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From its meager beginnings 12 years ago the Bayfront Blues Festival has grown into one of the best run and most popular blues festivals in the country, if not the world. Most of you are already familiar with the setup: Located on the Duluth harbor of Lake Superior with the lift bridge, barges, boats and beautiful water to the east and the hills of downtown to the west; two stages with alternating music so fans never have to miss a performance; food, clothing and other vendor booths located along the sides. This festival is really about 2 things, the music and the fans - some of the best you will find anywhere. The fans fall into 3 categories, singles, doubles and tweens. And that has nothing to do with marital status. Many fans bring two lawn chairs (with the requisite marker in some cases) that they position in front of both stages and simply walk from one chair to the other after each performance (the doubles). Some bring just one chair and set it up at the stage of their choice and just stand at the other one (singles). Some set up their chair about half way between the two stages located at the bend in the L-shaped festival grounds and simply turn it toward the stage with the music or, the more laid back just position the chair at an angle and never move (tweens). The chair markers were in abundance, especially on Saturday with the Duluth Tribune announcing their annual "most creative" chair markers on Sunday. The winner this year was the trumpet/saxophone bubble machine on a stick, complete with real bubbles. Other notables were the minnow bucket hanging from a fishing pole, the single, bloodshot eyeball hanging on a pole, the shark eating a blond Barbie, the toilet paper plunger, the sock-monkey (hey I remember those from growing up on the Range back in the '50s), the beer-pinwheel, the proverbial (stolen) golf tee flag (was it number 6?), the gruesome skull and cross bones, the various wind-socks, streamers and other flags, the lighthouse on a pole, flowers and one of my favorites, the Laurel and Hardy (here's another fine blues fest you've gotten me into).
The weather couldn't have been much better, sunny and warm on Friday and Sunday and overcast and warm on Saturday with pleasant breezes off the Lake the entire weekend. This was also one of the best attended festivals with Friday's early crowd surpassing any previous year and Saturday had lawn chairs backed up from the Main Bayside stage all the way to the bend in the festival grounds. There was a little bottle neck right there during this busiest day of the weekend.
As far as the music goes, I thought this was one of the more evenly balanced lineups in recent years with a variety of acts and performances that didn't include one clunker in the bunch. In fact, a few of the performances were some of the best I have seen that particular artist ever give: Mick Sterling and Carl Weathersby in particular turned in pretty remarkable performances. Mick's singing "I'm Afraid" was simply amazing. And seeing Snooks Eaglin for the first time after listening to his records all these years was a special treat. Other noteworthy performances included: Sue Foley playing some fine acoustic; Sista Monica litterally blowing the crowd away with her power, presence, music and good humor; The Holmes Brothers leaving many in the crowd speechless; the barefoot Becky Barksdale's sultry and sexy vocals and appearance and blistering guitar playing; Willie Murphy doing a funky version of "Great Balls of Fire" sans the piano and singing one of my all-time favorites, "Cry To Me;" A beaming Big Walter Smith sitting on stage at his 12th consecutive Bayfront festival; Franco's harp playing with Willie's Thang (even though it was the only harp at the fest we had an over-abundance of harp players at the Apple River Fest this year); Hubert Sumlin's impish good nature; Otis Rush and Larry McCray trading guitar licks; Tracy Nelson's oh-so-powerful vocals; The Keller Brothers Band creating quite a stir; great southern gospel singing from the Golden Swans; Jeff Healey's easy going, and fun banter with the crowd (and his guitar player, Philip Seis, turned a few heads with his wicked guitar playing and screaming vocals); Rufus was a hoot--I thought he was going to flash us when he came on in his bright green cape and all we could see below the hem were bare legs and boots; Tim Beldon was hot on the keys with the Hillbilly Voodoo Dolls; BooZoo's charm--"He said where he lives is called Dog Hill because there's a lot of dogs there;" Lil' Slims "blue" thumb, and the Lone Star shoot out antics of Lonnie, Phillip and Long John. But the crowd pleaser was definitely Walter Trout's non-stop barrage of notes flying across the bay--he was "on fire" Saturday afternoon.
So why is this festival so popular? Why have some fans attended every single year? Why do many families actually hold reunions here each year? I can only speculate on the individual motivations but generally it all revolves around the scenic bayside location, the excellent production and management of the festival, the quality of the varied lineup from year to year and the overall "good vibe" from the fans. Quite simply this is just one fun weekend of music and people!
I would also like to give a special thanks to the reviewers and photographers who helped me document this special weekend.
Willies Thang (by Terry Marshall)
Kicking off the twelfth annual Bayfront Blues Festival was Willie John Blomquist's band Willie's Thang, with guest appearance by brother Rick Blomquist on second guitar. A regular gig as the house band at The Bayfront Saloon in Superior, WI. provides a musical forum for these "North shore" Bluesmen. Hard drivin', rowdy and with a healthy dose of humor the tone was set for what would be another memorable three days of Blues. "Lutefisk Man,", Willie's rewrite of Willie Dixon's classic "Hoochie Coochie Man," sheds musical light on the attitude needed to make northern Minnesota a little more bearable, especially during the long winters. The band's tribute to Blues Rock roots were in evidence as the Allman Brothers Whipping Post" among others, demonstrated a fondness for straight ahead, no-holds-barred, interpretation of the genre. An inspired rendition of Little Charlie and the Nightcats "Can't Keep It Up," was well received by the crowd. Some festival goers had anxiously waited since last year for this annual event by the Lake Superior harbor in Duluth, MN. Always a crowd pleaser, Willie's group burned through an hour's set and left no doubt they were havin' fun and "doing their (blues) thang."
Willie Murphy (by Al Rohweder)
Multi Minnesota Music Award winner and local legend Willie Murphy was the 2nd act to hit the stage at our 12th annual Bayfront Blues Festival. After he stated how early it was (12:28) Willie and the band played as if it were the 'Midnight hour' ! With Scott Snyder on trumpet, Max Rag on tenor sax, John Marve on guitar, John Iden on bass, Mark O'Day on drums and Willie on keyboards, guitar & gritty vocals, it made this writer want to put down the pen and 'Dance To The Music' as Willie encouraged the crowd to do. Before he played a nice blues number, Willie made a statement I subscribe to. He said in the old days [ Rock & Roll radio AM - KDWB and WDGY ], before things got so over categorized they played it all - Rock & Roll, Blues, County, Jazz
and even a little Folk. on the same station and how he felt it was all the same. Any way...( just to mention a few) Willie did a Funky cover of Jerry Lee Lewis's 'Great Ball s Of Fire , paid homage to Solomon Burke's 'Cry To Me', and a Stevie Wonder like tune to prove his point! This was a great show and it got the crowd moving in the right direction for what was in store for the rest of day one!
Hillbilly Voodoo Dolls (by Al Rohweder)
Around 1:25 PM at the Famous Dave's stage, we were introduced to the Hillbilly Voodoo Dolls. Before their set, I wandered back stage, met the wives of the band and got some lowdown on these guys. Paul Bergen - lead guitar (April), Tim Beldon - piano / vocals (Sandy), Paul Manske - bass guitar (Karen), and Tony Kamana - drummer (Jodi) make up this very diverse band that has recently returned from a six day gig in Belgium. They've been together a couple of years and are veterans of some of the twin cities best bands. Check this out - I asked who the 'leader' was and the girls said there is no 'leader', they all share this duty/honor. The crowds picking up at this point and I notice some 'sit-down dancers', as well as those up on their feet boogying to the Voodoo Dolls Rockin' and Rollin' Louisiana flavored rhythms. Much of the Voodoo Dolls play list are original numbers, some off their new CD - Hubba, Hubba. Some of their covers included songs from Jimmy McCracklin, Moon Mullican, a Huey Piano Smith 'Don't You Just Know It' sing along BUT.... the highlight, of their set for me, was a song I have not heard covered before - A classic Ray Charles 1953 Atlantic release, 'Jumpin' in the morning'. Great job guys ! Check these guys out next time, they have a good time doing it and so do the listeners !
The Keller Brothers Band (by Terry Marshall)
Backstage I asked Mike Keller (guitar) who some of his influences were and to no surprise he cited Stevie Ray Vaughan as one of the first guitar players he admired. He then went on to list Albert King, Freddie King, Robert Jr. Lockwood and "of course the early Robert Johnson stuff." To me this speaks volumes about this very talented guitarist and half of the Keller brothers that make up the Keller Brothers Band. He, along with his brother Cory solidly on drums, Matt Farrell admirably handling keyboards and Minnesotan Scott Nelson on bass, turned in one of the most energetic performances of the weekend. They left no doubt about the future of the blues having a bright future as these talented young musicians will only get better. Their song changes were nearly seamless and almost unnoticeable as they played standard Blues favorites like "Little By Little" as well as originals. An appreciative crowd was not at all reluctant to express their enjoyment of this group's musical efforts by shouting and clapping approvingly throughout their set. Mike's explosive riffs were at times reminiscent of SRV, but not in a way that sounded copied and tempered with an almost understated subtlety when appropriate. Cory and Scott together form a rock solid rhythm section and create a framework for Mike's guitar and vocal expression. Matt is obviously well aware of the various styles of Blues piano and adds a unique touch to both ensemble and solo playing. I especially enjoyed his New Orleans boogie touches (Professor Longhair would, I'm sure, approve!) Do not pass up an opportunity to catch these guys live. Easily one of the most pleasant surprises of the festival for those not familiar with their music. Judging from the crowd reaction, one band from the weekend that will not be soon forgotten!
Carl Weathersby (by Terry Marshall)
For fifteen years as guitarist with Billy Branch's Sons of Blues and touring with Albert King (1979-1982), Carl Weathersby has "paid his dues." Carl's debut album for Evidence Records "Don't Lay Your Blues on Me" was a 1996 W.C. Handy nomination for Blues Album of the Year. Whether playing guitar or singing his soul influenced versions of original material or Blues standards, he is one of the most dynamic performers you'll see. In a red suit, big red guitar and the red hot "Vital Support Band" he fronted, Carl had come to Bayfront to deliver a message! Vital Support featured Paul Hendricks on second lead/rhythm guitar, Skip James on bass, and J.C. Watts anchoring Carl's backing trio on drums. Those who were there will long remember his scorching guitar solos and passionate gospel/soul interpretations and superb showmanship. Carl demonstrated his vocal range by doing a Howlin' Wolf impersonation during "Highway 49" and the crowd responded loudly in appreciation. Playing material from previous albums and from his excellent new release "Come To Papa" he explored the Blues spectrum from end to end. As he was about to transition into "Sometimes All It Takes (Is a Leap of Faith)" he broke a string, but never missed a beat as he changed it onstage while talking and singing improvisationally to the crowd. In closing his performance Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" was an incredibly impassioned tribute to a fellow musician who left us too soon. Carl is one of many performers who leave the stage to play to and in the crowd, and he didn't pass up the opportunity to entertain the enthusiastic Bayfront crowd that afternoon. Carl Weathersby is by any standard one of the most entertaining and talented Blues performers touring today.
As a P.S. for those who call Minnesota home, Carl is related to another Bluesman who called Minnesota home for a while, pianist Leonard "Baby Doo" Caston, one of the three in Willie Dixon's The Big Three Trio. A whole other story.
Snooks Eaglin (by Karl Bremer)
New Orleans is a city of many musical treasures, and because some of them almost never leave the Crescent City, like guitarist Snooks Eaglin, you simply have to go there if you want to see them. That's why it was such a treat to see Snooks at Bayfront this year in one of his very rare appearances outside of New Orleans and his first time ever in Minnesota. This was a must-see set for many blues fans and it was worth the wait.
Blind almost since birth, Snooks lived up to his reputation as The Human Jukebox as he rolled through more than a few quarters worth of classic New Orleans R&B, blues, soul and funk, many of them called out from the audience and played with no hesitation. With talon-like fingers and a picking technique that defies description and confounds players, he tore through Stevie Wonders rollicking "Boogie on Reggae Woman," the Isley Brothers "Its Your Thing," a couple of Earl King gems, "Soul Train" and "Teasin You," and Snooks classic funk weapon "Drop the Bomb."
Backed by a crack New Orleans rhythm section of Erving Charles Jr. on bass and Jeffrey "Jellybean" Alexander on drums, Snooks was in high spirits as he called out song titles and their original year of recording. He cackled with approval as he jumped into "Skinny Minnie" and the equally quirky "Ling Ting Tong" both songs that sound like they were written with him in mind. The hits kept a-rollin with Fats Domino's "Josephine," Ray Charles "No Use Crying" and an "only Snooks could pull this off" number, "Winchester Cathedral." The tender "Lipstick Traces" is always a delight and he capped the set on a high-steppin note with Archie Bell & the Drells "Tighten Up."
Accompanied by his ever-present wife, Dorthea, Snooks genuinely enjoyed playing Bayfront and his first trip to the Northland, and hinted at a return visit. Maybe now that he knows the way, it wont take another 10 years to get him back.
Otis Rush/Larry McCray (by Terry Marshall)
Due to a lineup change Lonnie Mack did not perform at Bayfront and was replaced by Otis Rush, one of the finest Blues guitarists around. He was backed by Larry McCray and his band. Larry is a dynamic performer who has refined his guitar technique by relentless touring. His vocals range from down-in-the-fields grit to impassioned soulful expressions. There are a handful Blues performers who owe as much to traditional as well as a vision for where the genre can go, Larry is one of them. Among his earliest influences he cites his sister Clara, who performed with her band The Rockets throughout regional Arkansas where they spent their youth. Unfortunately she never recorded her Freddie King influenced blues.
Traces of The three Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie) along with Albert Collins and Magic Sam can be found in Larry's repertoire. His blistering solos are carefully crafted with a keen awareness of excess. "Ambition," his debut on the Pointblank label in 1991 awakened the Blues world to a new force to be reckoned with and he has continued making thoroughly enjoyable albums ever since. His latest has recently been released on the Magnolia label entitled "Believe It." Larry's band confidently backed Otis Rush who joined Larry for the last half hour of the set.
Few Blues guitarists are as fluid, relaxed, effortless and poised as was in evidence that afternoon. While taking notes I ran out of adjectives for Otis' portion of the show after smooth, confident, self-assured. I think you get the idea. Perhaps no other guitarist has done as much for the Chicago Blues (both west and south) as Otis Rush. With his debut release of the intense "I Can't Quit You Baby" in 1956, which peaked at #6 on the R & B charts he established himself as one of the premier Bluesmen then and it remains so today! Despite occasional setbacks in a career that covers almost five decades, Otis' remains a true legend and master of the genre that has given rise to many of the Chicago style Blues players of today. One of the striking things about his performances is that not only is he an extremely talented guitarist, but with an intense, unforced emotional delivery that few can match. A truly memorable set that for me ended all too soon!
Rufus Thomas (by Al Rohweder)
How cool is Rufus Thomas? How cool is seeing the Ambassador of Beale St., The Number One Memphis Soul Man - Rufus Thomas? Cool enough to record Sam Phillips' (Sun Studios) first hit with 'Bear Cat'. Cool enough to record Jim Stewarts' (Satellite / Stax) first hit, with daughter Carla, 'Cause I Love You'. Cool enough, at 83+ years, to still D.J. at WDIA radio in Memphis. And... Cool enough to close day one at the 12th Annual Bayfront Blues Festival. Rufus' band, consisting of organ, guitar, bass, trumpet, tenor sax, and drums, opened the set, on the Leinenkugels stage' about 8:15. Next... the call and response was - Hello Duluth / Hello Rufus. YES ! Decked out with this totally awesome studded lime green outfit, including short pants and cape, my man wasted no time 'Walking the Dog' and even did a little scatting on this tune. Try Ray Charles 'The Night Time Is The Right Time', including an excellent guitar solo (not bad for a white guy, comments Rufus), and the crowd belongs to Rufus Thomas. A great Merle Haggard country song, 'Today I Started Loving You Again,' containing yet another great guitar solo, was also well received. Guess what... we will not be denied...you got it, 'Do The Funky Chicken'. Calling for six lady partners from the frenzied crowd, Rufus had himself a 'Funky Chicken' dance lesson / elimination contest right before our eyes. Well blues fans, after the first five ladies were escorted off stag (great job girls), I personally think my man met his match in number six, who 'Funky Chickened', tail feather to tail feather with Rufus. What a blast and what a great finale to day one, year 2000 ! I need to say THANKS to Cyndee, Elliot and Carl (Bayfront Staff) who helped me get names, information and... YES! Rufus' Autograph!
The Busters (by Frankie Abts)
Hey, Duluth Bayfront Bluesfest people, how do you want your morning eggs fixed? The Busters played host on Saturday morning (a fitting title being they are a Duluth-based band.) The music was served up like the choices in ordering eggs. This years serving--second in a row, fourth overall--was slightly different. Absent was the harp player, who is pursuing other adventures. Rick News Olson, co-founder of the group, felt they shifted more into an R&B, folksy sound. Maybe so, but the guitar riffs and solid drumming still had that rockin' edge that the Busters deliver so well. The scrambled start: "Shake For Me," a Willie Dixon tune that was also covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan. The over easy tune: Jimmy Reed's "Sun Is Shining" (this version influenced by Tinsley Ellis' cover). Another blues classic, done by Tinsley Ellis, "Cut You Loose," was brought to the table by the Buster's with a vengeance. The everything omelet had to be the Subdude's song "Poverty," which got the crowd singing along. "Call My Job" gave the crowd a Monday morning retort, "Tell the boss I can't come in. It was a fine Saturday and Sunday, I had too much weekend." My personal favorite, lightly basted, "Waiting For The Tide," from their CD by the same name, ended a solid performance. The song starts out "Just a regular guy, trying to play the blues. Trying to make them do what I want them to." That is what I like about this group. Regular guys playing the blues in their style.
Big Walter Smith and the Groove Merchants (by Terry Marshall)
Minnesota's own "Brother to the Blues" once again this year demonstrated why they are the only band to be invited back to The Bayfront Blues Festival every year since the first one twelve years ago. In addition to Walter's distinctive vocals this is one of the tightest horn bands you'll hear. The enthusiasm for what they do is evident and the crowd gets swept along for a musical roller-coaster ride of Blues favorites and originals. You can count on Walter's version of "Mustang Sally" to bring the crowd, not already standing, to their feet and singing along. Big Walter recently celebrated his seventieth birthday and with over forty as a performer had the crowd completely entertained. With the regular line-up (except drummer Tom McShane) and enlisting the services of Twin Cities drummer Steve Everett, (Resonators among others) Walter and crew have never sounded better. The Groove Merchants bring to every performance a blend of sassy R & B funk, soul, straight-ahead Blues, swing and a lot of excitement. Three years ago following his appearance at Bayfront the Mayor of Duluth declared a "Big Walter Smith Day" naming him "Ambassador to the Blues." I'm already looking forward to BW & TGM show next year, but I won't, and don't you, wait until then to see him!
Hubert Sumlin (by Terry Marshall)
For more than twenty-two years he took the stage first as Howlin' Wolf's rhythm and later lead guitarist. Reportedly at times a stormy relationship existed between the two, but above all else the music kept them together. Hubert's guitar style is at times lightning fast, darting and yet surprisingly precise. Hubert grew up near West Memphis, Arkansas playing for a while with another Blues giant, harpist James Cotton. They played together or several years until he was asked to join the Howlin' Wolf band in 1954. For nearly ten years he polished his licks as the rhythm guitar behind The Wolf before taking on the lead guitarist role in the early sixties. Bayfront provided a unique opportunity to witness a master at work. Backed by Twin Cities musicians, who had never played together with Hubert before this appearance was, Rob Stupka on drums, John Lindberg on bass and Tom Hunter handling keyboards. Guitar sensation, Sean Chambers was on guitar. With Hubert "directing traffic" onstage the musicians admirably framed his masterfully inventive guitar work. With an occasional rough start to the proceedings, everything fell into place as they improvised new interpretations of some classic Blues like "Sittin' On Top of the World," and "Little Red Rooster." The first encore of the festival went to Hubert and his group of excellent backing musicians. Possibly from his humble acceptance of the warm reception from the audience, unfamiliarity with his backup band and lack of rehearsal, Hubert started "Howlin' For My Darlin'" again during his encore. Those there will remember this rare opportunity to be in the presence of one of the great practitioners of modern Chicago style Blues
Walter Trout and the Free Radicals (by Frankie Abts)
Radio personality Bill Deville gave the introduction, "Walter Trout and the Free Radicals." WTFR came at 'em, beaming their program into the hilltop's of Duluth with a rockin' opener, "I Can Tell." "Walkin' In The Rain" began with a long guitar intro; Walter added bluesy vocals to it and brought the crowd to its feet with thunderous applause. The tunes flowed into each other with little breaks in between. Walter got real loose and displayed crying guitar licks with the "Reason I'm Gone." WTFR's popularity in Europe, especially Holland, is well documented. The blistering numbers like "Come Home," which got the crowd dancing and the crowd-pleasing Dylan tune, "I Shall Be Released" showed us that they have returned to their homeland. The band isn't just Walter Trout with fiery guitar playing and heart wrenching vocals. It is also equally outstanding musicians Paul Kallestad (keyboardist), James Trapp (bass guitarist), and Bernard Pershey on drums. Bernie Pershey's drum solos in the ending numbers, especially "Serve Me Right To Suffer," is the reason why Walter exclaims "I've got one of the best drummers in the business." Of course Mr. Pershey loves Minnesota fans. He spent 10 years living in Minneapolis. This show by WTFR was definitely a highlight of the festival.
Boozoo Chavis (by Karl Bremer)
Boo Zoo Chavis is living proof that dynamite comes in small packages. But he does dynamite one better—down in Louisiana they call him the "Lake Charles Atomic Bomb." When Boo Zoo straps on his trademark apron and slings his accordian over his white Stetson, you know he means bidness. Amazingly, a fair number of bluesfesters festered in their chairs instead of getting off their duffs and dancing to the snapbean zydeco rhythms of Boo Zoo and the Majic Sounds.
"I'm 69 years old," Boo Zoo told the crowd in a thick French Cajun accent. "I got a lotaa mileage. I got snow on the roof but a lotta fire in the furnace!" Boo Zoo's wife, Leona, smiled backstage as Boo Zoo introduced "Dog Hill" with an invitation to the crowd to come down to his Lake Charles ranch at Dog Hill for their annual Labor Day barbecue.
He cracked off one hot dance number after another, anchored (literally) by the heavyweight rhythm front line of son Charles on rubboard and Classie Ballou Jr. on one-handed bass. Opening with "I Want to Go Home," they romped through the "Lafayette Two-Step," "Lucille" and "41 Days." A few more people got up to dance as the band worked up a sweat with the ever-present "Boo Zoo's Theme," and his 1954 regional smash hit, "Paper in My Shoe," one of the first zydeco tunes ever recorded. By the end of the set, Boo Zoo and the Majic Sounds had worked their magic on all but a few of the most ardent chair-dwellers. You want the real deal in zydeco? Ask for Boo Zoo, that's who. Yeah you right!
Tracy Nelson (by Frankie Abts)
Tracy Nelson doesn't compromise her blues. Her vocal power commands your undivided attention. Everyone was immediately captivated by her opening number, "I Want To Know." This is a blues woman that sings about being blue and lets you know just how she feels. "Living The Blues" exemplifies this with the line "I feel so bad, I don't want to feel better." The uncompromising lyrics set the tone for the show: deep down blues. "Dust My Broom" vocals were handled by the band backing Tracy: Blue Chamber, a Twin Cities based band. Then a Willie Dixon song "Whatever I Am (You Made Me") continued the downward spiral. Tracy introduced us to a new song in her repertoire "You Are My Strongest Weakness", written by Gary Nicholson, her writing partner, and Bekka Bramlett, Bonnie Bramlett's daughter. Most of the songs were hard luck songs except for "I Feel So Good" from her CD release by the same name. Tracy played the piano on this one. The crowd showed the most approval and loudest applause when she sang the slow deep blues tune "Walk Away." The set was rounded out with up tempo numbers. Tracy and Blue Chamber worked together well despite an unprepared feel between songs.
The Holmes Brothers (by Terry Marshall)
I overheard someone nearby about ten minutes into The Holmes Brothers set remark, "what kind of music is this?" I thought to myself if it has to be categorized-- what do you call it? It's a mix of gospel, soul, R & B, down-home blues, funk, country, a capella street corner harmonizing and more. And done with an attitude that comes from years of perfecting whatever it is you call the Holmes Brothers music. With Popsy Dixon anchoring this trio on drums, Sherman Holmes an expressive bass player and brother Wendell handling guitar duties they came to play and play they did! Plenty of other Blues acts can pull off a pretty good three part harmony on a song or two during a set. The Holmes Brothers have few contemporaries in the expressiveness and intensity of their vocals. With a touring schedule that keeps them away from their New York home for a good part of the year you'll as likely find them performing at a Jazz, Folk, Gospel or Blues Festival. Their wide ranging appeal makes them one of the most in-demand touring acts. Asked what he thought of playing Bayfront, Popsy motioned to the harbor and then to the hill behind the stage and said "that's about all I'll get to see of it, we gotta leave pretty soon back to New York, but it's great for the little while we've been here." One of the songs from their new album was a slow Blues entitled "New and Improved Me" that was enthusiastically received by the crowd. Their inspirational version of "Amazing Grace" that led to "Will The Circle Be Unbroken." moved many in the crowd to join in. The Holmes Brothers left a lasting impression on the Bayfront crowd that evening that will be a favorite festival memory for long time fans and new fans as well. [editor comment] If you were lucky enough to get over to Superior later that night you would have caught The Holmes Brothers sitting in with the Hillbilly Voodoo Dolls at the 3rd Rock.
Lone Star Shootout (by Frankie Abts)
Lonestar Shootout is a reunion of three outstanding bluesmen: Lonnie Brooks, Long John Hunter and Phillip Walker. All three were born in the state of Louisiana in the early to late 1930's. Their paths crossed early on in each other's musical careers. This show was simply very entertaining. It was a delight watching these guys work the crowd with their showmanship. Numbers like "Headin' Out The Door" and "Feel Good Doing Right, Feel Much Better Doing Wrong" had everyone dancing and hopping around. This was a class act and a feel good experience for all.
The Golden Swans (by Rebecca West)
Blues and gospel are two sides of the same coin, and what better way to start a Sunday morning at a blues fest than with gospel music? The Golden Swans are a Twin Cities group who sometimes sound like Motown doin' gospel, which helped the yawning but willing audience wake up and start movin. The Golden Swans include some nice guitars, which are not highlighted as they should be, and a fine YOUNG drummer. The spirituality of gospel added to standard blues can transport an audience, and the Golden Swans did that by singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic as a ballad, and moving on to 'Dear Lord, Show Me The Way,' bringing the crowd to its feet. My only question is, where are the women gospel singers? Something is missing without them.
Lil' Slim and the Back-Alley Blues Band (by Terry Marshall)
It's probably a combination of hearing the Blues played at home by his dad,one of the best Chicago style guitarists around and just plain raw talent. Whatever the reason, Shawn Holt (son of Morris Holt a.k.a. Magic Slim of Magic Slim and the Teardrops.) is on his way to becoming a major Blues artist on his own terms. The Back-Alley Blues Band with "Minnesota Max" Tomoson trading licks throughout the set with Shawn on second lead guitar, Jeff Boehmer, solidly handling bass and Ryan Larsen cementing the group on drums. Thumb picking seems out of place in a Blues quartet, but Shawn has made it a signature style of playing and has been referred to as "the fastest thumb in the west." Though still early in their musical careers they have nailed down a prestigious gig as the house band at the Zoo Bar in Lincoln, NE. "The Zoo" is a popular tour stop for Blues musicians in the Midwest and celebrated in a song by Charlie Musselwhite. Straight ahead, no nonsense Chicago influenced Blues is what these guys do and do well! Backstage I mentioned to Shawn maybe he could get his dad to open for him on tour, I wish you could have seen the grinning expression on his face as he replied "yeah right!" "You've Got To Help Me" a Sonny Boy Williamson classic was given a unique treatment as Max and Shawn exchanged lead solos. And though I associate a harp with this Blues standard I didn't miss it with their interpretation. Closing out their set with an audience sing-along of "Sweet Home Chicago" it was clear they stopped in Duluth on their way up.
Mick Sterling and the Stud Brothers (by Rebecca West)
I've seen Mick Sterling countless times over the years. And I've never seen the Stud Brothers give a routine performance. These horns, keys and guitars are always all-out alive and solid. And over the years, Mick has become, not an icon, but truly beloved by clubgoers. His writing is heartfelt and lyrical. Performances are always a good mix of standards and Mick's originals, including some from the new CD. When I die and go to heaven, (hopefully) I know that one of the things I can count on being there will be Mick Sterling singing Van Morrison's 'Into the Mystic,' which is in my top ten all-time favorite song list. He always accommodates my request to sing it, and in Sunday's performance, mentioned his awareness that his performance of this song resonates for many fans, not just this writer. Not to be forgotten is 'You can leave your hat on', which this band grinds out within absolute perfection. The world should have more people in it like Mick, who do as much as they can to help others, and with pleasure in the process.
Becky Barksdale (by Frankie Abts)
Hold onto your horses. Becky Barksdale sings with unbridled passion. "Little Bit Wild": "...just a little bit wild" claims this guitar toting wailer from Texas. She went wild in this number, holding onto her guitar like it was a wild stallion. The men in the crowd were corralled by the sensual "I Just Want To Make Love To You.", howling for mercy from the unrelenting raw passion in her voice. A rockin' tune followed with the crowd applauding the fiery guitar break. Ms. Barksdale laid down a heavy guitar tune with her popular "Satisfy Me." The edgy vocals were smoothed out in the sultry "Bigger Than the Moon." This love song was delivered with a deep personal feel. Perhaps because it was inspired by a loving grandparent who would ask her "how much do you love your grandpa? Bigger than the moon?" The remaining rockin' numbers blew the hats off of everyone and the slow blues tunes caused the men's temperatures to rise. Her set ended abruptly due to some confusion over the time she was allowed. No problem! The crowd responded with a standing ovation, and wild applause brought her back for encore numbers. Finishing numbers got the audience standing again. Her dynamic performance left everyone in awe.
Sue Foley (by Rebecca West)
Sunday's line-up featured women, women who shout their blues at full voice and all-out guitars. Between Becky Barksdale and Sista Monica, Sue Foley was the most subdued among them. With her red hair and pink paisley Telecaster and vocals more than just a little reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt - without the slide. Another prodigy who started in her early teens, she has ranged geographically down to Austin, Texas and back to Canada. Now with her newest CD, Love Comin' Down, her fame is growing.
[Editor comments]: She was backed by the Keller Brothers Band who played with her for several years when they all lived in Austin, Texas. One of the highlights was near the end when she and Mike Keller were trading good-natured guitar licks--you could tell they were just plain having fun from the expressions on their faces. Sue's outstanding guitar playing pays homage to one of her heroes, Earl Hooker and we got to see another side of Sue as she pulled out her big acoustic and, with sensual vocals, sang songs from some of the early blues female greats.
Sista Monica (by Terry Marshall)
Hot off a recent appearance at the Democratic National Convention and cross country tour, Sista Monica (Monica Parker) flat tore it up at the Bayfront! Affectionately called "The Lioness Of the Blues" da Sista left no doubt about who was in charge that evening. The hills around Duluth are probably still echoing with her powerful vocals! Raised in Gary, Indiana in the gospel rich community of her church, she began singing at an early age. She served three years in the Marine Corps and owned her own Engineering search firm in Chicago before settling in northern California and dedicating her life to her music. References to artists like Aretha, Koko Taylor, Etta James, Big Maybelle, and Gladys Knight among other female vocalists place her in very elite company indeed.
Taking her cue from the audience she is just as likely to launch into a funk song as blues or gospel or soul. She remarked "it all depends on the audience" as she rarely uses a set list. Joining her on stage with an extremely talented group of backing musicians that include: Danny "B". on keyboards, Artis "AJ" Joyce on bass, Sam Varela on guitar, Noel Catuch on sax, and Ron Smith holding it all together on drums. Remarking on her stage presence has drawn comparison to a female James "The Hardest Working Man In Show Business" Brown. If you like your Blues delivered with authority, passion and conviction it was. And it doesn't get any better than this!
Interview (part 1) with Sista Monica (by Rebecca West)
The sound check took longer than expected. Sista Monica was not happy, which meant I was not happy, fearing a bad interview in its wake. But she put her arm around me, and found a place to sit down. Actually the sound check itself told me a great deal about Sista Monica. She doesn't just come out to sing - she is vigilant about getting the perfect sound out from each instrument and musician. Because her voice is so big, she's a perfectionist about the band being in balance. Her band has been together for awhile; her pianist is her producer and co-writer. Most recently they've come from the Montreal Jazz Fest and Toronto and Nova Scotia. In previous lifetimes, Sista Monica was a Marine recruiting sergeant and owned her own executive engineering search firm. I asked if there were some lessons she needed to learn through these experiences before realizing her real calling as a blues artist, and she laughed in agreement but didn't elaborate until later. We talked a bit about writing, and as with many writers, said that songs come out of the blue and all at once. Spirituality is a touchstone in her writing, and she goes out of her way to honor her gospel roots, preferring to end each CD and performance with a gospel tune. She ended the interview with the need for a quick prayer with her band before going onstage, and promised a longer interview, which will appear in October's issue to promote her appearance at Famous Dave's on November 26.
Jeff Healey (by Frankie Abts)
A couple of years ago I was asking a drummer, whose band had just toured Canada, "What has happened to Jeff Healey?" Since my inquiry, the Jeff Healey Band has made a resurgence, appearing last fall in St. Paul and now the Duluth Bayfront Bluesfest, bringing to the Midwest his unique style of playing his guitar flat on his lap or on a stand. He developed this style because he started playing at age 3 and his hand wasn't large enough to wrap around the guitar's neck. The opening number, "My Little Girl" begins with "Listen Here." Jeff blasts the crowd with his loud, riveting, screaming guitar work. "See The Light," "Confidence Man," and "Angel Eyes" are a must to hear. The newest member of the band is Phillip Sayce. Phillip tours with his own band, The Phillip Sayce Group, when he isn't with JHB. He does a nice solo song. The two huge crowd favorites were "Stuck In The Middle With You" (dancing develops all around) and "Roadhouse Blues" (the sing-a-long for the night "...Roll Baby roll.) New tunes were introduced from the latest release, "Get Me Some." "Love Is the Answer" (a slow ballad), "I Tried", written by Diane Warren, and "I should Have Told You", were next. Jeff completed his set to the stomping of feet, shrill whistles and loud applause. Shannon Curfman came to the mic to assist in getting Jeff to return for an encore. Returning, he ripped into jams with Shannon. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" became like the finale in a fireworks display. Two guys from Walter Trout's band, bass player James Trapp and road manager John Ropiquet, stood below the stage watching Jeff's wicked string bending technique. I asked John if Walter was going to get up with Jeff. He laughed and said "I hope not." He had enough handling of the equipment. Jeff Healey's performance was definitely a spectacular way to close out the festival.
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