Back Door Memories

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

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.

John Lee Hooker: Every year at the Great Meadow, another rumor of  his final performance.
Herman Leonard
John Lee Hooker: Every year at the Great Meadow, another rumor of his final performance.

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."

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