.Back on Trac: The Return of Music in the Park

Return of Music in the Park sparks life back into downtown

The ghosts of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Ted Gehrke were present last weekend as two large music festivals returned after a long hiatus.

Both Music in the Park and the Fountain Blues Fest resumed operations in Plaza de Cesar Chavez, spilling over into the urban landscape and giving the columnist everything he needed to elevate the spirits of festivals past, present and future. 

The history of Music in the Park is long. (Full disclosure: Metro started it back in the ’80s, and is now also the presenting sponsor of the festival’s resurrection.) Every single Thursday throughout the summer, for decades, back when it was still logical to organize free concerts, Music in the Park brought thousands to downtown. Eventually, though, after a series of problems—thieves, fights, graffiti, neighborhood garbage and thousands of poseurs hanging around just to be seen—the organizers decided to reboot the whole series as a ticketed affair in 2013. Now, after a break due to Covid-19, here we are again.

This time, as the Friday-night show kicked off, ghosts of the original Skatalites were in the house playing right along with the current version of the band. There were hits. And tokes. And beach balls bouncing all over the crowd. Nothing but peaceful vibes.

The second band, Third World, likewise crammed 50 years of material into a short one-hour set. The English version of Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye” was their final number, with lead vocalist AJ Brown belting it to the sky. 

All through the night, I felt nothing but serenity, and it wasn’t from the contact high. Imagine “Redemption Song” on an electric cello with the crowd singing the words. And that wasn’t even the Wailers. That was Third World.

By the time the Legendary Wailers came onstage, the sun had set and the temperature had dropped considerably, blanketing the crowd in a chilly breeze, but the peaceful vibes continued. The band played many of the hits.“ I Shot the Sheriff,” “Buffalo Soldier,” “Stir it Up,” “Get Up Stand Up,” “Three Little Birds,” “Jamming” and “Exodus” were all pretty close to how they sounded on the records. 

But it was more than just the band channeling the original era. At the microphone, Junior Marvin said they were trying to keep the legacy of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh alive. And it worked. Those two guys were definitely present. It was eerie. In a good way. An a cappella version of “Redemption Song” then finished off the evening as the 10pm curfew approached. 

Downtown San Jose has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity, but Music in the Park should help. After the Wailers gig, all one had to do was walk around the corner where longtime Santana vocalist Tony Lindsay was holding court at Mama Kin, formerly Café Stritch. Five days earlier, Lindsay sang the national anthem before game five of the NBA Finals and now there he was, back for the zillionth time at 374 South First Street.

Then came the blues, all day long on Saturday. What’s now technically known as the San Jose Fountain Blues & Brews Fest celebrated its 39th year, making it the longest-running blues festival in the Bay Area. As was the case the previous night, everything was peaceful, with numerous people revisiting memories of previous festivals. San Jose’s own Tommy Castro said on stage that his head was spinning with memories, including the legendary JJ’s Blues on Stevens Creek. Castro’s bass player Randy McDonald spoke about the festival’s late co-founder Ted Gehrke and all he did for the blues in San Jose. 

All in all, it was two great nights—or one night and a day—with no assholes anywhere. In downtown San Jose, that’s a rare occurrence. 

Finally, when it comes to blues, at this point it is more than past time to rename the festival “The San Jose Ted Gehrke Blues and Brews Festival” or something similar. I am going to keep yelling about this until it happens. That said, I will now end with a Buddhist-style blessing: May all blues stages, at every San Jose festival, remain forever inseparable from the spirit of Ted Gehrke, and may we all be free.

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