Adams Avenue Street Fair

What distinguishes San Diego from many other cities of comparable size is that it feels like a much smaller town. This is due largely to the fact that what we call San Diego is really a patchwork of distinct communities loosely bound together by ordinances and area codes. Every community in the city, from Del Mar to Golden Hill, has its own particular vibe, its own characteristic denizens and its own cultural and community events.

Lyon Liew
Guardian

The crowning example of community togetherness is the street festival, when the legendary weather San Diegans are blessed with leads them to take their parties into the street. Year- round, we host events featuring music, food and vendors catering to every personality. Now, as fall dawns, the greatest of these is upon us once again.

The weekend of Sept. 29 and Sept. 30 will find Normal Heights transformed from a quirky but calm pocket of San Diego into a sun-drenched celebration of the best this city has to offer. When the annual Adams Avenue Street Fair rolls into town, music lovers and party-goers should stand up, take notice and make plans.

In 1972, Adams Avenue unveiled its new landmark: the neon Normal Heights sign at the corner of Adams and Bancroft. To celebrate, they organized a modest street festival featuring local bands and vendor booths — The Adams Avenue Street Fair was born.

Lyon Liew
Guardian

Among the festival’s offerings this year are over 400 booths and 80 bands on seven stages. Between 50,000 and 60,000 San Diegans attended each day of last year’s fair, and that number is expected to be met again, if not exceeded.

On Saturday or Sunday morning, roll out of bed a little earlier than usual — say, 10 a.m. If you have a car, driving to the festival is so easy you could do it in your sleep; the activities on Adams Avenue are nestled between Interstates 805 and the I-15. Parking gets more difficult as the day progresses, of course. Coming in early not only guarantees you’ll enjoy a beautiful beach city morning, it also scores you a spot to stash your wheels. The carless will find the event easily accessible via San Diego Transit bus Routes 2 and 11.

Don’t worry if you skipped breakfast: Everything tastes better when you buy it from a brightly colored booth. Among the usual array of barbecue and smoothies, steer toward the hand-squeezed lemonade and fresh-baked cobbler a la mode.

A little later in the day — or not, depending on how hardcore you’re feeling this weekend — those aged 21 and up can make a pit stop at one of the three beer gardens along the avenue. Heck, go for all three, but make sure you’ll remember the fun of the festival come Monday.

Also, if you show up in your pajamas, it’s no problem — clothing, shoes and accessories are among the most common things peddled at vendor booths. Keep an eye out for the $10 sunglasses store and the Indian clothing booths.

You don’t even have to stress if your wallet is still on your bedside table, because the main attractions are free.

They don’t call it a fair for nothing: A circus and mimes take charge of the Adams Park Theater Stage while carnival rides hum and spin at 35th Street. Missing out on the Ferris wheel or Scrambler would be a major festival foul. And while the rides are fewer than at, for example, the big-shot Del Mar Fair, no tickets are required. Why go to Student Health for counseling when this childhood regression therapy is much more fun?

There’s one big disappointment, though, for all the kids at heart: The pony rides are for the little ones only. But check out the rock climbing right next door on 34th Street.

After you’ve hit up the tilt-a-whirl and scaled a polyurethane cliff wall, it’s time to get down to the festival’s bread and butter. All the shopfronts and activities are fun, but the soul of the Adams Avenue Street Fair is the music acts that take to the seven stages strategically scattered along the festival’s six blocks.

Each stage is themed to cater to a certain style of music. The Roots Rock Stage showcases San Diego’s best — music they just don’t make anymore. Keep an eye out for the Buddy Blue Band on Saturday night and The Paladins on Sunday evening.

The majority of the acts at the World/Jazz Stage are Latin-influenced, like Julian Briano y sus Hermanos, Siete de Corazon and the Orquesta Binacional. Another not-to-miss standout is Theo and the Zydeco Patrol. If you’re unfamiliar with Zydeco, it’s the high-energy sound coming out of Louisiana that evokes crayfish and dimly lit dance halls filled with big-haired, toe-tapping two-steppers. And you thought only Weird Al could make the accordion cool.

The Blues Stage is at Hawley and Adams, and its acts range from The Blues Brokers to the Gospel Revelators, Rod and the Pistons to the Sue Palmer Quartet. The last is the best bet for this stage; Sue gets her groove going on Sunday evening.

Looking for a more mellow sound? The Acoustic Stage’s songwriters and guitar strummers will soothe you into relaxed contemplation and pleasant digestion. San Diego’s acoustic scene is varied and extremely talented, so any act here is likely to draw you in, but make room in your schedule, especially for Lisa Sanders (Saturday night), as well as Gregory Page and Anya Marina (both Sunday afternoon). Lisa is funky, Gregory is heart-breaking and Anya thought-provoking; each of them puts on a heck of a show.

Another great gal guitarist is Mary Dolan, who graces the Lestat’s Coffee House Stage on Saturday afternoon. Her slightly spastic stage presence is a good lead-in to that afternoon’s next act, the National Comedy Theater, for a break from the tunes.

But let’s say you show up at the festival and are suddenly struck with a crippling bout of chronic fatigue syndrome, leaving you with no choice but to spend all day at one stage. Although the real essence of the street fair experience is to wander aimlessly and sample the stages with the capriciousness one affords a banquet of free food, if you see only one stage, make it the San Diego Music Awards Stage at DeMille’s.

All the acts performing at this stage are nominees for this year’s San Diego Music Awards, and the deservedness of this honor is readily apparent. Pretty much any of the bands performing on this stage either day is a solid bet. Make this stage your Saturday night destination, because Jose Sinatra and the Troy Dante Inferno is not an act to miss. They classify themselves as “”lounge metal,”” but the cumulative effect of mangled covers and medleys of ’60s and ’70s staples, hilarious parodies about sex with celebrities and one very unique lead singer in a tight velvet leisure suit is inexpressible in a cute genre catch-all.

The late-night slot at the SDMA stage is filled by the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash, a slightly less flamboyant group that nonetheless knows how to work the crowd and kick some country butt. They prove that the most amazing thing about the San Diego music scene is that some of these bands stick around as long as they do without being snapped up by major labels and shipped all over the country on tours.

Sunday evening also finds great bands at the SDMA stage. The Shambles spout classic SD-style pop, and Pink Froyd transitions smoothly from the bar scene to the fair’s main stage.

The Adams Avenue Street Fair doesn’t boast the nationally-known names of Street Scene, the high-brow art of the La Jolla fest or the all-out rowdiness of the PB Block Party. However, its irresistible atmosphere comes straight from the heart of Normal Heights and all of San Diego. It is laid-back SoCal at its best, and it’s the perfect way to spend a weekend.

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