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Bayfront festival rocks the night away

It seems like something special happens every day at the Bayfront Blues Festival. During the closing day Sunday, it started in spirit, with the traditional morning "service" offered up by Minneapolis Gospel Sound.

It seems like something special happens every day at the Bayfront Blues Festival. During the closing day Sunday, it started in spirit, with the traditional morning "service" offered up by Minneapolis Gospel Sound.

The group had taken a two-year hiatus, coming back to the new park this year. "We really love it," said Elder Chico Cockrell of the revamped venue, in an interview following the set.

But Bayfront holds an additional attraction: "The audience is very receptive to what we do," he said.

The group played a mix of gospel styles, even blending in a salsa number. Cockrell said that's intentional -- they play jazz festivals and other kinds of musical get-togethers, too, and he feels the numerous genres helps make the ministry more accessible.

But he said that gospel music and blues, which are related and arose at around the same time historically, fit together perfectly.

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Two of the day's other big hits mentioned the obvious -- the weather. Maybe it was all that good spirit, but for a remarkable third day the weather was fabulous. Any bad weather held off until long after Blues Traveler's second encore closed the festival down.

Mick Sterling, who with the Stud Brothers Horns made his fifth appearance at Bayfront Sunday, said, "It seems like every year it keeps getting nicer."

Earlier, he put it more colorfully: "We should be wearing helmets and sunblock SPF 79 out there."

John Popper, lead singer of the headlining band Blues Traveler, said, "Is this not a gorgeous day or what? I mean, good grief!"

If Sterling's performance -- or the crowd he drew -- are any indication, he's fast on his way to becoming a perennial Blues Fest favorite. His horn section, which he quite credibly called "the baddest horn section in the state, in the region," laid down ear-popping riffs while Sterling's big voice and high-energy fronting ate up the park and the adulation of the crowd.

"Every time we come up to Duluth, it's like this," he said to a band-mate on stage. "Every time we come up to Duluth, there's love all around us."

When Sterling stepped out of the way to let his Hammond organ player and back-up vocalist Mark Lickteig take over for a song, Sterling said it proved he was the most secure front-man in blues, because Lickteig could outsing him. He wasn't kidding. Lickteig, along with Pat Mackin's tenor sax solo, had the crowd stunned. Even photographers in the press area were caught up, sitting down in front of the stage just to watch.

{IMG2}At the end of the day, Blues Traveler completed the diverse trio of Blues Fest headliners. Little Milton was a lively showman Friday with his three-man horn section and soul-laced blues style. Saturday it was a more laid-back Dr. John, whose songs carry strong jazz and fusion overtones.

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Blues Traveler was the hardest rocking group of all. The distinctive sound of Popper's limber tongue -- his fast-paced lyrics and almost unbelievable speed on the harmonica are familiar from songs like the group's top hit "Runaround" -- was on full display, but many of the songs had a harder rock edge.

It was enough for a packed corps of dedicated fans to demand two encores.

Paul and Judy Rugg of Duluth were in the crowd as the show wound down. They were there all day Friday, most of Saturday and Sunday evening.

"We've been coming every year since 1989, I guess," Paul said.

"We've bought the tickets for next year already," Judy added.

Paul said the great weather and the good bands made it one of the better festivals in recent memory, although they still long for the good old days.

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