Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival ROCKS! (4th of July at the Waterfront)

Saturday in the park
I think it was
the 4th of July…
And I’ve been waiting
such a long time
For Saturday

~ Chicago

As it turns out, Chicago’s famous song “Saturday in the Park”, was a remarkably accurate description of my first full day in Portland, Oregon.

It was Saturday; I went to the Waterfront Park; and it was definitely the 4th of July. Even better, people were selling ice cream and a man was playing his guitar, just like in the song! In fact, lots of people were playing guitars because every 4th of July the Waterfront Blues Festival, the largest blues festival west of the Mississippi, takes place in Portland, Oregon.

Pink starburst firework over freewaySo even without planning, I’d arrived in just the right place at the right time. And while the park didn’t feature a bronze man as the song mentions, it did have an amazing silver man known only as Mr. Statue. He was one of the most interesting people in the park that day, and it’s too bad the song doesn’t mention a silver man instead of a bronze one.

But perhaps that would have been way too coincidental to the point of being inexplicable.

Then again, the park certainly had inexplicable elements. If I were a visitor from another planet, I would probably have been very confused at the strange mix of elements in the park that Saturday. Mr. Statue possessed magical hands (as you’ll soon see), people were making strange facsimiles of animals out of rubber membranes filled with air, jugglers were tricking kids into spinning small spheres on sticks, and at the end of it all, we were attacked by strange objects exploding in the sky that dissipated in beautiful patterns of a thousand colors. (Although I think the locals called them fireworks.) Truly, it was a strange state of affairs, but what else can I expect from a place whose motto is “Keep Portland Weird”?

Why pack the Willamette River?

Boats and Yellow raft in Willamette River

I’ll start by describing the scene. Take a couple thousand Portlanders and pack them into the McCall Waterfront Park which is right on the edge of the famous Willamette River. Then add lots of stages and blues musicians. Then add lots of random booths toward the west side of the park selling all manner of things, including magic bread. Then add more people to make it even more packed.

Did I mention it was packed?

Even the river was packed! The photo above shows a small sliver of the crowdedness of the river. No doubt because people were saving a spot to see the fireworks that were coming in the evening, and the river was the perfect place to witness them.

That’s MISTER Statue to you!

Mr. Statue doing contact juggling rotating Fushigi ballsNow, I’ve got to be completely frank with you. Even more enjoyable than the music, the balloon artists (which we’ll get to in a minute), or even the fireworks, was Mr. Statue.

“What?”, I hear you ask. “Who is Mr. Statue and how could he possibly be better than thousands and thousands of dollars of fireworks exploding above the Willamette River?”

Mr. Statue has Magic Hands.

When I first walked into the park, Mr. Statue caught my eye. And not only did he catch my eye, but he also held my gaze… for a long time. And since I often have the attention span of a small bird, this is a pretty big deal. (ADHD stands for Attention Deficit in High-Definition, right?)

Why did Mr. Statue hold my gaze? Because, even beyond looking and acting incredibly statuesque (including holding completely still for minutes at a time), he possessed mad-skills in the Sacred Art of Fushigi. Also known as contact juggling, Fushigi is a performance art that’s rather difficult to describe in words. Basically, it’s a form of object manipulation that creates incredibly relaxing visual illusions with clear spheres (also known as Fushigi balls). Watching Mr. Statue perform was truly mesmerizing; and although I wasn’t able to shoot a video when I met Mr. Statue, I’ve managed to find one on YouTube that shows off his skill. This video will give you an idea of what he’s capable of:

Strange Facsimiles of Animals filled with Air

Green Balloon Turtle sticking its tongue outMr. Statue wasn’t the only fascinating person at the park on that lovely sunny 4th of July. I also met a rather talented balloon artist who made the smiling balloon turtle you see beside this text. He was very fast and watching him create this balloon creature was a piece performance art in itself. And this would have been a near-perfect photo if it weren’t for the shirtless man in the background. Good thing it’s blurred out… but seriously. Did he have to be shirtless? He was the only one, and he wasn’t even swimming in the river! But then again, I guess that’s part of why Portland is weird: random shirtless guys at the park.

Jugglers tricking Kids into spinning small spheres on sticks

Juggler showing kids how to spin a blue ball on a stickAfter sampling some free drinks and some delicious bread from Dave’s Killer Bread, I continued to wander around the park, and I discovered a few jugglers playing with some children in a small commons area. At first they were only juggling, but then one started spinning a big blue ball on one finger and tried to teach the kids how to do it. Once he got the ball spinning fast enough, he transferred it to a stick some kids in the middle of the commons were holding, and the kids really enjoyed the challenge of keeping the ball from falling. It was a lot of fun to watch, and the jugglers were quite proud of the kids. This time, the kids were the real stars of the commons.

Strange Objects exploding in the Sky

Pink starburst firework over freewayLater that night, I returned to the park to see the fireworks above the river. Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone in Portland who owns a boat (yet), otherwise I would have been out on the river with a fantastic view. However, I did have a friend who was able to keep up with me as we ran around the edge of the river trying to find a good vantage point that wasn’t completely clogged with people. As we were running to find a spot, huge starbursts of pink and green exploded above us.

In the end, we didn’t find a fantastic view, but we were still able to enjoy the fireworks; and running through all those crowds and under freeways was an interesting experience that I won’t soon forget.

If you have the opportunity to visit Portland on the 4th of July, I highly recommend it. The Waterfront Blues Festival raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for Oregon Food Bank, each year the festival grows, and experiencing it firsthand is unforgettable.

Without a doubt, Independence Day is one of the best days to be in Portland. And when I think about it, Portland is one of my favorite places to be during the 4th of July, as well. What about you? Have you been to Waterfront Park on the 4th? What’s your favorite place to be on the 4th?

Funny days in the park
And every day’s the 4th of July
Funny days in the park
Every day’s the 4th of July
People reaching, people touching
A real celebration
Waiting for us all…

~ Chicago

But only if we want it.

Curious to learn more?

And Now, the Continuation

Continue the Journey →

Photos from this trip are in the Independence Day at Waterfront Park album. All photos in the Gallery can be used as desktop wallpapers because they are high resolution (1920×1440).