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'Feels like heaven': Musicians, fans fill Bayfront as bluesfest returns for 27th year

Smokey Holman, frontman for the soul-blues band Tweed Funk out of Milwaukee, performs Friday afternoon on the big stage at Bayfront Park in Duluth on the opening day of the 27th annual Bayfront Blues Festival. (Bob King / / 5
With the Aerial Lift Bridge partially shrouded in fog as a backdrop, members of the crowd cheer and applaud after Tweed Funk of Milwaukee wraps up a song at bluesfest Friday afternoon. (Bob King / / 5
Steve "Boom Boom" Vonderharr solos on blues harmonica in the big tent Friday afternoon at the Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth with band members Dave Pengra (left) and Kit Kildahl. (Bob King / / 5
Bluesfest fans dance to the music of Kildahl, Vonderharr & Pengra in the big tent at Bayfront Park in Duluth on Friday afternoon. The festival features two venues - the tent and the main stage - with bands alternating between them. (Bob King / / 5
Kent Kapitan of Apple Valley, Minn., dances in his chair during the Bayfront Blues Festival on Friday afternoon. He attended the festival with his wife Renee Plinski (right). (Bob King / / 5

Daina De Prez spent Bayfront Blues Festival eve putting the finishing touch on the batch of the homemade CDs she crafted for the gig.

The album was recorded in her basement between furnace blasts. The art included a cell phone image by a friend. All that was left: blow-drying the shrink wrap around the cases — which she had stuffed with discs herself.

"My mother always said, 'necessity is the mother of invention,' " she said Friday afternoon after the line had waned at the meet 'n' greet table at Bayfront Festival Park. De Prez's midday set was part Janis Joplin tribute-part original tunes, which in one instance turned bowling into a sexy and empowering metaphor.

"They liked it, I think," De Prez said after filling the acoustic tent, directing multiple singalongs and receiving a standing ovation. The proof: She was down to just 15 of the 50 CDs she had brought with her from Minneapolis.

De Prez's set was a fan favorite — and one of the first to kick off the 27th annual Bayfront Blues Festival, which features about two dozen acts alternating between two stages at Bayfront Festival Park through Sunday evening. Mud Morganfield, son of Muddy Waters, was scheduled to perform late Friday night before headliner Otis Clay. Today's lineup includes Ken Valdez, Lonnie Knight & Bobby Schnitzer, Jennie DeVoe and NRBQ.

The festival closes with Charlie Musselwhite on the main stage at 6 p.m. Sunday.

De Prez wore a red drapey shirt and blue-tinted glasses and sat at alone at a piano for a set that included "Me & Bobby McGee," "Piece of My Heart," and "Cry Baby." She growled lyrics, stomped a spiky heel and said some naughty things about bowling lanes. She was sassy and funny and endearing, and her voice cartwheeled and climbed and crawled.

When she performed 4 Non Blondes' "What's Up," she insisted the audience sing along.

"She took me back to Janis Joplin — she puts her own spin on her," said Ann Gerold, a new fan from the Twin Cities who purchased a CD after the set. "She can play piano like crazy."

It was De Prez's first Bayfront Blues Festival since the 1990s, when she had performed backed by a band.

"It felt like heaven," she said of the audience's response. "We took a journey together."

Renee Austin walked to center stage of the acoustic tent singing "To God be the Glory" — all voice, no band — to open the festival Friday morning. It's was a performance she couldn't have predicted years ago.

"Getting back on that bicycle has been very fun," she said, then added: "Let me tell you my story in 2 minutes."

About 10 years ago — during an upswing in her career, she told the festival's early arrivals — she had a lump removed from her throat. While it was cancer-free, the surgery left her with a paralyzed vocal nerve and her voice was gone, seemingly permanently.

"Life went off the track," she said, and teared up when she added: "I only wanted to ever sing my whole life."

There was a series of three miracles, she said. First her speaking voice returned. Then her singing voice. Then her range. The nerve is still paralyzed, but she has found a way to sing.

"God is real," she told the audience. "He loves you and if you need a miracle, I know someone."

Lazer Lloyd followed on the main stage. The musician returned to the United States within the past two years after spending more than a decade navigating the blues scene in Israel. He started by ripping at his guitar, seguing into a classic blues riff and bobbing his head. His red guitar was set against his purple poncho.

"It's the first summer tour where I didn't bring any underwear or socks," he told the audience. "But I did bring my poncho. It serves as my pillow on the road."

Then he played B.B. King.

Jill Bugbee hoisted her signature seat flag — a bee design, a play on her name, with flowers around the pole — marking her 27th bluesfest. Jacque Buck was already lounged in a camping chair. The event is a standing date for the neighbors — and it's non-negotiable.

"We tell people, 'Don't get married during bluesfest,' " Bugbee said.

"I don't go to weddings or funerals during bluesfest," Buck added.

"We've been here in 90-degree heat and 50-degree rain," Bugbee said.

Smokey Holman, dressed in a grey striped suit, asked the audience, "Are you ready to get down and funky?" Tweed Funk, an award-winning Milwaukee-based band, opened with Holman singing the refrain "It'll Make You Want to Jump" and inserting hip thrusts and swivels.

Shawn Strom of Mora sat on a sweatshirt in the damp grass and watched the show. The music student from the University of Minnesota Morris said he was enjoying the band.

"Recordings don't always do a band justice," he said. "Live sound is better. These guys are great live."

On stage, Smokey Holman growled.

"Let me tell you about my woman. She's as mean as a snake."