Promoter Rob Hagey has often said he’d one day like to see San Diego’s Michelob Street Scene become as big, musically diverse, and successful as the celebrated New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Judging from last weekend’s event, the eighth Street Scene in seven years, that day might come a lot sooner than he’d hoped.
Friday and Saturday night, 46 acts played on eight stages in a 12-block section of the Gaslamp Quarter. Last year, the music festival lasted only one night, and included 18 acts on six stages, in an area of eight downtown blocks.
The diversity of this year’s acts was so great that walking through the festival was something like a ride through Disneyland’s Small World, with each street corner taking you to a new and different musical world: rock ‘n’ roll, blues, jazz, country, reggae, Cajun, zydeco, Latin, gospel, and worldbeat.
And the crowd last weekend was the largest ever: last year 17,500 attended, this year 22,000 came on Friday night and nearly 18,000 on Saturday.
The best news of all, however, is that the fast expansion was achieved without the growing pains you’d expect. In fact, Michelob Street Scene ’90 was even smoother than Street Scenes of recent years. And the credit goes to both good planning and good luck.
Although there were more stages, they were far enough apart to virtually eliminate sound overlap, a persistent problem in previous years.
And despite its record size, the crowd was remarkably well behaved. No fights, no out-of-control mob scenes, few obvious drunks.
Maybe that’s because there were more places to buy alcohol--more 21-and-up beer gardens, more open bars and nightclubs--resulting in shorter lines and fewer frustrating long waits.
The only real problems were minor ones. There weren’t enough trash cans, for example, and organizers had underestimated the popularity of the Bourbon Street area, with its two Cajun/Zydeco stages: On Saturday night, from about 8 p.m. on, the line to get in was at least a block long.
However the music, for the most part, couldn’t have been better. Friday night’s biggest crowd-pleaser was the British reggae band Steel Pulse, who closed the Reggae/Worldbeat Stage, at Seventh Avenue and J Street, with a riveting 90-minute set. On Saturday, it was Texas blues guitarist Johnny Winter, whose trio delivered an equally compelling closing performance on the Blues Stage at Seventh Avenue and L Street.
Other Friday-night highlights included dynamic performances by the Soviet rock band Vladimir Kuzmin and Dinamik and San Diego’s Beat Farmers on the Seventh and L Stage; Louisiana’s Beausoleil, with their festive Cajun music, on the East Cajun Stage at Sixth Avenue and Island Street; and ex-Animal singer Eric Burdon and ex-Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, with their updated recyclings of classic Animals tunes like “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” and “See See Rider,” on the Rock Stage at Third Avenue and J Street.
The Beat Farmers’s set was preceded by a wedding ceremony between singer-guitarist Joey Harris and his longtime sweetheart. Country Dick Montana, the group’s drummer, and a mail-order minister with the universal life church, married the two. The group then opened with “Girl I Almost Married” but changed the lyrics to “Girl I Just Got Married.”
Among the highlights on Saturday night were performances by Katie Webster, the two-fisted piano-pounding protege of the late Otis Redding, on the Blues/Jazz Stage at Fifth Avenue and K Street; gospel group Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama on the Blues Stage; Buckwheat Zydeco on the East Zydeco Stage at Sixth and Island; salsa king Willie Colon and Legal Alien on the Latin Stage at Third Avenue and J Street; and the Desert Rose Band, led by former Byrd Chris Hillman, on the Country Stage at Seventh Avenue and J Street.
Webster, in particular, was a delight. Holding court behind a grand piano her sensuous swamp boogie made it difficult for anyone to stand still. Toward the end of her set there was a poignant moment: Webster dedicated a bluesy rendition of Dire Straits’ “So Far Away” to the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Still, there were a couple of disappointments. The Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Friday-night set on the Rock Stage at Third Avenue and J Street drew a sparse crowd, and with good reason: The psychedelic-rock dinosaurs, best known for their 1967 hit, the flower-power anthem “Incense and Peppermints,” sounded dated. They should not be invited back.
Nor should Stan Ridgway, formerly with the pioneering new wavers Wall of Voodoo. His musically intriguing hour-long performance Saturday night on the Rock Stage at Third Avenue and K Street was marred by banal between-song patter (“I’m a sissy, but I’m a rich sissy”) and a particularly silly, cliched closing diatribe (“We have a lot more to give you, but Michelob won’t allow it”).
What made this year’s Street Scene even more of a culturally enlightening experience was the fact that the handful of food booths around each stage mirrored the ethnicity of the music.
Chowing down red beans and spicy Cajun sausage while Beausoleil, the Bad Boys of Zydeco, Buckwheat Zydeco, and C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana took turns on the two Bourbon Street stages was about as close to the real Bourbon Street as you can get.
Unfortunately, most of the food was overpriced--as it always is at these affairs--and at least one Gaslamp Quarter restaurant in the enclosed area that remained open during Michelob Street Scene ’90 got a little greedy.
The Blarney Stone was selling corned-beef sandwich halves for $3, both inside the restaurant and at a booth across the street. The regular price is $4.50 for a whole sandwich.
The Irish diner-pub was also charging “entertainment” prices for drinks, even though the entertainment was outside, on the street, the nearest stage two blocks away.