As a photographer for Bayfront Blues Fest for 10 of the festival's 11 years, I have watched it grow from a modest gathering of blues fans and predominantly local musicians to one of the premiere music festivals in the Midwest, if not the country. Bayfront Blues Fest has attracted hundreds of world-class musicians and hundreds of thousands of music fans from around the country and Canada since its humble beginnings in 1989 -- many of whom never would have set foot in your fair city otherwise.
The list of internationally known performers who have graced the stages at Bayfront Blues Fest is staggering: Luther Allison, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Dr. John, Earl King, Otis Clay, Robert Jr. Lockwood, the Radiators, Johnny Adams, Gatemouth Brown, Little Milton, Marcia Ball, John Hammond, John Mooney, Honeyboy Edwards, John Mayall, Valerie Wellington, Bobby Rush, Charlie Musselwhite, Tyrone Davis, Lavelle White, Sugar Blue, Magic Slim, Charles Brown, Fenton Robinson. The list goes on and on and on.
The stars of the Upper Midwest blues scene have found a home at Bayfront Blues Fest as well, gaining exposure to a whole new fan base through their performances there: Big Walter Smith & the Groove Merchants, Dave Ray & Tony Glover, Paul Metsa, Lamont Cranston, Paul Cebar, the Hoopsnakes, Azure du Jour, the Busters, Minneapolis Gospel Sound, the Butanes, Mick Sterling. Their performances at Bayfront Blues Fest have provided a tremendous boost to their careers and showcased our great regional talent to an international audience.
And Duluthians have been fortunate to have seen and heard many great young musicians perform at Bayfront Blues Fest before they gained national stardom: Jonny Lang, Susan Tedeschi, Tommy Castro, Shawn Pittman, Shannon Curfman. For many music fans, Bayfront Blues Fest was the first time they ever even heard of these artists, but it certainly wasn't the last.
Countless musicians who have played Bayfront Blues Fest have told me it's one of the most scenic and friendly festivals at which they have had the pleasure to perform. Many of these same musicians have played some of the top-ranked festivals in the world, from Montreux to Montreal, San Francisco to New Orleans. Music fans, too, rate Bayfront Blues Fest and Duluth as one of their favorite vacation destinations and return year after year to enjoy what the festival and city has to offer. I know, I'm one of them.
I don't need to tell you what a boon Bayfront Blues Fest has been to Duluth's economy. You can see for yourself during Bayfront Blues Fest weekend when hotels and motels are sold out for 50 miles around and the city's nightlife takes on a festival atmosphere all its own. The residual effects of these same folks returning to Duluth to spend their money during non-festival times of the year is equally important.
Duluth also has gained immeasurable media exposure thanks to Bayfront Blues Fest. My own articles and photos from the festival have appeared in a wide range of national publications and on the internet, as has the work of many other writers and photographers.
Today, the future of Bayfront Blues Fest hangs in the balance, to be determined by the fate of the city's Bayfront Festival Park and the adjacent lakeshore property. Proposals ranging from the ludicrous -- a parking ramp, Sears store or outlet mall -- to more complimentary amenities, such as park facilities, have been suggested for this prime piece of real estate on the shore of Lake Superior.
Whatever Duluth chooses to do with this area, I urge you to think long and hard about what your decision will mean for the future of Bayfront Blues Fest. This festival has put Duluth on the world music map, and generated far more tourism dollars and recognition for your beautiful city than any other event you host, Grandma's Marathon included. But if the festival continues to be squeezed for space by competing, and incompatible, other uses, it no longer will be possible to put on a world-class festival attracting world-class performers to the lakeshore.
And that would be something truly to sing the blues about.
Karl Bremer is a free-lance writer and photographer from Lakeland, MN.
Go to the Live Reviews pages to see reviews of the last three years at Bayfront.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Karl Bremer, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.