind performances are scheduled, including the Super Harps of Muddy Waters, a gathering of three of the four harmonica players from the last working bands of the electric blues giant. Waters' son, Big Bill Morganfield, is in the lineup with a band featuring other Waters sidemen. Though not Mazzolini-inspired, another unusual package is the Lone Star Shootout, featuring three guitarists with roots in Port Arthur, Texas: Lonnie Brooks, Long John Hunter, and Philip Walker. Their festival appearance is one of only about six around the country following the recent release of their collaborative CD Lone Star Shootout.

Among the locals on this year are Brenda Boykin, a warm and witty vocalist who thrives on crowd energy, who will share a set with Oakland harmonica ace Mark Hummel and guitarist Junior Watson. Rusty Zinn, a home-grown San Francisco guitarist and singer who has ignored the blues-rock pyrotechnics employed by the disciples of Stevie Ray and embraced a nice, fat guitar tone and more traditional Chicago style, will be working his own set and backing the Super Harps. Both Boykin and Zinn say it's extra work to get their voices ready for performances so early in the day, but Zinn says it has its rewards. "Festival crowds are more into it. At a club, people walk in who don't really come in to see you. At a festival it's going to be 90 percent blues fanatics."

The national acts love the exposure. But for locals, the festival often represents the mountaintop. Mazzolini first booked singer/guitarist Tommy Castro and his tough trio back in 1994. "It was the first really big gig we had in San Francisco," says Castro. "We were gaining a reputation as the hardest-working band in town, but that doesn't mean we were working a lot of really good gigs." Castro came out smoking. "I was scared, to be honest with you," he says. "It was the first time I had my own act in front of a crowd like that. At the same time, I remember having a whole lot of energy. It was a good day for us." Indeed, the owners of the label Castro now records for, Blind Pig Records, caught the show, and his fortunes have been steadily on the rise since.

Not every story is a happy one. There have been plenty of headaches. For many years the show moved from one imperfect location -- McLaren Park, Kezar Pavilion -- to another. Then for four years the festival, still free at that time, took place at the Golden Gate Park Band Shell. "Our audience has become older and more respectful," says Davis, the sound man who has been with Mazzolini since the second festival. "But [earlier] our audiences were loony." He recalls what he terms the "Reds and Ripple Olympics," where wild-eyed festivalgoers pumped on their supplement of choice would stay well after the last act, playing bottle toss or swinging out in the air on ropes from a flagpole.

Davis says the festival was effectively disinvited from the park because what he calls the "King Tut people" -- or museumgoers -- didn't mix well with the blues crowd. Even at Fort Mason -- which after 16 years is indelibly linked to the festival by performers and concertgoers -- there have been hassles. In 1991, Marina residents clamored for an end to the overload the festival caused in their neighborhood. Only a considerable diplomatic effort -- including the intervention of then-Mayor Art Agnos, other pols, and an economic survey showing the festival's benefits -- kept it in place. Just last year, the city confused some longtime festivalgoers by sponsoring its own, considerably weaker blues fest, on Treasure Island just before Mazzolini's event. Davis says, "You go anywhere in the U.S. and they talk about this festival. It's a great festival, but San Francisco has a way of ignoring the things that grew up here, until of course they are gone."

But Mazzolini seems satisfied with the way things are. "For me, the quest for the Holy Grail was to reach as many people, educate as many people as possible about what blues music is all about. That was the goal, the motivational force. Then one day I realized it got there. Now it's about trying to keep something. It's about mythology. Every time I drive by the Great Meadow I think of the moments. There is a history there."

The 27th annual San Francisco Blues Festival takes place Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 18 and 19, from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Fort Mason's Great Meadow, Marina Boulevard at Laguna, S.F. Advance tickets are $20 (one day) and $35 (two days), single-day tickets at the gate are $25; call 979-5588.

About The Author

Bill Kisliuk

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