The crowd at most festivals is delineated by whoever books the main stage: KFOG will get you a lot of people in their forties and fifties; Alice Radio will draw fourteen-year-olds and their mothers. Such patterns are the bane of any event that tries to be multicultural or intergenerational — particularly an event like Art & Soul, the annual bash that brings together a whole panoply of subcultures in Oakland. Now in its ninth year, the festival manages to attract a pretty mixed crowd from throughout the Bay Area, owing partly to its downtown location but mostly to its imaginative performance lineups. In previous years it's had gospel, blues, rock, and "culture" stages, all of which feature A-list acts alongside up-and-comers (local artists take precedence). By providing a little something for everyone, Art & Soul consistently drew huge audiences. It's managed to stay relatively recession-proof in a year of civic bloodletting and festival closures.
That's no small feat. Adaptability seems to be the real secret behind Art & Soul, which started as the brainchild of Oakland's cultural arts and marketing manager Samee Lynn Roberts and several other boosters. The impetus, at first, was to replace Festival at the Lake, a state-sponsored event that terminated in 1997. The producers wanted a downtown locale so their event would have "a lot of room to grow and spread out," said Roberts. They chose Frank Ogawa Plaza (14th St. at Broadway), and spent the next two and a half years drumming up the seed money. They decided to charge $10 a head so the festival would cover its own costs. The inaugural fest in 2000 was an instant success.
This year Art & Soul changed with the times — namely, by moving from its traditional Labor Day weekend date to an earlier weekend in August (it runs this Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 15 and 16). Roberts and company planned the date partly because of a Bay Bridge closure scheduled for Labor Day weekend, partly to trim the budget (a $100,000 city subsidy fell by the wayside, and two days are a lot cheaper than three), and partly because Labor Day coincided with Burning Man, which had prevented Art & Soul from partnering with industrial artists from NIMBY and the Crucible. Getting people to acclimate to the new date has been challenging, said Roberts. Yet she and fellow producers experimented with the format, and figured out how to squeeze three days of art and soul into two: This year's festival will feature a Latin stage, an Oakland R&B reunion stage, and a hip-hop infused world dance stage, along with a special Yoshi's jazz stage. "It's really a sustainability and a longevity issue," said Roberts, who thinks the new redesign will help Art & Soul survive for years to come. For now, she's cautiously optimistic. This year's headliners include Shawn Colvin, Will Downing, Frankie Lee, SEPIA, Ramana, Vieira, and the Hawkins family, among others. Noon-6 p.m., $5-$10. ArtandSoulOakland.com