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Bayfront Blues Festival
10th Anniversary
Duluth, Minnesota, August 14-16, 1998

Photo © 1998 by Tom Asp. All rights reserved
Ten years ago a small gathering of ardent blues fans braved the cold and rain in the unlikely place of Duluth, Minnesota for the first Bayfront Blues Festival. The festival, located right on the Duluth harbor of Lake Superior, seemed like a strange idea in 1989. About the only connection to the blues that Duluth had was Highway 61 which starts close to where the festival grounds are located. This is the same Highway 61 that runs down through the heartland of America to the Mississippi Delta -- the birthplace of the blues. The Mississippi River does start in northern Minnesota but that location is a few hours west of Duluth in Itaska County. But the founders of the festival, Chris Mackey, Tracy Lundeen, Chuck Poet and Steve Grazier must of had a prescient moment because from that inauspicious beginning ten years ago the Bayfront Blues Festival has grown into one of the premier blues festivals in the country. It now spans three days, has two main stages and hosts more than 24 national and regional blues acts playing to crowds of over 20,000 per day.

Blues Fans
Photo © 1998 by Tom Asp
All rights reserved
The Twin Ports of Duluth-Superior, located about 150 miles north of the Twin Cites on Highway 35 is actually an ideal place for this festival. Duluth and Superior are the major cities in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin but they still maintain a small town, almost provincial atmosphere. One of the main reasons for a blues festival being held here rather than the larger metropolitan area of Minneapolis or St. Paul is the fact that the entire town gets behind this event. It is one of the largest tourist attractions in the area. An event like this would just get lost in the myriad events held in the Twin Cities on any given weekend. In fact, during this same weekend there were two major musical events taking place in the Twin Cities (River Feast and Cedarfest) that may have been easily missed by many living in the area. It was pretty hard to avoid this blues event going on in Duluth. Almost every bar and grill in the area hosted a blues band (the rest of the year they either donít have live music or donít feature blues). The festival received daily front page coverage in the local and regional papers. The City of Duluth is a strong supporter of the event (last year dedicating a Big Walter Smith Day during that weekend), and just about the entire population gets behind this annual festival celebrating the blues and good times. And thatís not an oxymoron, "the blues" and "good times". In fact, "blues music" and "good times" pretty much go together, especially at large gatherings like Bayfront. People from all walks of life and all locations step away from their normal daily activities and come together in a celebration of a form of American music that elicits strong feelings and fierce loyalty among it fans.

View of harbor and liftbridge
Photo © 1998 by Tom Asp. All rights reserved
The spacious festival grounds are located across from downtown Duluth right on the cool waters of Lake Superior. The stately lift bridge and huge, slowly moving, monolithic ore boats passing by in the background serve as a majestic backdrop to the blues, soul and gospel music flowing from the stages over the three days. There are two stages located at opposite ends of Bayfront Park at a dog-leg to each other. The music alternates between the two stages with 5 to 15 minutes separating each act which allows the fans to simply turn around at the end of each set and make the short walk to the other stage, not missing a single note. The more sedentary fans simply find a convenient spot located halfway between the two stages and just get up and turn their chairs around after each set. The perimeter of the festival grounds are lined with numerous booths housing food, clothing, gifts, arts and crafts, the media, event sponsors, even a psychic, and the ever present and "popular" portable restrooms. The hotels and camp grounds are booked well in advance, parking is not too far away, there is some grass (the green stuff you walk on, well, come to think about it...), there is plenty of sunshine (read no shade), and perhaps one of the best behaved crowds of any event this size. Thatís not to say the huge crowds did not get up and dance, cheer, clap and shout when the spirit or music moved them, because they did, but there was very little disorderly or annoying conduct. The fans who come to Bayfront are great! They are some of the nicest people.

Yard Dog Jones & Honeyboy Edwards
Photo © 1998 by Ray Stiles
All rights reserved
In addition to the main stage events during the day there is a Boogie Train at night traveling up the north shore with its passengers being treated to the acoustic music of "Philladelphia" Jerry Ricks, Jimmie Lee Robinson, Dave "Snaker" Ray, Paul Metsa and local favorite Gordon Throne. On Saturday there is a scenic boat cruise on the lake with the rockabilly sounds of Jack Knife and the Sharps entertaining the passengers. And as I mentioned earlier, just about every club in the Twin Ports is host to dozens of local, regional and national blues bands. There is the Canal Park Inn Tent Bash and the Rally in the Ally at the Holiday Inn with Lamont Cranston, Big Walter Smith and Big John Dickerson. The Bayfront Blues Saloon in Superior was host to many of the daily performers including Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards, Anson Funderburgh, Eddy Clearwater, The Busters, Shawn Pittman, The Delta Resonators, Lavelle White and Susan Tedeschi. The Tap Room featured a blistering Walter Trout, Keglers welcomed boogie-woogie sensation Mitch Woods, The Norshor Theatre had Johnny "Yard Dog" Jones, and the Fitgerís Brewhouse hosted a quieter Erik Koskinen, Dave Ray and Cam Waters. Or maybe you caught one of the other local or regional blues bands like the Boogiemen, Inside Straight, Zookeeper, Jimi "Prime Time" Smith, Kingpins, Milkbone, Azure du Jour, Port Authority, Joel Johnson, Lonnie Knight and Easy Money or Johnny Chi and The Hillside Players. And if you got more than a few hours of sleep keep it to yourself.

Blues Fans
Photo © 1998 by Tom Asp
All rights reserved
The weather even cooperated for the most part. It did rain Thursday night and again Sunday morning (causing a slight delay in things getting started on the last day) but not a drop of rain fell during any of the actual festival performances (did the Persuasions have anything to do with that?). As always the crowd was mellow and enthusiastically receptive. Many of the fans have developed a personal attachment to the festival making it an anticipated annual holiday. Youíll even find many families holding reunions and enjoying a three-day vacation together while others just come up for the day. The one thing they all had in common however, was the music -- the blues!

Go to day one of the Bayfront Blues Festival!

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Copyright © 1998 by Ray M. Stiles
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.