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Blues duo gives spirited performance

It was the perfect evening for a couple of guys to pull up two chairs, grab a harmonica and guitar and start playing the blues. And that's what Kenny Neal and Billy Branch did Thursday evening, capping "Acoustic Thursday'' for the 19th annual Bay...

It was the perfect evening for a couple of guys to pull up two chairs, grab a harmonica and guitar and start playing the blues.

And that's what Kenny Neal and Billy Branch did Thursday evening, capping "Acoustic Thursday'' for the 19th annual Bayfront Blues Festival.

The veteran blues duo played a spirited, 13-song, 90-minute set in front of a couple thousand first-night bluesfest fans.

Neal and Branch kicked it off with "Leaving on the Next Train,'' with Neal singing and playing his Louisiana-style guitar and Branch sticking to the harmonica that's made him a blues staple in Chicago.

The duo has been heralded as part of the next wave of big-time blues stars, and their set Thursday did nothing to dispel that claim.

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The guys rolled through St. Louis Jimmy's "Just Keep Loving Her'' and Guitar Slim's "The things I used to Do'' and then a sing-along version of ''Since I met You Baby'' (written by Ivory Joe Hunter), then Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don' Start Me Talking.''

Neal wowed the crowd with his own haunting "Son I Never Knew'' that brought out the best in his soulful voice, classic Delta blues guitar work and Branch's incredible harp range.

"I've got goose bumps after that song,'' said Mary Marila of Duluth. "These guys are awesome.''

Marila and her husband, Gary, say they've been to every bluesfest and have come to enjoy acoustic night the best.

"Thursday night is the best. It's so intimate,'' Mary said.

"This is the way it used to be for the whole festival, back in the dust bowl days, when it was free and there was no real stage or anything,'' Gary said. "The caliber of music is better now, but the crowds get so big on Saturday and Sunday that this is nice to have a little room."

It was Neal's first live major performance in nearly a year. Neal, 49, was diagnosed last fall with hepatitis C. His treatments have proven successful, and he's been given a clean bill of health. Doctors want him to continue his chemotherapy-like treatments until November just to be sure, but he's been cleared to perform in Duluth to start his comeback.

Neal showed no signs of rust Thursday evening, and all seemed in place with ships passing by in the harbor and blues fans young and old swaying to the beat.

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"This is a real nice blues night,'' Neal said before a slide-guitar version of "It Hurts Me Too'' that did Elmore James proud.

Neal and Branch got a little mid-set, soulful help from Chicago blues maven Barbara Lashoure, who came in to help sing for the second half of "Big Boss Man'' and a rousing version of the woman-got-wronged song "Five Long Years.''

The duo finished up with a saucy version of Sonny Boy Williamson's "My Babe'' that morphed into a raucous version of Howlin' Wolf's "Little Red Rooster'' that got not only got the crowd to their feet but which also got Neal and Branch off their chairs for a marathon harmonica duet that ended the show with a bang.

Mojo Buford had to cancel his scheduled appearance Saturday afternoon at bluesfest because of a death in his family. The Minneapolis blues legend will be replaced for the 1:35 p.m. Minnesota Lottery Stage show by Ross William Perry, a bluesfest veteran and young-gun blues guitarist.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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