Bye Bye Blues Fest?

Tommy Castro by Scott Allen.jpg
Scott Allen
He's No B.B. King: Tommy Cast

As the Merc's Jim Harrington reported yesterday, not has only the 2009 SF Blues Festival has been canceled, but "that cancellation could turn out to be permanent." Harrington quotes event organizer Tom Mazzolini as saying, ""we may well have seen the last San Francisco Blues Festival," which certainly sounds like a death knell for the venerable American genre, at least as far as San Francisco's once-popular festival is concerned. SFist also has a brief report on the cancellation of the annual event, which was first held in 1973.

One of the obvious problems is that, unlike jazz festivals, which have been able to tap into younger artists, world music, electronic fusion groups, turntablists, and other non-traditional acts, blues festivals have had no such influx of new blood or creative innovation. To make matters worse, as Harrington points out, "most of the big legends have died."

With the possible exception of a few younger-phenoms-with-potential-to-be-huge, like Susan Tedeschi, Jackie Greene, and Keb' Mo, there simply hasn't arisen anyone to replace the likes of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Albert King, or Little Milton.The closest thing to a commercially-viable blues band might be the Black Crowes or the White Stripes, and they ain't coming to the relative boondocks of Fort Mason, not when they could be headlining Outside Lands next year. 

In addition, very few if any of the more-talented newcomers have attained headliner status on a B.B. King level, and who wants to spend their hard-earned cash to hear the same bands they could see at Biscuits & Blues or the Bistro in Hayward for a much lower cover charge?

Interestingly, Mazzolini blames the failure of the "blues industry" to cultivate new artists and nurture them along, but that industry today doesn't really exist. In the '40s, '50s, and '60s, before the rise of rock 'n' roll, blues was a vibrant scene. Locally, there were plenty of venues supporting the music on both sides of the Bay.

But blues ceased to be hot quite some time ago. The blues industry today basically amounts to a few low-budget indies clinging to the niche market, and majors like MCA (which owns the Chess catalog), who have intermittently issued retrospectives and collections, but haven't earnestly promoted any new blues acts as pop stars since the heyday of Stevie Ray Vaughan. And, no, Kid Rock doesn't count.

Thus, while we're sorry to see the Blues Festival go, it's not like you couldn't see this one coming.
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