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Bayfront Blues Festival starts off with solid sets

Mike Ledbetter with the Welch Ledbetter Connection during Blues Fest at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth Friday evening. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Monster Mike Welch (left) and Mike Ledbetter with the Welch Ledbetter Connection perform during Blues Fest at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth Friday evening. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Dan and Victoria Sheehan of South St. Paul dance to the music of Welch Ledbetter Connection during Blues Fest at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth Friday evening. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 6
The Welch Ledbetter Connection performs as the 1,000-foot Paul R. Tregurtha sails in the Duluth Harbor Basin in the backgorund during Blues Fest at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth on Friday evening. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Mike Ledbetter with the Welch Ledbetter Connection performs during Blues Fest at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth Friday evening. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Ross William Perry (left) and John Garden perform in the Big Top Tent during Blues Fest at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth Friday evening. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com6 / 6

Mike Ledbetter ended his set at the edge of the stage, held a single note for eons and raised his arms triumphantly.

The Chicago-based musician who has a background in opera (and gospel, soul, jazz, etc.) had earned a victorious stance. At one point during the Welch Ledbetter Connection's contribution to Bayfront Blues Festival, the singer asked someone in the front row if they were sleeping. At that moment — it was dinner time — attendance was spotty and most of the music fans were seated.

An hour later he'd done more than merely draw a crowd — he'd energized a standing-dancing-whooping crowd.

(Well. Until the Paul R. Tregurtha glided through the bay. Then the cameras turned on the freighter.)

Welch Ledbetter Connection's evening set was a Friday highlight of the 30th Bayfront Blues Festival at Bayfront Festival Park. There were 10 sets scheduled between the Big Top Stage and the Main Stage, ending with Don Bryant Featuring the Bo-Keys who played after the News Tribune's deadline. Blues fest runs through Sunday.

Opening day marked the return of the blues fest's distinct culture: flags, weather socks and at least one bra were raised high in the air for ease of finding one's own lounge chair when traveling between stages; a tye-dye clad dancer known as Boogiecat wiggling his limbs; so many Reverend Raven & The Chain Smokin' Altar Boys T-shirts, but presumably only one deeply-tanned man in a thong weaving his way through the crowd.

Mike Welch and Mike Ledbetter is a relatively new, albeit award-winning, partnership. The chemistry, though. They feed off each other, turn their bodies into each other like they were formed in the same womb. The former is the guitarist — nicknamed Monster Mike. He leans into the instrument and plays like it is an extension of his body. Is that sound coming from his guitar or, maybe, his throat?

"What you just heard, what you just felt is one of the finest blues guitarists in the world," Ledbetter said after a solo.

Ledbetter's is an uncommon voice and a stage presence with shades of musical theater. At one point he serenaded a young woman from his knees. He punctuated his vocals by whipping around a white towel. When he looked into the crowd and sang "You don't love me, you don't treat me like you do," it's a wonder he didn't get a group apology.

The blues, he said, is about hitting someone in the guts.

"My name is Mike Ledbetter and I'm just up here doing my best," he understated.

Nikki Hill, who has a retro touch, played a fiery main stage set earlier in the afternoon. The Southern musician sings like everything she feels is bursting through her seams. Her vocals go from low and growly R&B-style to fevered yelps.

Twin Cities-based musician Ross William Perry, who has one of those child guitar-player backstories, shared the Big Top Tent Stage with John Gordon.

Dany Franchi, an Italian bluesman is a fancy finger-work guitar player whose accent bleeds through on some of his songs. He's got a touch of old school rock 'n' roll but lest he forget his niche, he seemingly has the word "blues" tattooed on his neck — right next to the artery that bulges when he's really getting into it.

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