by Paul Hormick
While San Diego's annual Street Scene screams, "Look at me! Look at me!"
with its mega-superstars and a budget that must run into the hundreds of
thousands, the Adams Avenue Street Fair has remained a more humble event.
Indeed, the Street Fair has been called the antidote to Street Scene. It
has far less glitz, but it's easier to get a good view of the performers;
you don't have to stand in a long line to get a kielbasa; and, best of all,
It started 22 years ago simply as a way to celebrate the newly refurbished
Normal Heights business district sign, which had been reinstalled at the
corner of Felton Street and Adams Avenue. The party wasn't much more than
a pancake breakfast and a donkey ride for the kids. The music came from
only one band, a jazz combo of old timers whose name escapes everyone
Over the years the fair has grown to its supersized status as the largest
free music event in Southern California. Among the dozens and dozens of
vendors, the beer gardens, and the carnival rides, 90 plus musical acts
will perform on seven stages for this year's two-day festival. And
although it has grown so large, it retains much of the low-key flavor of
its roots. It's kind of like Woodstock — but you can bring your mom.
A big turning point for the fair came in 1992. Until then all the performers
had been culled from the local talent pool. In an effort to bring more
prestige and attract more people to the event, national and international
acts were booked. That year Ann Peebles, Charles Musselwhite, the Five
Boys of Alabama, and former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, who ignited the
stage with some of the most inspired and spontaneous guitar playing possible
in the universe, made their appearances at the Street Fair.
Other big name acts like Rosie Flores and James Harmon have followed.
Iron Butterfly rose phoenix-like from the ashes to play a medley of their
hits in '94. Rick Derringer rock and rolled in '95. Dan Hicks played hot
licks in '98. The year 2000 brought Chris Hillman of Byrds and Flying
Burritos fame. And Mike Keneally played the Street Fair last year. Okay,
he's a San Diegan, but he's still a major talent.
The big-name acts add a little pizzazz to the street fair, but most of
the music still comes from local performers. San Diego stalwarts such as
Sue Palmer and her Motel Swing Orchestra, Billy Midnight, and Berkley
Hart will be returning to the stages as will newer artists such as Anya
Marina and Will Edwards.
The other music festival — the Adams Avenue Roots Festival, which is
held in April — focuses on traditional folk and old-time music. At the
Street Fair the musical mix is far more diverse, with a wider
representation of musical genres: rockabilly, zydeco,
Latin, jazz, folk, country, gospel, and blues. Lou Curtiss, proprietor
of Folk Arts Rare Records and regular contributor to the San Diego
Troubadour, is the quasi-official 'music czar' of the Street Fair.
He says, "the goal is to present a mixture of music. The Roots
Festival is where the music has been, and the Street Fair is where
the music is going."
Besides presenting a musical mix, Curtiss tries to make the Street
Fair distinctive. "I'm looking for bands that don't play all the
[other] Street Fairs [in town]," he says. Although he used to be
the main talent booker for the Street Fair, now it's all done by
committee of representatives from the Adams Avenue Business
Association, which ensures a wide variety of musical styles.
Scott Kessler, executive director of the Street Fair from 1989-2001,
still helps out with some of the set up for the festival. He says,
"the wide array of music is one of the distinctive things about the
fair." He also says the fair is special because of the diversity of
the crowd it draws. People from all ages and backgrounds enjoy the
Street Fair. The musicians agree that the Street Fair is
something special. Local blues legend Robin Henkel says, "I love it.
There is such a variety of acts. There is just this excitement
buzzing. I'll start my performance, and the next thing [I know],
there's 200 people there, and it's just great." To him the crowds
are some of the most receptive that he has played for. "I have never
felt more comfortable with an audience," he says of his performance
two years ago when he played on the 34th Street Stage.
"If you like music, this is the place to be," agrees Marco Anguiano,
executive director of the Adams Avenue Business Association. He adds
that there is much more than music attracting people to the fair.
He knows folks who
come specifically for the vendors. One woman comes every year to
buy sunglasses. He says the biggest motive and payback of hosting
the event is that it helps bring a sense of community to Normal
Anguiano adds that another goal of the fair is to bring people
to the Adams Avenue business district, both Normal Heights
residents and folks from the outlying neighborhoods, such as
Kensington, University Heights, and elsewhere. He says, "It's
one way we fight for the market share that's been sucked up
by the malls." While people are shopping through the street
vendors or wandering from the jazz stage to the blues stage,
they may notice Lestats, the bookstores, or the other
permanent retail establishments on Adams Avenue.
The Adams Avenue Street Fair takes place Saturday and Sunday,
September 27-28. If you're not too busy running for governor,
come on down, have a kielbasa, and enjoy some music. You'll
find more information on the fair in this issue or you can
make your computer do the Internet thing at CoThere.com/AdamsAve/
(Source: The San Diego Trobadour, page 5, September-October 2003)