City Councilwoman Desley Brooks has spent the last several years consolidating her role as a concert promoter. By now, she's good at it. Since 2005, Brooks has co-produced an ambitious summer music series at Arroyo Viejo Park, smack in the middle of the Eastmont-Seminary District that she represents — an area known for murders. It kicked off this year with a performance by ex-Tower of Power frontman Lenny Williams, drawing more than 1,000 people. Williams is typical of headliners that Brooks chooses: older soul singers who can still slay a love ballad. Her second old-school installment happens Sunday, July 5, with the frequently sampled funk band Lakeside. Both of those shows fell into place with the help of Tony! Toni! Toné! singer-turned-city-booster D'Wayne Wiggins and his company Grassroots Entertainment. The August event, co-curated by hometown comedian Mark Curry, will feature an all stand-up lineup, and Brooks will add a gospel showcase in September. What began as a neighborhood party has become a source of civic pride and a way for Brooks to create — or burnish — her own brand identity.
Apparently, Brooks moved at just the right time. Since Art & Soul premiered in 2002, festivals have been springing up all over Oakland, a city that has long been hibernating. "It had been 25 years since there was a concert at Arroyo Viejo," Brooks said. "I think that's a kind of deprivation for a community." She envisioned something similar to the free concerts she attended at Rock Creek Park in D.C. while interning for then-Congressman Ron Dellums. "I was sixteen, and it was the first time I had been to D.C. by myself," said Brooks. "I'm assuming they were a city-sponsored thing. ... I got on the bus and figured out how to get there. Fortunately, it was at the end of the ride." That memory resurfaced years later when she ran into Wiggins at Stern Grove, and the two started chopping it up. They put a program together shortly thereafter. Last year, Mark Curry got on board at Brooks' behest — but it didn't take much behesting, said Brooks, as Curry has always been eager to "give back to a community that gave so much to him." Curry's inaugural 25-act comedy show kicked off with a eulogy for Bernie Mac, and a nod to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose "audacity and hope" slogan inspired the theme: "Where there is laughter, there is hope."
Such words seem apropos for the Arroyo Park series, which, despite scant press attention (until Mark Curry appeared last year), has helped brighten the mood in one of East Oakland's roughest neighborhoods, year after year. Like the old-school acts it highlights, this thing has real staying power.
Lakeside performs Sunday, July 5, as part of the Arroyo Park Concert Series at Oakland's Arroyo Viejo Park (7701 Krause St.). 2-6 p.m., free. 510-238-7006
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