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Chris Isaak was terrific Friday night. Photo by Scott Cunningham
Chris Isaak was terrific Friday night. Photo by Scott Cunningham

Day 1 wrap up: 2017 Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival

BY SCOTT CUNNINGHAM // Chris Isaak kicked off the 2017 fest in high style

Friday afternoon found me strolling into the first day of the 2017 Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival to the sweet sounds of Portlander Lloyd Allen playing on the FedEx Crossroads Stage. The kids playing in the Salmon Street Fountain provided the first clue that the day might be a hot one.

And it was. Good thing there was plenty of music to keep my mind from thinking about how warm it was.

My first official stop was the Oregon Music News booth in the Louisiana Pavilion. Be sure to drop by and say hello, we'll be handing out copies of a special printed guide that includes our Best Bets and Discoveries for the entire festival.

About this time my stomach reminded me that lunch was overdue. Under clear blue skies, I found a spot with the breeze coming off the river, sat down and listened to a good set from Billy D and The Hoodoos, fronted by transplanted Chicagoan Billy Desmond.

Next up was Karen Lovely, who is out with a brand new album, "Fish Outta Water". Lovely is a certified blues powerhouse with a sound that resembles Bonnie Raitt and Melissa Etheridge, but with a bit more amped up version of power blues.

Brother Yusef

The Dirty Bourbon River Show brought out the horns on the Brewery Stage. They are from New Orleans, so if you expected them to be funky, you'd be correct.

Picture, if you will, a big, fat catfish sitting on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi belting out throaty vocals with a kickin' rhythm section. An afternoon performance on the first day doesn't get much better than this.

The band's modernized take on Cab Calloways' sounds would be a terrific club gig. Look for them swinging through the Portland area in late July, including a date on the 29th at the Secret Society.

Brother Yusef was next on my agenda and he put on a solid solo set over on the Oregonian Front Porch Stage, playing an acoustic guitar. Raspy old-time vocal work with plenty of rhythm and back beat sitting behind great phrasing on the ax and lead work. For a cat from Los Angeles, he would have fit in wonderfully to the Delta Blues scene a century ago.

I could only catch the first half of his set, though, because I had to boogie over to the Brewery Stage for local favorite Ty Curtis and his band. Decked out in some spiffy red sneakers, Curtis was everything he's billed to be: driving blues rooted in the Austin sound. His set showed why he's widely seen as a fast-rising star in the electric roadhouse blues scene.

Ty Curtis (L) and Robbie Laws

Much to his credit, he has surrounded himself with stellar musicians and local guitar wizard Robbie Laws sat in with him. The two shared guitar duties, each taking turns a lead and rhythm. Laws also shined with his vocal work, particularly on the Earl King standard Let the Good Times Roll.

Did I mention how much I like food? Had to fuel back up for what turned out to be a stellar evening, starting with Elvin Bishop.

If you only know Bishop from his hit Fooled Around and Fell In Love, then you've missed out on his 50-year blues career that is as solid as any bluesman out there today.

His hour-long set in front of a setting sun was easily one of the best of the day for me. The tone from his cherry red 335 was spot on and his playing was as skillful as ever. His band included trombone, a second guitar, cajone, keys / accordion, bass, and drums. He spread the love around to the band throughout the set, but still carried his own in ways most aging blues guys can't or won't.

Elvin Bishop

And, if you're wondering about that other song, let's just say the band fooled around and a lot of 70's aficionados felt the groove.

When I first saw Chris Isaak's name show up on the schedule for this year, I sort of did a double take. But, after thinking it over for a minute, I realized that he really did fit the vibe.

Why? Well, he's cut from the same cloth as Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. In fact, had he been born 20 years earlier, we'd probably be talking about Isaak in the same hallowed ways we refer to those two.

Simply put, Isaak is a crooning troubadour for the modern age.

Decked out in an extremely fashionable blue sequined suit, white shirt, and powder-blue tie, Isaak put on one incredible set. His vocals are as good as they've ever been, silky smooth with just as much range today at 61 as they were in his younger years.

Paying homage to his early influences, Isaak belted out Ring of Fire and Pretty Woman in a way that probably no one else today could match. It was refreshing to see how well received these songs were by all ages in the crowd, demonstrating that good music is timeless.

Chris Isaak

As would be expected, he also cruised through his greatest hits, including Somebody's Cryin', San Francisco Days, Wicked Game, and Blue Hotel.

Late in the set, the band sat on stools at the front of the stage, taking on more of an acoustic feel and turning the waterfront bowl into a living room for a brief moment.

Isaak has never been one to phone it in and he put everything into the set and more, going nearly 15 minutes past his alloted time.

No one seemed to mind.

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