After a year without live music, the Waterfront Blues Festival is returning ‘Upriver’

It’s a classic Portland summertime ritual — multiple stages, a park full of revelers, the Willamette River gleaming in the July sun. For more than 30 years, the Waterfront Blues Festival has brought music and a party to Waterfront Park.

Last year, however, the big festival went dark, one of the many events shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, as Oregon is slowly emerging from the coronavirus pandemic and Oregon’s vaccination rate is approaching 70%, the festival is back on, if in a limited capacity.

Christina Fuller, producer of the Waterfront Blues Festival, is looking forward to this year’s event, which runs July 1-5.

“It is real, live music,” she said Thursday, “so we’re super excited about that.”

Still, a pandemic-era festival will be different.

The Waterfront Blues Festival is usually a big to-do on the waterfront, with bands and boats just offshore on the Willamette. There’s dancing, drinking, rubbing shoulders with strangers. And of course, fireworks.

Expect no pyrotechnics and fewer inadvertent germ-sharing opportunities at this year’s festival, called “Upriver 2021,” ostensibly because it will take place at Zidell Yards, upstream from the festival’s usual spot.

“It’s a different experience,” Fuller said. “It’s really fun.”

The Lot at Zidell Yards is a socially distanced venue, with tickets sold in pods so people can stay within their own, safe groups of two, four or six. Masks will be required outside of the pods, but not inside. Pods are at least 6 feet apart. The venue will be cleared and cleaned between each show.

The format has shifted, so instead of days of ongoing music on multiple stages, each day will feature two “shows” with four hours of nonstop music. The same bands will play the afternoon show, from noon to 4 p.m. and the evening show, from 6 to 10 p.m.

There will be food and drink vendors, including Blues Fest regular Garbanzos.

While it may not be the physically intense “festival” experience some people crave, others might enjoy the creature comforts of their own pod.

“You’ve got a place and a chair ready to go when you arrive,” Fuller said.

“Upriver 2021” begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 1, with the “Blues Fest Cares Concert” featuring Portland musician Curtis Salgado, who recently won the 2021 Blues Music Award for best male soul singer. Thursday’s show, the night before the festival’s official open, will benefit Meals on Wheels People and the Jeremy Wilson Foundation and be broadcast live on KOIN 6 TV.

Friday’s show will be headlined by Samantha Fish, a Kansas City, Missouri, singer-songwriter and guitarist whose work intersects many genres, including blues and roots rock and bluegrass.

Saturday’s headliner is Marc Broussard, a singer-songwriter from Louisiana whose music is described as “Bayou Soul.”

Sunday, Portland-based marching band MarchFourth will headline the Fourth of July show with a combination of energetic music, stilt walkers, hoopers and Vaudeville-style dancers.

Monday’s show will be headlined by Ghost-Note, the percussion-based funk, hip-hop and jazz duo of Robert Sput Searight and Nate Werth out of Dallas.

For anyone who can’t make it to the festival but still wants to experience the music, all the afternoon shows will be broadcast live on KBOO 90.7 FM and, and the evening shows will be live-streamed on

One thing that won’t happen? Fireworks. Fuller said the festival opted not to have a firework display this year because it was bound to draw a crowd.

“This isn’t the year to have big gatherings,” she said.

Instead, the Waterfront Blues Festival is easing back into things.

But by no means is the shift to Zidell Yards permanent.

“It’s a really great way to get back into events and live music,” Fuller said, “and we’re hopeful that we are back in Waterfront Park in 2022.”

Waterfront Blues Festival “Upriver,” 2021

The Lot at Zidell Yards, 3030 S. Moody Ave.

Tickets are $75 per person for general admission and $100 per person for VIP seating for shows July 2 to July 5, and $40 for general admission and $60 for VIP for the show on July 1. There are no multi-day passes and all tickets will be sold in two-, four- or six-person groups.

Thursday, July 1 at 7 p.m.

  • “Blues Fest Cares Concert” featuring Curtis Salgado

Friday, July 2 at noon and 6 p.m.

  • Samantha Fish
  • Little Village Foundation: Sonny Green, Tia Carroll & The Greaseland All-Stars
  • Northwest Women in Rhythm & Blues
  • Karen Lovely & Ben Rice
  • River City Riot! Brassband

Saturday, July 3 at noon and 6 p.m.

  • Marc Broussard
  • Curley Taylor & Zydeco Trouble
  • Bayou Boyz / Soul Cookin’ Throwdown
  • Too Loose Cajun-Zydeco Band
  • Northwe
    st Bone Gang

Sunday, July 4 at noon and 6 p.m.

  • MarchFourth
  • Johnny Rawls
  • Outer Orbit featuring Sarah Clarke with special guests LaRhonda Steele & Arietta Ward
  • Kevin Selfe
  • Norman Sylvester
  • Bloco Alegria

Monday, July 5 at noon and 6 p.m.

  • Ghost-Note
  • Jubu Smith
  • Tony Coleman’s Tribute to the Three Kings
  • Hillstomp
  • BrassRoots Movement

— Lizzy Acker

503-221-8052, [email protected], @lizzzyacker

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