Adams Avenue Street Fair will mark 40th year with 66 bands, solo acts and DJs
After being shelved in 2020 and 2021, the two-day event returns this weekend to the streets of Normal Heights. The lineup include the Beat Farmers, Sara Petite, Whitney Shay and 63 more
This weekend’s 40th anniversary edition of the Adams Avenue Street Fair is a landmark for the free annual music, crafts, food and drink festival.
Less than two weeks ago, though, it came very close to being a wake.
“In 2020 we had to cancel because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Scott Kessler, the executive director of the Adams Avenue Business Association, under whose auspices the Street Fair is presented. The event’s 38th and most recent edition was in 2019.
“We were all set to resume last September,” Kessler continued. “But then the Delta variant surged and we had to cancel just six weeks out — and lost a lot of money. We thought that if we canceled this year, it would be the end of the event. Choosing to celebrate our 40th anniversary now, after having to cancel what would have been our 39th and 40th editions in 2020 and 2021, was a pandemic-inspired discretion or correction.”
That Kessler and the plucky nonprofit business organization he heads have persevered comes as a hard-fought victory. This holds doubly true given the further obstacles they recently encountered — including stringent new city safety regulations and skyrocketing pandemic-fueled production costs — that nearly saw this year’s edition of the Adams Avenue Street Fair fall through, as well.
The 2022 festival takes place Saturday and Sunday. It will feature 66 bands, solo artists and DJs performing on six stages. They will be joined by 230 or so vendors who will line the event’s namesake street on the seven blocks of Adams Avenue between 32nd and 35th streets. Other attractions range from carnival rides for kids to craft beer tastings for adults.
The music lineup includes such local favorites as the Beat Farmers, Mrs. Henry, The Loons and Manual Scan, which will be previewing songs from its new EP and celebrating the 40th anniversary of its 1982 debut release, “Plan of Action.”
Some performances will take place on the new outdoor stage at Lestat’s. It replaces the coffee house’s storied indoor music venue, which has been shuttered since early 2020 because of the pandemic. (More information about the revamped Lestat’s appears near the conclusion of this article.)
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This weekend’s lineup also includes Wild Wild Wets, Kid Ramos & The 44’s, The Sleepwalkers and award-winning singer Whitney Shay, who will perform Sunday with her blues band and Saturday as a special guest with the groove-happy Sure Fire Soul Ensemble.
“I love to go to the Adams Avenue Street Fair,” said Shay, who lives in nearby North Park and is a multiple San Diego Music Award winner.
“I check out the vendors’ wares and dance to the music of some of my local friends who are playing. Plus, I’ve had people tell me they are still not comfortable going to indoor venues, so an outdoor street fair like this is a great way for those people to hear music without going indoors. It’s a great, all-ages event.”
Music on tap
Shay’s enthusiasm is shared by fellow singer Sara Petite, who was the biggest winner at this year’s San Diego Music Awards. She is the only Adams Avenue Street Fair performer who has also worked for more than a decade as a bartender at The Ould Sod, the Irish pub and music venue that opened on Adams Ave. in 1940 as Ryan’s.
“All the people on the avenue look forward to the street fair. It’s like a big homecoming for your friends and people from all over San Diego,” Petite said. “The neighborhood has grown and there’s always a big buzz about the street fair.”
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Normal Heights’ largest thoroughfare has been the festival’s home since its inception. The growth of the neighborhood as an earthy, unpretentious bastion for dining, music and nightlife is perhaps best demonstrated by a quick comparison.
In 2011, Adams Avenue was the site of 20 hospitality businesses, a term used to describe restaurants, bars, bakeries, and cafes on Adams Avenue. Now, by Kessler’s count, there are 70.
“Normal Heights has become a destination neighborhood,” said Mick Ward, who — with fellow Irish native Tommy Quinn —has co-owned The Ould Sod for the past 32 years.
Ward, Petite and others credit the Adams Avenue Street Fair for introducing attendees to The Ould Sod and neighboring attractions. Prior to the pandemic, the free two-day festival drew an average of 40,000 to 50,000 people to each edition.
“We’ve had hundreds of people over the years who have walked into The Ould Sod for the first time during the street fair and then have become regular customers. That happens on an annual basis,” said Ward, an Adams Avenue Business Association board member.
“The street fair is vitally important,” he stressed. “It raises money for the association that enables us to do all the other events we hold each year, like Holiday on Adams Avenue, Adams Avenue Unplugged and all the smaller events that are the heart and soul of this community.”
Because of city safety regulations requiring a 20-foot-wide fire lane at street fairs and similar events, the number of vendors at this year’s event, 230, is down by 70 from the 2019 edition.
Adapting to changes
That has resulted in a loss of $40,000 for the event in vendor’s fees, according to Kessler. Likewise, the total of 66 music acts at this weekend’s event is down by a third from 2019 and the $28,000 talent budget allowed for only a few small national acts to be booked.
The event’s outdoor stages and sound systems will look much the same as in previous years. But the cost to rent and install them has skyrocketed because of pandemic-fueled supply chain issues and greater demand for concert production services.
“Before we canceled our 2021 street fair, we paid $12,000 for five stages. This year, it costs $24,500 for four stages and the city has cut our funding back from $60,000 to $29,000,” Kessler noted.
“The new safety regulations have raised our costs. Band fees have increased, our Porta Potty rental fees have doubled and the price we’re paying for everything has gone up. Everyone’s been out of business for two years, so how can you fault them? Our board voted to lose money on the event this year and not to cancel it. We made the right decision.”
Jerry Raney wholeheartedly agrees.
A co-founder of the Beat Farmers, the San Diego roots-rock band that earned international acclaim in the 1980s and ‘90s, he performs with the band Saturday at this year’s Adams Avenue Street Fair. His son and periodic musical partner, Nathan Raney, will play with his own band Sunday.
“What I really like about the street fair is it’s free to the public,” Jerry Raney said.
“Even before the pandemic some people didn’t have enough money to pay for concert tickets. The Adams Avenue Street Fair is an event everyone can come to, walk around and check out the bands.
“I always see people there I haven’t seen in a long time. They come up and tell me stories about the ‘old days’ or mention somebody I haven’t seen in 40 years! I’ve attended the street fair even when I’m not playing at it because the vibe is so nice.”
40th Annual Adams Avenue Street Fair
When: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: Adams Avenue between 32nd Street and 35th Street
Admission: Free; craft beer tasting tickets (for attendees 21 and up) are $25
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