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There's Something for Everyone at the Adams Avenue Street Fair
Paul Hormick

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's free.

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 right now.

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 Blind 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 Heights.

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

(Source: The San Diego Trobadour, page 5, September-October 2003)
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