The 40th San Jose Fountain Blues & Brews Festival erupts this Saturday in Plaza de Cesar Chavez, triggering the stories to emerge from every direction.
Over the years, the Blues Festival has evolved quite a bit from its initial incarnations as a free event on the campus of San Jose State University, where the late Ted Gehrke helped launch the whole shebang decades ago and then became the undisputed public face of the festival. Gehrke’s spirit will preside over anything and everything blues-related in San Jose, now and forever.
I was not there at the very beginning, but Dan Ross was. So we yakked about it over the phone. The legendary John Lee Hooker headlined the second festival.
“We had green plywood, eight plywood sheets on milk crates for our first stage,” Ross said. “A rickety wooden stage. Out in front of the ivory tower, right on the lawn there by the fountain.”
John Lee Hooker’s crew arrived and required a microphone at the front of the stage, at the base of Hooker’s chair. Not for his voice, but for his foot. This was part of the contract. Throughout the performance, Hooker tapped his foot on stage and it needed to be amplified.
“A few hours later and he comes on, there’s two to three thousand kids,” said Ross. “It’s free, so the lawn fills up, and he gets this primal beat going with his boot.”
The old bluesman and his band then proceeded to rock the audience for 75 minutes, with his voice, guitar and boot leading the way. Many were witnessing Hooker for the first time.
“I watched that from the sideline,” Ross said. “It just changed my life. I couldn’t even believe how this guy’s foot was connecting with this many people. I’d never seen anything like it in my life as a 20-year-old.”
Even into the ’90s, anyone could bring in whatever booze they wanted and sit there and drink all day long, on campus, in public. And we did.
Over the years, many blues legends headlined. Etta James. Buddy Guy. Bo Diddley. The gloriously obscure setlists Canned Heat chose were a treat. Bo Diddley even stopped halfway through one song to yell at some clown in the audience who was “taking way too many pictures.” Diddley pointed at him and said: “If those wind up on the Internet, you’re going to be in trouble.”
The 2009 headliner was guitarist Derek Trucks, aged 29 at the time, and perhaps already the greatest slide player on Earth. This was when the stage faced eastward into the campus at San Carlos and Fourth streets. By then, the festival was a whopping $5 and some folks actually complained that it wasn’t free anymore. Typical San Jose.
The bands on stage were only part of the commotion, of course. For years, Ross’ job was to fetch the musicians at the airport.
“My way of helping Ted [Gehrke] was I would be the volunteer driver of a 1966 Lincoln Continental Limousine, all black,” Ross said. “So it’s like the Bluesmobile. So I’m sitting at the curb at the airport, Magic Slim walks out, you know, they’re all big guys from Chicago, with guitar cases. And it was just beautiful.”
Years of blues legends relaying stories in the limo made Ross wish he had a GoPro. Magic Slim, for example, spun all sorts of wild tales from touring with Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones and more.
The experience, for Ross, only reinforced the importance of live music. And festivals. And culture.
“These guys have been living in this world for their whole lives and they had joy,” Ross said. “They had a twinkle in their eye. They had a sense of humor. They didn’t have what we in Silicon Valley think we need to have, to have happiness, which is this crazy tech-made money, the stupid pace that we’re all sucked into. Our definition of joy and happiness and a twinkle in our eye is warped. And when I’d get around these guys, it was just a reminder to do what you love.”
Especially in San Jose, it takes a lot of love for anything to last 40 years. Here’s to 40 more!