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Keyboardist has roots on Iron Range : MUSIC:Tim Wick honed his skills in Marble before heading south to play the blues.

BAYFRONT BLUES FESTIVAL

Tim Wick learned to play piano from his grandmother up in Mountain Iron -- a woman who played piano in silent movie theaters on Friday nights, at Saturday night dances and in Sunday morning church services.

It's that kind of musical range that Wick has brought to the Minnesota blues scene for the past 30 years, most recently as keyboardist for Big Walter Smith's Groove Merchants band.

On Thursday, the opening night of the Bayfront Blues Festival, Wick got a solo half-hour on the acoustic tent stage. He drew from keyboard-friendly songs from Marcia Ball, Pine Top Perkins, Johnny Johnson and Floyd Dickson and had a full tent of more than 500 people stompin' on the grass.

Wick drew from Lillian "Tommy'' Fuller's musical talents and her passion for the Hammond B-3. In 1971, while still in high school, he helped form a 10-piece horn band called Loadstone. The players were students at Grand Rapids and Greenway high schools.

"It was a 10-piece band with horns, and that was a big deal back in those days. We had a lot of fun,'' Wick said Thursday before his gig.

Wick, 51, grew up in Marble, hit the Twin Cities for a stint and then came back to the Iron Range to work at Minntac for 10 years until the bottom fell out of the taconite industry in the mid-1980s. Like thousands of other Iron Range residents, he headed south to find work.

Wick is now a computer software developer by day. But, by night, he plays the B-3 and just about anything else with a keyboard.

Over the years, he has quietly become one of Minnesota's finest blues keyboardists. Last year he began running the keys as part of Big Walter Smith's Groove Merchants.

"It's a really good band. We just recorded two CDs ... and Walter is so easy to work for. He's been doing it for so long, everything falls into place,'' Wick said.

Wick has toured with Renee Austin and sat in with the best of the Minneapolis music scene, including the Solid Senders, Joe T. Cook and the Longshots, Lonnie Knight, Cool Disposition, High and Mighty, Lamont Cranston, Hydraulic Jack and the Lifters, Friends of Yoder and Spots on Dice.

"I'm having fun. It's great when you don't have to count on this to pay the bills,'' Wick said. "I've thought about going full-time ... but then I wake up.''

Wick said there's little money in being a backup guy in a blues band.

"When I was in high school on the Iron Range I could make $50 or $60 a night,'' he recalled. "Well, guess how much I'd make today? Just about the same.''

Wick was one of five mostly solo acts that played on the four-day festival's opening night. It's the third year that bluesfest has opened on Thursday evening.

Adding a fourth day might make the festival seem more like a blues marathon, but the laid-back nature of acoustic night seems to have drawn a fan base -- even on a night when hot coffee probably outsold cold beer.

The temperature struggled into the low 60s Thursday evening with a Howling Wolf wind off Lake Superior.

Anita Whittington of Shakopee, Minn., arrived at Bayfront Festival Park -- along with her three girlfriends -- even before gates opened at 4 p.m. It's an eight-year, girls-only run to bluesfest. When the festival added a fourth day, the women wouldn't miss an act.

"The first night is the best because there aren't as many people,'' Whittington said. "We love it all.''

On Thursday the women had to make a quick stop at Minnesota Surplus in downtown Duluth to pick up some lightweight jackets to brace against the wind.

"It was 80 degrees when we left the Twin Cities. We only have shorts and T-shirts,'' Whittington said. "But, hey, we got these jackets for $5!''

Doug and Cindy State of Deer River had the honor of being the first people to place their folding chairs on the grounds for the 18th annual festival. They picked a prime spot with unobstructed views of both main stages.

"We come to all of them,'' Doug State said of bluesfest. "The acoustic night does make it a little long. ... She (Cindy) gets a little bluesed-out after four days. But I love every minute.''

The wind -- gusting over 30 mph at times -- forced festival organizers to move Sue Foley and the night's headliner, Robert "Junior'' Lockwood, from a main stage into the tent stage. But more than 1,000 fans managed to pack into and around the 500-person tent.

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