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San Diego Blues Festival’s future unclear after its founder ends his 12-year tenure

Billy F. Gibbons at the 2018 San Diego Blues Festival,  Sept. 8, 2018
Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top performs with his solo band at the 2018 edition of the San Diego Blues Festival and again at this year’s edition in September.
(Daniel Knighton / Getty Images)

Founded in 2011, the nonprofit festival raised $1.5 million for the Jacobs Cushman San Diego Food Bank and drew tens of thousands of music fans

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The future of the AimLoan.com San Diego Blues Festival is unclear following Monday’s online announcement that the festival’s founder and driving force has stepped down after 12 years.

Michael Kinsman launched the annual event, which benefits the Jacobs Cushman San Diego Food Bank, in 2011 at downtown’s Embarcadero Marina Park North. He was under contract to curate the festival and oversee its production for the Food Bank, which — after expenses — reaped the proceeds.

The 10-act lineup that first year included harmonica legend James Cotton, vocal stalwart Tracy Nelson and local guitar wiz Robin Henkel. Artists who subsequently appeared at the festival included an array of blues greats and new talent, along with such Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees as Mavis Staples, Eric Burdon and Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top, who headlined in 2018 and again this September.

In a Wednesday interview, Kinsman told the Union-Tribune that a pandemic-fueled surge in production costs and lower audience attendance at this year’s edition were two key reasons he is ending his tenure. He had independently staged the first incarnation of the festival from 1998 to 2003 at the same location, but the cost of doing so on his own became prohibitive.

Kinsman expressed disappointment the current edition of the festival was “not living up to the earnings expectations” of the Food Bank, for which the event has netted a cumulative total of $1.5 million, high media visibility and more than 20 tons of donated food. He was also dismayed that a rare San Diego hurricane warning four days before this year’s edition, followed by heavy rains the day before the festival, brought ticket sales to a standstill.

Christone "Kingfish" Ingram performs at the 2021 San Diego Blues Festival
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is shown performing at the 2021 edition of the San Diego Blues Festival.
(Jon Naugle)

‘Time to move on’

“I’m really uncertain the business model we have still works in today’s environment,” Kinsman said, speaking by phone from his home in Memphis.

“Building an event like this from the ground up each year (in a public park) has become very expensive. It’s more labor-intensive, and it’s hard to find people with competent skills to help you. I have no ill will for the Food Bank. I just thought it was time to move on.”

Lead singer Tierinii Jackson, a native of Memphis, is married to the band’s lead guitarist, Israeli native Ori Naftaly. Two of her sisters are also in the lineup of the Grammy-nominated band.

In early October, Kinsman — a former Union-Tribune staff writer — informed Jacobs Cushman Food Bank CEO Casey Castillo of his decision to step down when his contract expired at the end of that month.

“The conversation was extremely cordial, and he told me how much I’d be missed,” Kinsman said. “I followed that up with a letter of resignation, volunteering to share any information or provide anything they needed before or after my contract ended.

“I sent an email a few days before the end of October, again offering my help if they wanted it. And I asked if they were going to do a blues festival in 2023. I never heard anything back from Casey. I assumed he was just too busy. He has a lot on his plate.”

Kinsman provided a copy of the email he sent Castillo to the Union-Tribune.

Reached for comment by the Union-Tribune, Castillo said: “We did speak, and I thought it was a good conversation. I wouldn’t agree that he offered his services in an email. I think he just asked if we had plans (for another festival) in 2023, and we haven’t made that decision yet.

“Our committee will meet in January to review, as we do every year, and a decision will most likely be made then. I’d like us to finish that analysis before we make any overall assessment of the event. I’m celebrating my 15th anniversary with the Food Bank in March and the blues festival has been a big part of my time here.”

Kinsman has already been approached about doing a blues festival with another partner but doesn’t think it would be a good fit.

While the Food Bank could opt to continue the event with another producer in place of Kinsman, multi-Grammy Award-winning San Diego album producer Chris Goldsmith believes doing so could prove a challenge.

Saturday bayside music marathon a benefit show for San Diego Food Bank

“I feel like Michael was so ingrained in the festival, and that his vision was such a vital part of it, that carrying on without him will be hard,” said Goldsmith, who oversees two major area music venues, the Belly Up in Solana Beach and the soon-to-open The Sound in Del Mar.

“Michael is one of the guardians of both traditional and evolving blues styles. He really understands the history of the music and has curated the festival here with a terrific balance between unknown and known artists, and between more traditional and contemporary blues artists. He always does a great job.”


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