There’s something new brewing at Adams Avenue Unplugged, which this weekend will pull off the unusual feat of simultaneously growing larger and smaller.
To be held Friday and Saturday on a 2-mile-plus stretch of Adams Avenue between Kensington and University Heights, the free annual acoustic music marathon is jettisoning its two large outdoor stages. In their place, it is adding a dozen intimate indoor performance spaces, which brings this year’s total number of music venues up to a record 34.
Adams Avenue Unplugged
When: Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; noon to 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: A 2-mile stretch of Adams Avenue, from Vista Drive in Kensington to Hamilton Street in University Heights, with a majority of the venues in Normal Heights
Admission: Free, except for Augie Meyers’ Saturday-night performance at the Ken Club, for which tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door (must be 21 or older to attend). Tickets for Saturday’s 21-and-up Unpluuged On Tap beer tasting are $19 in advance and $25 on Saturday.
Phone: (619) 282-7329
The dozen new spaces will host solo performances, Saturday only, under the auspices of Unplugged On Tap, a showcase for 12 San Diego breweries. Only 500 tickets are available for the 21-and-up Unplugged On Tap, for which tickets must be purchased. There is no cost to enter all but one of the festival’s 22 other venues. (The lone exception is Saturday night’s performance by former Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornados mainstay Augie Myers at the Ken Club, for which paid tickets are required.)
All told, at least 108 solo artists and bands will perform over the course of the weekend. They include such area favorites as blues mainstay Tomcat Courtney, klezmer specialists Yale Strom & Hot Pstromi, Americana songstress Sara Petite, the rollicking Euphoria Brass Band, and musical satirists Jose Sinatra & The Giggling Gigolos, which teams Sinatra (not his real name) with Gregory Page and Owen Burke.
The 12 new venues - which rarely, if ever, showcase live music (or beer tastings, for that matter) - include the Zen Center, Dink’s Barber Shop, Home Start Thrift Boutique and Mona Lizzy’s, a combination art studio, hair salon, yoga studio and gift shop.
“We’re excited to expand the number of Adams Avenue businesses that are serving as hosts for music this year,” said Scott Kessler, head of the Adams Avenue Business Association.
The nonprofit association produces the Unplugged festival each spring and the music-fueled Adams Avenue Street Fair each fall. The Street Fair features performances on multiple outdoor and indoor stages, with a focus on amplified - rather than acoustic - bands.
A ‘musical walkabout’
“We call Adams Avenue Unplugged a ‘musical walkabout,’ to differentiate it from the Street Fair,” Kessler noted.
“This is the first year we’ve eliminated the two outdoor stages, which were in Kensington Park and Adams Avenue Park. We found that more people tended to go inside, to the restaurants and bars, to hear the Unplugged performers. We were putting our headliners on the outdoor stages, and the crowds weren’t there, so it seemed like it wasn’t a good use of our resources. More than half of our performance sites are open to all ages, so it’s still family-friendly without the outdoor stages.”
The elimination of the two outdoor stages makes the Normal Heights United Methodist Church Stage the festival’s largest this year. The church, in a welcome display of musical outreach, is underwriting this weekend’s performances at the church.
On Saturday, The Cactus Blossoms will perform one-hour sets in the 250-capacity church at 3 and 6 p.m. The roots-music duo, which teams Minnesota brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, released its national debut album, “You’re Dreaming,” in January. Their rustic harmony vocals are steeped in the traditions created by the Everly Brothers and, before them, the Delmore Brothers and the Louvin Brothers.
On Sunday, country-music troubadour Sam Outlaw will perform in the church at 3 and 6 p.m. Born in South Dakota and raised in San Diego, Outlaw (real name: Sam Morgan) is a former advertising sales executive who left the business world to devote himself to writing and performing songs. His impressive 2015 debut album, “Angeleno,” was co-produced by Grammy Award-winning guitar legend Ry Cooder and his percussionist son, Joachim.
Longtime and new favorites
Much of the festival’s charm and allure comes from attendees being able to walk down either side of Adams Avenue and check out whoever happens to be performing at any given time over the weekend. That’s assuming, of course, your timing is sound. The most popular venues - such as Lestat’s, Rosie O’Grady’s and Java Joe’s - tend to be packed for most performances. But if you arrive between acts, your chances of nabbing a place usually increase greatly.
But what if you are not inclined to walk more than 2 miles in either direction on Adams Avenue? That’s not a problem, at least not on Saturday, when there will be free shuttle service from noon to 10 p.m.
For those up to the task, walking is the best way to revisit favorite neighborhood spots and to discover new ones. It’s also a welcome opportunity to hear longtime musical favorites, none more longtime than tireless Texas blues singer and guitarist Tomcat Courtney. Now, 87, he’s been delighting audiences here since moving to San Diego in the 1970s. Attendees will also want to check out Fred Heath (a former Courtney band member) and Robin Henkel, two blues-drenched guitarists and singers who know their craft extremely well.
At the other end of the spectrum is a growing array of fresh-faced musicians who are eager for exposure and could eventually develop into favorites, here and beyond. Some of them are too young to appear in bars, but old enough to perform in coffeehouses.
“I played outside at Adams Avenue Unplugged last year and it was great!” said singer-songwriter Sofia Bacino, 15, who is a ninth-grade student at Our Lady of Peace Academy. She cites Jason Mraz and Fiona Apple as two of her prime influences.
“This year,” Bacino continued, “I’m performing at Lestat’s on Saturday at 3 p.m. It’s super fun to play with all the people walking around.”
Bacino may well be the youngest performer at this year’s festival. That was not the case, however, at Adams Avenue Unplugged in 2015.
“Tommy Ragen, who is just the coolest little guy, played last year, when he was 7,” Bacino said. “His sister Emma, who I think is now 12, played with him.”