San Francisco's really got the blues

“The main thing about this music is that it’s not about wallowing in the problem,” blues titan Tommy Castro says of a music genre that continues to captivate San Francisco audiences. “Its purpose is to lift you up when you’re down.”

Castro, a Bay Area native, is just one of the powerful music forces slated to appear this week in the San Francisco Blues Festival, now in its 35th year. The event kicks off Friday with a free noon concert in Justin Herman Plaza, thenmoves to Fort Mason on Saturday and Sunday.

Big birthdays are enough reason to celebrate, but another festival milestone is hard to ignore: It is the oldest, ongoing blues bonanza in the nation.

Locals can thank festival producer Tom Mazzolini for that. Back in 1973, Mazzolini wanted to inform the masses about blues in the ’40s and ’50s by shining the spotlight on early music pioneers. He lured Charlie Musselwhite, and a slew of others, to perform in an indoor event that took place in March of 1973 at the University of California Extension at the corner of Laguna and Haight streets. About 600 people packed into a gymnasium.

“We had such a landmark turnout for that event,” he recalls. “More people showed up than could get in, so on the second day, we put speakers on the outside so they could hear the music.”

After the first eight festivals, which were free, the event moved to Golden Gate Park. It found its current home in Fort Mason in 1982.

Since then, its been host to a electrifying mix of talent — Robert Cray, John Lee Hooker, Etta James, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Little Richard Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan, just to name a handful. Thousands of people now attend in a single day.

For year 35, Mazzolini wanted to bring back a few of the dynamos from the first outing, including Dave Alexander, Musselwhite and Gary Smith. Then there’s Castro, whose bold, brazen blues stylings never fail to ignite locals. He believes San Francisco crowds have a unique thirst for the blues.

“The ‘sound’ of the Bay Area was really strong, especially in the ’60s and ’70s,” he says. “This is our strongest market. For us, there’s just this amazing hometown spirit.”

IF YOU GO

San Francisco Blues Festival

Where: Great Meadow, Marina Boulevard and Laguna Street, Fort Mason, San Francisco

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 29-30; free noon show Sept. 28 at Justin Herman Plaza

Tickets: $35 to $80

Contact: (415) 979-5588; (415) 421-8497; www.sfblues.com; www.ticketmaster.com

35th S.F. Blues Festival Lineup

Sept. 28

Freddie Roulette, Harvey Mandel, Curtis Lawson, Eugene Huggins, Lisa Kindred, Steve Lund, Michael and Borbridge and Michael Warren, noon

Sept. 29 

John Nemeth, 11a.m.

Dave Alexander, 11:45 a.m.

Nick Moss & the Fliptops, 12:30 p.m.

Eric Bibb, 1:25 p.m.

Billy Boy Arnold & Deitra Farr & Chicago All Stars: 2:15 p.m.

Tommy Castro Band, 3:25 p.m.

Robert Randolph & the Family Band with Calvin Cooke and Aubrey Ghent, 4:25 p.m.

Sept. 30

Blues Guitar Women Showdown, with Carmen Getit, Pat Wilder, Laura Chavez, 11 a.m.

Tribute to Little Walter Jacobs, with Gary Smith, Dave Barrett, Joe Filisko, Craig Horton, 11:50 a.m.

Ron Hacker & The Hacksaws, 12:45 p.m.

Carter Brothers, Johnny ‘Da Doo’ Wilson, Fillmore Slim, Hosea Leavy, 1:35 p.m.

Joe Louis Walker, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Jimmy McCracklin, 2:35 p.m.

James Hunter, 3:35 p.m.

Allen Toussaint, John Hammond, Charlie Musselwhite Band, 4:30 p.m.

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