People, get ready

The ninth annual Riverbank Music Festival this Sunday delivers a legendary gospel group, an American roots-rock icon and an up-and-coming local singer-songwriter

Music fan Rudy Martinez, with Riverwalk Park behind him.

Music fan Rudy Martinez, with Riverwalk Park behind him.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Nothing will stop Rudy Martinez, be it heat, the Tower Bridge being closed, Tesla, or overtime pay. For the hard-working music fan in West Sacramento, the show must go on.

Like his kindred spirit Dave Fleming, the guru at the Palms Playhouse, Martinez is a driven man when it comes to American roots music. This Sunday, September 22, Martinez and the West Sacramento Chamber of Commerce will present a three-generation lineup of performing artists at West Sacramento’s ninth annual Riverbank Music Festival, along the grassy shores of the Sacramento River in Riverwalk Park just across from Old Sacramento.

Executive Director Martinez’s headliner coup this year is snagging the grand old lions of soul gospel, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Their new album, Higher Ground, was just released a few weeks ago and already has collected four-star reviews in music magazines, a lengthy feature on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition and coverage on CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes II. The group is set to liven up Late Night with David Letterman with some TV testifying in October. After 60 years of performing together, leader Clarence Fountain and his group know how to put an audience into a sanctified state.

That’s the reason Dave Alvin, a dramatic performer who won a Grammy Award last year for his Americana album, Public Domain, made sure he would be onstage earlier in the evening. “I followed them about five years ago in a concert in Denmark,” he recalls, laughing. “I swore I’d never do that again.”

Alvin and his band the Guilty Men, along with a rising young Sacramento folk and blues artist named Jackie Greene, complete Martinez’s dream lineup. The annual festival is a benefit concert for the West Sacramento Parks and Community Services organization, which maintains the 2-year-old riverfront park as a growing cultural and recreational concern. According to Art Schroeder, a West Sacramento Chamber of Commerce spokesperson, this event is the only music event staged along the Sacramento River in the entire six-county Central Valley region through which the river runs.

This year’s effort, a labor of love, has been more of a stretch than in years past for festival creator Martinez, who, by day, is a glazer and owner of his Curtis Park business, Martinez and Son Glass. An over-the-top, avowed fan of roots music, Martinez was shouting some hallelujahs himself after securing contracts for both the Blind Boys and Alvin in early June. They were set to play on September 21, but, shortly thereafter, Martinez happened to pick up a newspaper. “I saw a big ad for four hard-rock bands at Raley Field—Tesla and a few others,” he says. “It was set for the same day as our Riverbank Festival!”

With nightmares of screaming guitars crunching the ears of the more genteel roots-music attendees, Martinez called upon an acoustics company to test for sound bleed. The results were as he suspected.

“I asked the engineer point blank: ‘If this were your show, would you do it on the same day?’ And he said, ‘No,’” Martinez said. So, he got busy, made agent calls and was able to switch the festival date to the following day, Sunday, September 22. “The opportunity to have the Blind Boys doesn’t come around every day, and it was too good and valuable a show with Dave Alvin. I just wasn’t gonna let it go,” Martinez explains. “I understand it is harder and more expensive for the city to promote a Sunday fest due to overtime-pay costs, but the quality of the show will see this through.” That it is arguably the premier soul gospel group in the world headlining makes Sunday afternoon a sensible, if not laudable rescheduling. Only the problematic closing of the Tower Bridge for repainting makes one wish for a cross-river ferryboat service.

Gospel has forever nourished blues, R&B and rock ’n’ roll; just recall where Little Richard got his chops. You can name pretty much any rock or pop artist of substance and find that what you like about them is the transforming passion of their singing or playing. The Blind Boys, led for seven decades now by Fountain, first found their wider secular ground when they starred in the 1985 Broadway smash The Gospel at Colonus. They have continued to reach across American music traditions, illuminating songs by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits and Richard Thompson. On their new album, the Blind Boys are bridging another gap. They’ve chosen some classic pop songs like “People Get Ready” (Curtis Mayfield), “The Cross” (Prince), “Spirit in the Dark” (Aretha Franklin), “Many Rivers to Cross” (Jimmy Cliff) and Stevie Wonder’s title-track classic “Higher Ground.” As the indefatigable Fountain puts it: “If the lyrics are right, we’ll sing it!”

Martinez’s love affair with roots music as a teenager hinged on the soul lyrics and beat that spoke to him, and he could hear both close to his boyhood West Sacramento home, he relates.

“My friends and I would go to the Tower Pharmacy on Broadway and go in those listening booths in the early 1960s. All of us had an affinity for R&B, blues and soul,” he remembers, smiling. “Finding great music became—and still is—my quest.” How ironic that decades later, he dropped $70 to get a single song contained in a six-CD box set titled Beg, Scream and Shout: The Big Ol’ Box of 60’s Soul. The song? “Boogaloo Down Broadway” by the Fantastic Johnny C.

Martinez’s music quest parallels Alvin’s precisely. Alvin, a guitarist and writer, says he is a hands-and-knees record collector, having pored through bins and dusty boxes in search of the perfect Big Joe Turner or Ray Collins 78.

Alvin and his brother Phil ramped up the future of American rock music back in the early 1980s with their band the Blasters. They retro-mined 1950s blues, R&B and rockabilly records and infused them with their raucous energy. In the years since the brothers went their separate ways, the younger Alvin has ventured into the lofty spaces where writers like Springsteen and Dylan reside. And the fact that Alvin, a fourth-generation native, uses contemporary California in his palette of timeless images resonates with a growing audience.

“To me, California hasn’t changed that much,” Alvin explains. “It’s a leap of imagination, but the West is still pretty wild, in some respects. Some of the subject matter or characters in my music are also in old folk songs from the 19th century. Those same people are still around, but they’re just no longer named Stagger Lee or John Henry. Take a song like “King of California.” I wrote it to be like an old folk song, and the idea is the same now as if it was written back then: ‘California, land of opportunity.’ Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but I try to use themes of modern alienation within traditional music forms and archetypes.”

Traditional song style definitely informs the youngest member of the lineup, 21-year-old Greene. He has lit up the area’s music scene in both folk and blues clubs, drawing audiences in both camps. With early Dylan and Waits as clear role models, Greene’s plaintive, old-soul songwriting and exceptional musicianship should impress the headliners. Sam Joseph, the blues and folk buyer at the Tower Records store on Broadway, is an early believer, saying that Greene’s brand new album, Gone Wanderin’ (Dig Music) is an out-of-the-box hit. “People are coming in the store looking for it,” he says. “We’ve sold 20 copies already in the few days we’ve had it.”

When Martinez reflects on his nine years of booking the Riverbank Music Festival, he envisions an exciting future for the waterfront development at Riverwalk Park and considers how arts and culture ventures should play a part. “The riverfront is such a blank canvas right now, able to be so many things,” he says. “The Riverbank Music Festival is a real part of it. I travel to cities like Tacoma and Seattle, Vancouver, British Columbia, and Bilbao, Spain—this is part of my quest, too—to see how cities have used their industry and port resources in vibrant ways to benefit the community.”

Martinez is animated as he relates the situation in Tacoma, where a working glass factory has become a centerpiece for redevelopment; or Bilbao, where the industrial town bid for a new Guggenheim Museum to be built there, and won.

The big message is about the unifying experiences that can create community. Martinez finds the stuff of life not only by sharing great new music, but also in promoting the heritage along the riverfront of the town where he grew up. One only hopes he can start a movement to save the magnificent old corrugated-metal dehydrating plant across from Raley Field. Who knows? A new Martinez find may sing songs about it at the 2003 Riverbank Music Festival on a glorious summer night.

Past performers at the Riverbank Fest:
1993: Marcia Ball, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, Ranch Romance

1994: Richard Thompson, Papa’s Culture, Mick Martin

1995: Los Lobos, Mumbo Gumbo, Chrome Addicts

1996: David Grisman, Scott Joss,

Chris Webster

1997: (no festival)

1998: Sal Valentino & the Dukes,

Mick Martin

1999: Joe Louis Walker & the Boss Talkers, Chrome Addicts

2000: Junior Brown, Del McCoury Band, Aaron King

2001: Queen Ida, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks