It was already one of the hottest days of the year as I headed to the Harborside Marina in St. Paul Park early on afternoon of Saturday, August 4, 2001. Even though the place was a bit out-of-the-way, I found it with no trouble. I parked near the end of the road, grabbed my cooler and camera gear, and headed to the dock looking for Tommy Burns' houseboat. I soon saw some suspicious looking characters hanging around one of the boats and knew I'd found the right one.
After waiting a few minutes and enjoying a couple cold beverages as some others arrived, Tommy showed up, unlashed the boat and fired her up, and we headed downstream towards Shiely's Cove on the Mississippi River near Pine Bend.
We were moving just fast enough to counteract the heat and humidity of the day. This part of the river is not very developed, and has an aura of tranquility. We passed or met several pleasure craft and a couple tows with barges. After about a ten mile cruise, we made a sharp turn into a secondary channel and found Joel Johnson waiting for us upon his craft, the SS MOJO. We pulled up beside the MOJO, lashed the two craft together, and became a floating bandstand. The setup for Boogie On The Bay was underway.
Boogie On The Bay has to be one of the most unique and innovative blues events going. Both Joel Johnson and long time harp player of the Joel Johnson Band Tommy Burns live on houseboats moored on the Mississippi River. Five years ago it was decided to have a party on the river and that has become an annual event. The Joel Johnson Band sets up on the roof of Joel's houseboat and plays for a flotilla of other water craft which have gathered for the event. Word is spread by circulating flyers at area marinas and by ads and articles in assorted river related publications. Each craft is approached by a friend of the band and asked to contribute a few dollars to the cause.
After lashing up to the Mojo a couple hours were spent setting up for the gig. Since it was so hot, special attention was paid to trying to find a way to keep the musicians in the shade. This particular version of the Joel Johnson Band had to be one of the most veteran groups of Twin Cities blues musicians that has been assembled. Besides Joel on guitar, the band included Tommy Burns on harp, Jon Beach on keyboards, John Norstad on drums and Dan Schwalbe on guitar.
Around 6:00 P.M. the performance started. No sooner had it started than it stooped due to a power failure. After a thorough investigation conducted by John Tressler, long time event attendee and friend of the band, it was determined a clogged fuel filter had caused the generator to stall. Once the filter was removed, the gig resumed.
By this time, a large number of craft had arrived. Some had been anchored at the site all day. Others motored in an out. The typical craft was a mid size houseboat or cruiser. But the range was everything from personal water craft to a couple huge double-decked party craft. At one point it appeared there were close to a hundred different craft on site. Several people left their boats and sat on a partially submerged log directly in front of the "bandstand" to escape the heat. Some people were tubing. At one point, a float plane dropped in for a while. After dark, a few fireworks could be seen lighting the sky from time to time.
The band played for about four hours, taking a couple breaks. The members traded songs from their extensive repertoires. Lots of blues standards -- but lots of original material, as well. As they say, everybody had a good time. While the band played on the roof of the Mojo, a party was underway down below, several friends of the band on board. You could call this an Upper Mississippi Shakedown, but that name belongs to a different band.
After putting away the instruments and taking in the P.A. gear, we were ready to head upstream back to the marina. One problem -- only one of the two engines of the Mojo would fire. It turned out the culprit was a dead battery. Fortunately, there was a spare on hand, and after a battery transplant we were underway.
By now it was about two in the morning and -- particularly given the heat -- I was exhausted. I sat on a bench on the bow of the Mojo nodding out occasionally while the now almost cool breeze comforted me. There was still some traffic on the river and in some locations it was so hazy you could not see far. You could see a swath of light cutting through the haze. An idyllic night on the river.
In about an hour we were tied down at the marina. Everybody was tired and headed out in short order -- except for the residents of the houseboats who were already home. A long but very productive and very entertaining days work.
Boogie On The Bay takes place the first Saturday of August each year. This year, that is August 3. Just find a water craft and show up on the river at Pine Bend and look for the party...
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