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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Jun 11 1997
Comet, a small, dappled mutt who looks less frightening for his bright pink life preserver, mans the helm of his owner's kayak (also bright pink). The champion canine projects high-pitched yips at every canoe, raft, inner tube, and swimmer foolish enough to come within earshot. This is apparently the dog's duty -- to make nervous anyone sneaking downriver during the Russian River Blues Festival, a job that he performs valiantly throughout the weekend.

"He just decided that he was river monitor," says Comet's owner in apology as the dog attempts to board a small paddle boat that has come a little too close for comfort. Sadly, the paddle-boat crew is completely unflustered by Comet's machismo -- barking, however incessant, is not threatening when accompanied by hyperactive tail-wagging. The paddle boat's beer monitor, Daniel Holland, gives the kayak a push-off and cracks open another round of Miller Genuine Drafts.

"It'll take more than a little dog to make me pay 40 bucks for music," says Holland, "especially when I can just float downstream with a case of beer."

As Holland and company round the bend, a strange spectacle unfolds before them. A floating community of unusual river-faring vessels -- large barges laden with barbecues, umbrellas, and coolers; midsize rafts comprised of tree limbs and strips of cloth; small motorboats towing elaborate webs of inner tubes; colorful kayaks; and silvery canoes -- bumps noses over their bright orange oars. Holland lets out a large "Whoop!" as a deeply tanned body dolphin-leaps out of the water nearby. Folks already tied to the nautical party whoop back at Holland, raising beer cans and wine glasses in greeting, and the glistening swimmer disappears back into the center of a rippling green bull's-eye.

Most of the canoes that clog the waterway closest to the outdoor stage have been rented on the festival grounds, but the elaborate crafts and motorized boats have all "snuck" downriver, a practice perfected over the last 17 years during Guerneville's more established Russian River Jazz Festival. Under a canopy of low-hanging redwoods, these waterborne festivalgoers pass around pot and hallucinogens without restraint. Girls with washboard stomachs entice boys with bottles of suntan lotion. Flirtations take the form of beer trades and free tows up the river. Dogs and teen-agers swim beneath the boats, causing havoc. Near the beach, a large group of parents dances in chest-high water, beers in hand, while their toddlers paddle around in inflatable arm rings. There are fewer restrictions out on the water (unlike on land, bottles and cans are in visible abundance) and there are no tawny-clad security guards out there to feign responsibility.

"I see some of these hooligans every year," says Lanny Franks, a tall gent wearing a pith helmet who has been coming out to the river for 10 years. "I never see them anywhere else, but I can guarantee that they'll be in the water come festival time. It's the music that brings us all together." Surprisingly, the acoustics out on the water are pretty good, making for much head-swaying and frequent water-slapping applause. Still, most people are here because of the surroundings.

"I don't know if it matters who actually plays on the bill," says Sebastopol's Craig Broschwell, bobbing up and down on a yellow beach ball. "The sun and the water and the people would be enough to get me out here, but I do like to see the ladies dancing around in their bikinis."

On land, there are plenty of bikinis to choose from. The relatively new status of the Blues Festival has kept the crowd from reaching maximum density -- there are no battles for lounging space on the pebbly beach; the lines for beer, lemonade, snow cones, vegetarian grub, canoes, and bathrooms are still manageable; and there remains plenty of room for dancing (though, sadly, not in front of the stage, where the fire marshal has demanded a fire lane). Still, the Russian River Blues Festival, only in its second year, has been able to attract some heavy hitters on the weight of the Jazz Fest's still-growing popularity. This year's bill includes Dr. John, Little Milton, Taj Mahal, Lowell Fulson, Joe Louis Walker, C.J. Chenier, and Bay Area locals Preacher Boy, Keb' Mo', Lady Bianca, and Sy Klopps.

"Blues music is so sensual, so rooted in the earth," says Shasta Helster, a 42-year-old mother of two who whirls around in a colorful sarong while her children dig holes with small shovels. "It just makes sense to hear it in the open air."

Frankie Savarro, a tan bicyclist from the Bay Area, watches from a few paces away. "I was pretty sure that the festival would draw mostly locals, some hippies, and a lot of yuppies," he says, making a balloon animal. He finishes tying what looks like a duck with four legs, and hands it off to a pretty, young African-American woman who happens to pass by just in time. "It's not quite as bad as I thought it would be. At least it's not just a bunch of pasty white yuppies."

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By Silke Tudor

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