An Energetic Street Scene

Driving through the Gaslamp Quarter on Sunday, one found it hard to believe that San Diego Street Scene '92 had commandeered those same boulevards only hours earlier. Nary a booth, barricade, nor scrap of paper remained on pavement that had accommodated 22,000 revelers Friday night, and another 28,000 Saturday. Final, accurate tabulations for the ninth annual food and music festival won't be available for another three weeks, but the unofficial attendance of 50,000 for the weekend block party eclipses the 1991 event by about 5,000.

It has gone uncredited, but it should be noted that this year's event benefited from cooler weather than that visited on past Street Scenes. Although normal September mugginess might have been good for beer sales, it also saps one's energy and affects temperament over the course of an eight-hour stretch spent standing and walking. It seemed that patrons at this year's festival were, comparatively, more energetic and even-tempered, and stayed later.

A spokeswoman for the festival's organizers, Rob Hagey Productions, claimed Monday that the 1992 installment was the smoothest-run Street Scene yet and had garnered the most positive response from patrons. Attendees and vendors alike also gave high marks to the "festivals within the festival," the special tasting areas and the conceptual pairings of cuisines with regional musical styles.

Lingering long after the brisket sandwiches, ales and shrimp fettuccine have passed into history, however, are the musical aftertastes and anecdotal desserts left behind by the Street Scene's musical artists.

One of the more intriguing acts this year was the group Outback, a quartet of Australian, American and Senegalese musicians that provided the sort of genre-defying performance that Bela Fleck and the Flecktones gave at the 1991 event. Outback concocted an exotic, hypnotic brew from an instrumental mix of acoustic guitar, drums, West African percussion and didgeridoo.

The didgeridoo is an Aboriginal wind instrument made from either a length of bamboo or, in this case, a hollowed-out sapling. It contributed a droning obbligato--combining the bowing of a jew's harp and the snaky rhythm of a guiro--to the band's pungent fusion of Celtic, Caribbean and African music.

Sophie B. Hawkins' local debut was a mixed affair. The media-hyped pop-rock singer, whose slightly tomboyish, cat-in-heat persona suggests actress Virginia Madsen playing Rickie Lee Jones, lived up to her purported eccentricity with an uneven show that elicited a less-than-rapturous response.

Hawkins performed several cuts from her album, "Tongues and Tails," including "Savior Child" and "Live and Let Love." She got the best reaction, however, with an ill-advised, almost note-for-note cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," on which she demonstrated more chutzpah than interpretive skill. But Hawkins' most serious Achilles heel remains her occasional difficulty with pitch. She deserves a longer look and listen, but, for now, file Hawkins under "contrived enigma."

Concurrently, and just down the block, Joan Armatrading entertained a very large crowd with an oeuvre survey that included "I'm Lucky," "Love and Affection" and "Drop the Pilot." In fine voice and spirits, Armatrading was backed by a five-piece band that allowed for dramatic shifts in dynamics and textures and also enabled her to alternate between playing guitar and roaming the stage with a microphone.

Armatrading seemed genuinely taken aback and then stimulated by a hearty reception marked by several sustained ovations. At one point, beach balls appeared and were batted about in the audience, evidence that a number of Padres fans skipped Saturday night's game with Cincinnati just to hear Armatrading.

As at past Street Scenes, the blues was well-represented. Late on Friday night, locals Billy Thompson and the Mighty Penguins--augmented by a three-piece horn section--blew the roof off the Kansas City Steak House with a grit-and-gristle set that included Little Johnny Taylor's up-shuffle "You Win, I Lose" and the funky original "My Shadow Cries," from the Penguins' great new CD, "Coat of Many Colors."

On Saturday, John Mooney and Bluesiana played tunes by Muddy Waters, Son House and others for an enthusiastic gathering at the KGB/Blues Stage. With a slide bar affixed to one finger, Mooney combined bottleneck-style guitar work with finger-style picking to achieve an unusual, percussive-liquid attack. The trio kept a sizable crowd engaged with a lively set that slipped from blues to slithery bayou mambos.

John Mayall's show was another triumph, especially considering that a huge crowd had grown testy waiting for Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, who arrived 30 minutes late (Joe Louis Walker played an equal amount of time past his 9 p.m. cutoff at the adjacent blues stage, so it might not have been Mayall's fault).

From the first notes out of his harmonica, however, Mayall appeased, and then won over the throng. The 59-year-old's energy and barely diminished vocal power, plus strong, cheer-eliciting solos by guitarist Coco Montoya during "I Want to Go" and "Congo Square," more than compensated for the concert's tardy start.

STREET SCENE SNAPSHOTS: Little Joe (of the Tejano band Little Joe y La Familia) pinching his nose to do a Spanish-language impression of Willie Nelson . . . A musician in the Sane Band (which backed roots-reggae artist Donovan) exhorting a small, standoffish crowd to move closer with the assurance, "We're not HIV, you know" . . . Edgar Winter doing a rap break in the middle of "Frankenstein" . . . The Sextants (a good rock 'n' roll band from Las Cruces, N.M., acknowledging the people watching from the nearby Ramada Inn with the promise, "Madonna's gonna be playing here later!" . . . An associate of the controversial Haitian group Boukman Eksperyans introducing them by announcing that the 10-piece band has been banned from Haitian radio and television since last Sept. 30, and that the musicians had trouble getting visas to leave the country to play the Street Scene . . . Literato-rocker Michael Penn frequently sounding a lot like Gerry Beckley of the group America . . . Some wiseacre calling out "Free Bird!" early in the set by Zimbabwean artist Thomas Mapfumo.

REPLAY: Kenny Loggins is that rare pop star with a reputation for approachability. He grants frequent interviews, is generous with his time and is very forthcoming while conducting them, and makes a point to visit one-on-one with guests backstage after shows. But immediately following Monday night's sold-out, three-encore concert at the Embarcadero Marina Park South, Loggins outdid himself.

A guy who called himself "Harmonica John" sat in a boat in San Diego Bay, just beyond the stage, playing harmonica through a portable sound system and calling to Loggins at regular intervals. Upon hearing him, Loggins had the Harbor Police escort Harmonica John's boat to shore, where he was brought backstage for a private audience. What a guy.

GRACE NOTES: Don't be surprised if, just as a precaution, La Jolla product Todd Hoffman wears Scotchgarded clothes for a gig at the Casbah on Friday night. Hoffman is the bassist for the band Fantasy 7, whose most famous member is former Sex Pistol Steve Jones. Last month, Fantasy 7 performed in Argentina, where, apparently, punk fans still take their Sex Pistols seriously.

Unbeknown to the band, Argentine punkers show their appreciation by spitting on you, and Fantasy 7 received frequent, unsolicited showers of affection from the moment their plane landed. Eventually, someone informed the band that this was a good thing. No word on whether the musicians concurred. Opening Friday's show are Burning Hands and Carnival Art.

Recently, local rock pillar Buddy Blue felt several emotions at once when he opened his mail and found a small royalty check from the Muzak company. Confusion and disbelief won out, however, and Blue phoned his music publisher, Bug Music, to see if the payment was a mistake.

Nope. Turns out the purveyors of aural Valium have been playing a sweet version of Blue's "Missing You"--a blues ballad from the Jacks' 1988 album, "Jacks Are Wild"--in elevators and office suites. An inspired Blue disclosed Monday that his band is learning a bossa nova version of "I Honestly Love You" for future shows.

BOOKINGS: (Tickets for the following concerts will be sold at all TicketMaster outlets unless otherwise specified) Peter, Paul, and Mary return to the Embarcadero Marina Park South venue Thursday (17) for a 7:30 p.m. show (tickets are $12, $15, and $27.50). . . . Jerry Jeff Walker and his band will be joined by local country boy Calman Hart for a Belly Up Tavern show Monday ($15); the Itals and the Vitals play the Solana Beach landmark the next night ($9.50). . . . Fineline Entertainment has added some color to the fall concert schedule with an Oct. 8 show at Sound FX featuring Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine ($8.91 in advance, $10 day of show, on sale Thursday); an Oct. 9 concert at the Casbah featuring Thelonius Monster, Uncle Joe's Big Ole Drive, and Creedle ($7 at the door); another Oct. 9 show that brings Toad the Wet Sprocket to Iguanas ($10.91 in advance, $12 day of show, on sale now); and an Oct. 10 concert at Iguanas featuring Special Beat ($18.50 in advance, $20 day of show, on sale now).

CRITIC'S CHOICE

A COUNTRY BARGAIN

It makes more sense that this region is referred to as the "Southland" when one realizes how many good roots-rock and country bands ply their trade hereabouts. The prophets at the Belly Up Tavern have noticed, and to prove it they're holding something Thursday night called "America's Finest Country."

Talk about your bargains (go ahead, I'll wait), locals get a chance to hear four of the best country bands southwest of the Rockies when the Belly Up presents three local groups--Prairie Fire (named Best Country Band at the recent San Diego Music Awards), the Savery Brothers (they won the last "Marlboro Talent Roundup"), and the Anderson Brothers--plus Brawley's own Mud Puppies, for a measly $4 admission. The show starts at 8:30 p.m.

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