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Another Weekend, Another Festival : THE BLUES JUST KEEP ON COMIN'

September 23, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

"How Blue Can You Get?" The title of an immortal B.B. King tune also poses a valid question for music fans this month. September already has seen the longstanding Long Beach Blues Festival and a daylong blues bill at Irvine Meadows. And now comes the three-day Orange County Blues Festival, with Etta James, Johnny Copeland, Canned Heat and Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers as well as several lesser-known acts. It starts Friday evening and runs through Sunday in Dana Point's Heritage Park.

The newcomer is ambitious, all right; fest promoters already are quite definite about calling it the "first annual." But is there room for it?

Eric Jensen certainly seems to think so. The 26-year-old president of Ritz Entertainment, one of two Orange County firms that have joined as Orange County Blues Festival Inc., estimates that he and his partners are investing $150,000 in making the festival happen.

"We didn't see any blues festivals at this time, or any time, in Orange County, and it's something that was bound to be tapped into by somebody," Jensen says. He maintains that the blues show at Irvine Meadows was more concert than festival and that Long Beach is a separate market. "From site to site, it's an hour drive. So it's like comparing the Forum to Irvine Meadows."

There are other things setting the festivals apart. One is the admission prices: Advance tickets for the 7,000-capacity Orange County fest are $6.50 per day, $11 for both Saturday and Sunday (the prices jump to $11 per day at the gate; tickets for Friday night's kick-off "Battle of the Blues Harps" are $5 no matter when they are purchased). Advance tickets for the Long Beach fest were $25.

Another difference is the O.C. fest's reliance on local acts to fill out the bill. Jensen says that's due in part to the fest being patterned after the Portland Blues Festival which also showcases local acts.

Initially, Jensen's company had been hired by Events Services, the company that promotes the Portland fest, to see about mounting a similar event in O.C. When the Portland promoters had logistics problems running a fest from afar, Jensen and his partners bought them out and pressed on with the idea.

This is their first foray into blues but they're no novices at creating events. Ritz Entertainment, Jensen says, is one of the largest "spring break" promoters in the nation, responsible for huge monthlong shindigs at Lake Havasu. Indeed, having outgrown that locale, Jensen says, they're moving the party next year to a pair of Mexico locations and expect to fill 14,000 hotel beds.

Jensen says the Dana Point festival took a year of planning and considerable "jumping though hoops" to get all the proper permits from city and park officials. One last-minute hoop, after local residents voiced concerns about alcohol, was a special City Council meeting held last week to consider rescinding or modifying the festival's beer and wine permit. But the council voted unanimously on Tuesday to let the permit stand.

Along with taking such glitches in stride, Jensen says he and his co-promoters take it for granted they won't make any money this time out.

"It's tough to break even in any first-year event, almost impossible. We don't look to do that. You look to form an event that will run every year, and you look to start making money in your third and fourth years. You've got to have the financial wherewithal to take it on the chin."

The fest will have two stages, with acts alternating between them to minimize set-up times. The producers have lined up a roster of corporate sponsors and an impressive array of food vendors, from Burrell's worship-worthy barbecue to Bistango's upscale viands. There also will be arts and crafts vendors and a rare guitar show.

To book the music, they turned to Mark Liddell, who has kept Dana Point's Heritage Brewing Company awash in the blues. His criteria, he explained, was "to do a bit of every kind of blues, some Chicago, some West Coast swing, some Texas, some zydeco, a little delta, to make a well-rounded festival.

"And instead of bringing in a ton of big names, we wanted to give some of the local bands a shot too. To me, a festival is a thing for the people, and it should have a local feeling. I'm not putting Long Beach down. I think they've done a great job. But that's one thing they are lacking in."

One person with no qualms about putting the Long Beach fest down is Rod Piazza, whose Mighty Flyers have no trouble landing gigs anywhere else. "The Long Beach Festival is the only one I know that ignores local acts," Piazza said. "We play the San Francisco and Sacramento fests, we just headlined huge fests in Great Britain and Norway, and people like us and (James) Harman don't even get a call from Long Beach. They called us to help them in their infancy years ago, which we did, and then we get ignored. I hope the Dana Point festival does real well."


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