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Bayfront Blues Festival celebrates a milestone year with the return of some old favorites

Bernard Allison played the first Bayfront Blues Festival and returns this year. 2003 file/News Tribune

It was a dark and stormy day of music. Nine bluesy acts gathered at Bayfront Festival Park about this time 30 years ago — and the show went on, despite doom and gloomy weather, according to a review that ran in the News Tribune.

About 4,000 fans came and went throughout the day. When it weathered, music fans huddled under quickly cobbled festival tents and leaky tarps.

"They danced in the swampy grass in front of the stage and they jived on picnic tables," then-reporter J.P. Furst wrote. "By mid-evening, nobody seemed to care if it was raining or not — least of all (headliner Luther Allison.)"

By mid-August 1989, Luther Allison had been a top blues guitarist for nearly 30 years and was living in Paris. He rarely played in the United States, and it was considered a victory for Bayfront Blues Festival organizers to land him as the first-time fest's headliner.

Allison reportedly "looked up at the murky sky ... and half-spoke, half-sang 'As the weather didn't quite agree today, we'd like to play you a medley of the blues.'" Late in the performance, his son Bernard Allison joined him for "Just My Guitar and Me."

Luther Allison won't be at this milestone bluesfest. He died in 1997, a month after being diagnosed with brain tumors and lung cancer, according to the New York Times' obituary that also described him as a "leading bluesman and an influence on rock-and-roll."

But his son will. Bernard Allison, a Chicago bluesman, plays the final slot at 6:45 p.m. Sunday on the main stage. Bayfront Blues Festival starts at 11:30 a.m. Friday and runs through the weekend. There are 28 acts scheduled, not including the post-fest dance parties beneath the Big Top Tent on Friday and Saturday nights. Single-day tickets are $50 and available at the gates.

STILL IN THE WAYBACK MACHINE

In addition to the weather, the microphones and sound system were "balky," and the Duluth Police Department received noise complaints from residents west of downtown. Still: 'Allison's blues brighten the night,' according to the News Tribune's headline from the first bluesfest.

"His improvisational genius as both a vocalist and a guitarist cut a wide path through the rain," Furst wrote.

Paul Metsa was there. The Iron Range-bred bluesman still occasionally pops up on the bluesfest schedule, though not this year. His invitation to the first fest has a touch of lore. Metsa had played a gig at the Park Inn, where organizer Chris Mackey booked shows. By the end of the self-described "wild weekend," Metsa had spent more than his gig payment on the bar tab — by hundreds of dollars — so he agreed to play Bayfront Blues Festival for just the cost of paying his band.

Metsa recalled the rain and the thrill of playing on the main stage — then located where the Great Lakes Aquarium sits.

"It was delightful," he said. "You turn around, and there would be an iron ore ship behind you. You could throw a baseball and hit it. It's very surreal and very Duluth."

BEST OF THE FEST

Mackey and friends had found a niche. The next year, bluesfest was a two-day event (not including a kickoff concert to help raise money for the festival) and included five nationally-known acts — including Buddy Guy and Lonnie Mack. While a reported 2,100 fans had stuck around for Allison's finale the first year, as many as 15,000 blues-heads were expected for the second year.

"There aren't many blues festivals around the country," Mackey said at the time. "And I don't know of any this size that are free. I think it's safe to say that Bayfront is the largest free blues festival in the country."

(It is no longer a free festival.)

Over the years, the festival has acts like Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Blues Traveler, Booker T & the MGs, Elvin Bishop, Little Richard, Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, Mavis Staples, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Taj Mahal and Jonny Lang.

Locally-grown Black-eyed Snakes played twice in the early 2000s and Chastity Brown, who is so hot right now, twice played the acoustic tent. Lamont Cranston is among the frequently returning players. The band played the first year — Pat Hayes recalls a fashion faux pas that year: captain's hat, life preserver — and they play this year.

"It's the biggest thing of the summer for me," said Hayes. "It's the gig I look forward to the most."

Among the most storied of returning bluesmen is Big Walter Smith, who held the opening slot on Saturday until his death in 2012. That year, his band the Groove Merchants performed in his honor. They kept his ashes and signature red hat on the stool he sat on while performing.

Asked for a favorite memory of years past, Metsa responded with a story about hanging out on stage with Booker T & The MGs — "a highlight of my life ... the moon was rising, the stars were out, the wind was blowing ..." — but then emailed to recant. Really, it was the mystery train.

He played the Blues Train about 15 years ago with Honey Boy Edwards.

"As we were waiting to board the train, the dusk and twilight were setting in, and Honey Boy was dressed in an old overcoat with a battered suitcase," Metsa said. "At some point, time disappeared and it might as well have been 1935. When I set up to play on the train, I was right over one of the train wheels. As the train started to pick up speed, I started to play my guitar in rhythm and said to myself, 'This is the exact rhythm from which the blues were born."

THIS YEAR

This year's headliners are Don Bryant featuring the Bo-Keys, William Bell and Bernard Allison. Tommy Castro also returns. Other returning musicians include Lonesome Dan Kase, Sena Ehrhardt & Cole Allen, and Lisa Wenger.

Reverend Raven & The Chain Smokin' Altar Boys play the late-night tent party on Friday and Johnny Rawls plays Saturday.

At 35, Alex "Crankshaft" Larson, a Minnesota musician, is among the younger blues artists at the festival. He has played four times since 2012.

"The crowd there is amazing," he said. "It's a music-listening crowd, and they appreciate music, and that's what I'm looking for."

As for longtimer Metsa — he said he's bummed he wasn't asked to perform at this year's festival.

"That's why they call it the blues," he said.

But he does play at 8 p.m. Saturday at Blackwater Lounge.

= = =

FRIDAY

Big Top Tent Stage

11:30 a.m.–noon: Brother Sun Sister Moon

1:20–1:50 p.m.: Johnny O & Wilbur Cole

3:10–3:40 p.m.: Jeremy Johnson & Lisa Wenger

5:15–5:45 p.m.: Ross William Perry

7:20–7:50 p.m.: Dany Franchi

9:45–11:15 p.m.: Late Nite Dance Party with Reverend Raven & The Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys

Main Stage

12:10 p.m.: Mike Eldred Trio

2–3 p.m.: Dany Franchi Band

3:50–5:05 p.m.: Nikki Hill

5:55–7:10 p.m.: Welch Ledbetter Connection

8–9:30 p.m.: Don Bryant featuring the Bo-Keys

SATURDAY

Big Top Tent Stage

11:30 a.m.–noon: Tony Cuchetti & Joe Flip

1:20–1:50 p.m.: Squishy Mud

3:10–3:40 p.m.: Alex “Crankshaft” Larson

5:15–5:45 p.m.: Sena Ehrhardt & Cole Allen

7:20–7:50 p.m.: Dee Miller Trio

9:45–11:15 p.m.: Late Nite Dance Party with Johnny Rawls

Main Stage

12:10–1:10 p.m.: Lamont Cranston

2–3 p.m.: James Armstrong

3:50–5:05 p.m.: Curtis Salgado

5:55–7:10 p.m.: Tommy Castro & The Painkillers

8–9 p.m.: William Bell

SUNDAY

Big  Top Tent Stage

11:30 a.m.–12:15 p.m.: Miss Myra Trio

1:35–2:05 p.m.: Lonesome Dan Kase

3:40–4:10 p.m.: Tommy Bentz Band

5:45–6:30 p.m.: Minnesota Barking Duck Trio

Main Stage

12:25–1:25 p.m.: Too Slim and the Taildraggers

2:15–3:30 p.m.: Davy Knowles

4:20–5:35 p.m.: Carolyn Wonderland

6:45–8:15 p.m. Bernard Allison