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Silicon Alleys: Blues Fest Has Deep Roots at SJSU

In Music
MUSICAL WELLSPRING: Charlie Musselwhite, who performed at the very first Fountain Blues Fest, is back to headline the annual event. (Inset, a flyer for the free U2 show at the SJSU Student Union.) Photo by Mimi Bol

MUSICAL WELLSPRING: Charlie Musselwhite, who performed at the very first Fountain Blues Fest, is back to headline the annual event. (Inset, a flyer for the free U2 show at the SJSU Student Union.) Photo by Mimi Bol

This Saturday, the 38th Annual San Jose Fountain Blues & Brews Festival unfolds in Plaza de Cesar Chavez, once again cementing the festival’s position as the longest running affair of its kind in the Bay Area.

The history is worth repeating. The birth of the festival takes us back to a version of San Jose that now seems like the vanishing Wild West, when the SJSU Associated Students Program Board oversaw a serious budget to book concerts on campus all year long. It also harkens back to a time when notorious rock promoter Bill Graham was still trying to prevent anything in San Jose from succeeding.

When a young Rick Bates first emigrated from Iowa to the Associated Students at SJSU, he hit up Ted Gehrke for a job. Gehrke assigned Bates to put up concert posters around town, but Gates eventually wound up with the title of contemporary arts chair, meaning he worked with Gehrke to book concerts.

In the spring of 1981, the prog rock band Ambrosia had just fired its manager and agent, so the group needed a gig. Working for the Associated Students, Bates booked them in the San Jose Civic Auditorium. The show sold out, giving the program board a pile of dough with which they organized the first Fountain Blues Festival, over the first weekend in May of that year.

These days, when students don’t get to experience a live music infrastructure of any sort, let alone getting on the phone with national booking agencies, it seems hard to fathom a San Jose in which such activity unfolded on a regular basis. In the late ’70s, for example, Bates helped book a Peter Gabriel show in the old SJSU men’s gym, located in what’s now Uchida Hall. Bill Graham called up Bates and tried to stop the show because Graham wanted exclusivity in San Francisco.

“At that time I was 20 years old, and he starts screaming at me,” Bates recalled. “I’m a snotty little kid, and I’m going, ‘Hey this is pretty cool. I must be doing something right. Bill Graham’s calling me up and yelling at me.’ I thought it was really pretty funny. We did another show with U2, and he did the same thing.”

The U2 show, with Romeo Void opening up, is now one of the most legendary stories in San Jose rock history. On the Irish band’s first US tour in 1981, Bates and Gehrke initially booked them to play a free show in the outdoor concrete amphitheater next to the Student Union. Bill Graham tried to stop the show because he wanted U2’s first Bay Area gig to be at the Old Waldorf, scheduled for the next night in San Francisco. Despite Graham’s threats, the free U2 show in San Jose went on. However, once it was booked and word began to explode, it was relocated upstairs into the old Student Union Ballroom, which is now a suite of antiseptic meeting facilities. Since the Brutalist-style Student Union structure was built on earthquake rollers, the over-capacity crowds pogo-dancing began to shake the building. Staff stood on both sides of the stage with ropes to prevent the speaker columns from falling over. At one point, Romeo Void’s tour manager got stuck in the elevator. People were scared.

According to those who attended, even with the stage verging on collapse, the young Bono was already on a path to rock stardom. He knew how to command an audience and work a room. The show was a smashing success.

Bates went on to manage several well-known blues and roots acts, including Los Lobos, who ended up opening for U2 on the Joshua Tree tour, putting Bates back in touch with Bono. At the time, Bono still remembered the harrowing SJSU gig.

When it comes to the Fountain Blues Festival, Bates speaks fondly of the original days. At the time, it just felt like a cool project for some students to work on.

“I always feel like sometimes things are just at the right place at the right time,” Bates said. “Everybody wanted to do it, and it was really successful. I never thought that it would last as long as it has.”

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