Last year's Art & Soul came with lofty ambitions. Specifically, the organizers wanted to mark the event's ten-year anniversary by featuring an all-Oakland lineup. It took a lot of work, said Samee Roberts, who manages the city's cultural arts and marketing division, while acting as quarterback for Art & Soul. But the crew pulled it off. Headliners included MC Hammer, En Vogue, Cake, the Mo'Rockin Project, Bay Area Blues Caravan Society of All-Stars, Tony! Toni! Toné!, John Santos, and Pete Escovedo, among others. The theme posed a lot of organizational challenges. Nonetheless, it was an overall success.
So now Art & Soul has to top itself once again. This time it's opted to highlight women artists by adding a new "WomenGig" stage on Saturday, hosted by beloved local comedian Marga Gomez. The lineup is still pretty Bay Area-centric (overall, about 80 percent of Art & Soul artists are locally sourced), but it also includes imports like Canadian rocker Faye Blais and the Rosie Burgess Trio of Melbourne, Australia. They'll be accompanied by San Francisco-based artists Lia Rose and all-African-American rock band Sistas in the Pit, which now features the enduringly powerful Shelley Doty on guitar. Tacoma singer-songwriter Vicci Martinez is the main sell.
On Sunday, the Plaza stage in front of City Hall will give way to a "Dancing through the Decades" showcase, with everything from lindy hop, to a Soul Train line, to turf and "flash mob" styles. That's also an Art & Soul tradition, but it took a hiatus last year to accommodate the all-Oakland theme. Ironically, though, dance might now be the festival's most important local signifier, especially since turf — which originated in Oakland — became such a huge viral craze.
And, as always, there are the star acts, which this year include Tower of Power (probably just the touring band without Lenny Williams, but then again, you never know), R&B singer Goapele, and rapper-pianist Kev Choice with his giant ensemble. His latest release is a rap ballad, "Arietta," performed over a classical piano piece by Edvard Grieg. Rather than chop up a sample, Choice plays the piece on acoustic piano. As hip-hop, the piece references old, canonical source material, but turns it into something startling and new. He's sure to mesmerize fans again this year, as will Mingus Amungus, who caps off the bill at the Yoshi's jazz stage on Saturday, and the two heritage lineups — one gospel, one blues. Overall, it's a comprehensive package, and a reflection of Oakland's catholic tastes. Which makes it seem home-grown, even without a theme to glue everything together.