SAN DIEGO, California -- For the uninitiated, the Adams Avenue Street Fair probably seems like an inviting setting to take in a sugary funnel cake, a few beers and a righteous sunburn. However, as anyone who’s attended Southern California’s largest, free, two-day music festival can attest, it is so much more than that.
Careening down — you guessed it — Adams Avenue from 32nd to 35th streets in Normal Heights, the fair bottles the vibrancy of our city’s music scene and unleashes it across eight stages with over 110 acts — a veritable cornucopia of talent from every genre and style imaginable.
Like plenty of other outdoor arts festivals, the annual event has more than its share of food vendors, beer gardens, entertainment, games and carnival rides — did I mention beer gardens? — but the all-encompassing music lineup truly separates the weekend festivities from the rest.
Celebrating its 33rd anniversary, this year’s fair plays host to a number of established acts such as Austin, Texas-based garage country sweethearts Heartless Bastards, UK reggae sensation Pato Banton, Midwest folk storyteller extraordinaire Tom Brosseau and a host of beloved hometown bands, including The Burning of Rome, The Nervous Wreckords and The Album Leaf.
Incredible headliners aside, the festival shores up quality local talent spanning both days with up-and-coming acts promising to bring as much musical magic to stages as their national touring peers. In fact, more often that not, it’s those hungry, on-the-rise San Diego artists that make this street fair so particularly enjoyable.
Such is the case with the local garage rock band Shady Francos: Appropriately set to kick off the festival at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday at the Casbah 33rd Street Rock Stage, the energetic trio has made a name for themselves around town for their show-stealing, high-kicking performances. Previously known as The Nformals until a recent lineup change (and a subsequent revitalized musical direction), the group is readying their debut EP under the new moniker and prepping for the potentially hazardous upcoming outdoor activity.
“I’m not a fan of playing during the day in the sun, ’cause I’m a ginger,” the band’s lead singer/guitarist Joshua Kmak said laughing. “But if the fest is rad enough, I’m down. In my opinion, playing somewhere like the Del Mar Fair is less of a golden opportunity because people are there to play carnival games and eat chocolate-covered bacon or deep-fried, cheese-filled pop tarts. They aren’t there to watch a band. But a fest where people go specifically to see bands is where it’s at.”
Indeed with all the acts involved, attendees have some potentially difficult decisions ahead. Do you take in Javier Escovedo and the City Lights’ power pop ear candy at the Casbah stage at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, or the hypnotic soul funk jams of Rebecca Jade and the Cold Fact at the Park Groove Stage? Do you soak up the lonesome country pop crooning of Nena Anderson on Java Joe’s Stage or the vintage folk revival of fiery troubadour Jimmy Ruelas on the DiMille’s Stage at 1 p.m.?
The latter is a particularly tough call. With a style alternately invoking the contemplative musings of early Bob Dylan and the ancient steel guitar blues of Robert Johnson, Ruelas (who released his debut album “I Shall Not Be Moved!” this past August) looks forward to catching the sights and sounds of the Normal Heights neighborhood surroundings and hopes he has an equally enthusiastic crowd.
“I’ve always dug the smaller, non-amplified stuff at street shows,” Ruelas said. “It all depends on the audience. If people give a f**k, it’s great. I’ve had some real beautiful moments at outdoor shows.”
For what it’s worth, show-goers may never get the chance to see the charismatic singer/songwriter perform in quite the same fashion after Saturday’s gig.
“I think my music is in a constant stage of change,” Ruelas explained. “People may have caught a show where I was doing my old-timey stuff. But, the next week, you may see me with an electric guitar and a few fuzz boxes. I feel it’s the job of a musician and a performer to constantly evolve and progress. I never want to make the same record and I never want to play the same show.”
If Saturday’s activities aren’t enough, Sunday’s schedule promises more musical entertainment than you can shake a stick at. Ranging from the alt-country leanings of The Whiskey Circle, to the rock ‘n’ roll thunder of costumed duo The Pheasants, to the ’60s-inspired psychedelic groove of The Loons the lineup certainly has something for everyone.
Blending electronica, hip-hop and alt-rock, We Are Sirens jumpstart the Casbah Stage’s Sunday action at noon and mark the trio’s introductory performance at the annual festival.
“We’ve played a good few street fairs in San Diego now, which has been incredible, but not this one yet,” the group’s guitarist Chris Biggin said. “We’d like to think our songs fit anywhere people enjoy letting loose. Just give us 10 square feet and we’ll play it.”
Set to officially release their album “Every. Body. Panic.” at Bar Pink on Oct. 7, the band issued a refreshing, we’re-in-this-together sentiment that seems to be a constant thread throughout the local music scene.
“We’re constantly in awe of who we’re playing with,” Biggin said. “We’re really stoked to be sharing the stage with The Album Leaf and Hills Like Elephants. There’s just so much talent in this city.”
After more than three decades of tunes, food, art and friends, the Adams Avenue Street Fair somehow manages to consistently raise the bar on what a free outdoor festival can — and should — be. This year, it’s primed to make yet another entry in an already illustrious history. On Sept 27 – 28, head out and soak up the sun, some fun, and plenty of the finest music San Diego has to offer. For more information about the festival, visit adamsavenuebusiness.com.
—Dustin Lothspeich is a music writer in San Diego. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Editor's note: This article was originally published on SDGLN media partner San Diego Uptown News.)