Maybe it’s absurd that Duluth would throw a party for one of the truest, bluest American art forms there is. Maybe it’s weird that people travel so far north to jam to music that grew up so far south. Maybe it’s incongruity to the max. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe the blues defy absurdity, incongruity, region—everything.
Like all things truly American, the blues were cobbled together from what people could beg, borrow or steal. Maybe they weren’t exactly born in the Mississippi Delta, because their roots are older and call other soils home, but they were baptized here, Americanized here, and immediately and irrevocably recognized here because the downbeat lands on themes of pain, loss, longing, and trouble. We know these things. Americans are troublemakers. Americans are bluesmakers.
I’ve heard that if you’re ever lost in the wilderness and are hoping to find people, first look for running water and then follow it—it’ll lead you to people eventually. We’re drawn to water maybe by instinct, and it seems like the blues are drawn to it, too. I mean, there are exceptions, like the Taureg people and their haunting pentatonic chants rolling off the sands of sub Saharan Africa with hardly a drop of water in sight. But the blues found our Delta and crawled its way up the Mississippi River toward the Great Lakes, curling up in Chicago and remaining there. So maybe it was inevitable that they would ride the rivers all the way up to the biggest cup of fresh water in the world and the city that holds it.
The blues belong in Duluth.
In spite of having grown up here myself, and having discovered the blues through the delta that was Led Zeppelin (it’s a backward way to find the blues, I know, but I was only fourteen), I had never been to the Bayfront Blues Festival. Others have been coming here for every last one of the nearly thirty years the festival has been happening. You don’t have to look hard to find lifetimes members of the fan club.
On the way back across the field from the main stage, I chatted with a group of women who boogied next to me while Ray Fuller and the Bluesrockers played some rockin’ Texas blues for us. “Have you been here before?” I asked.
Their faces said “oh, honey” even before their mouths did. “We’ve been here since the beginning.” Did they tell me stories of their rambunctious youthful days at the festival, of their rock and roll spirits, of harmlessly fun scenes that could have happened at Woodstock or Monterey Pop? They did. But it would ungentlemanly to say anything beyond these women are my heroes, and this was their three-day slice of sonic heaven.
While the stereotype might be that the blues are mostly a club for boys, the crowd on Sunday would beg to differ. I didn’t have time to conduct, like, a sociological study of the demographics, but at a glance I would say the mix of dudes and ladies was pretty even. What was also encouraging was that the mix of talent followed suit.
If we’re talking about music and about water, it’s impossible for me to not think about Sirens (think more Odyssey and less ambulance, of course). And you could have tied me to any mast and plugged my ears with all the wax in the world, but I still would have rocked out to the incredible music of the female artists I saw on Sunday—it was just that powerful.
My day kicked off in the acoustic tent with Annie Mack and her ore freighter of a voice. I stood in the very back of the tent, so I can tell you on good authority that her music filled that space to capacity and certainly burst out wherever it could. Blues are a little like eggs at breakfast, and Annie Mack could make them any style. You like gospel? Boom. You like soul? Boom. You like a little Jimi Hendrix “Voodoo Child” first thing on a Sunday? Boom.
I caught Annie for a moment after the set. When asked about her origin story—her first blues kiss, if you will—she thought for a moment. “Growing up, they were always around the house. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke—the blues were just always there. And for me, blues is about healing. So you have to fill yourself up and then give it to others. That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s the blues.” Annie Mack, take it from me—your cup runneth over.
It is no great surprise that her set included a song called “Baptized in the Blues,” which is her musical answer to my question. Obviously.
The best act of the afternoon was The Blues Caravan—a name reminiscent of those sub Saharan roots—which brought us a smoldering trio called the Blue Sisters. Fresh off a European tour, I think Duluth gave them a warm American welcome. Tasha Taylor, Layla Zoe, and Ina Forsman represent the United States, Canada, and Finland respectively. Let’s just appreciate the fact for a second that young people in Finland are singing the blues. And that young women everywhere in the spirit of the great aunties like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Nina Simone are still tearing down the Boys Only sign with fierceness and with serious style. Let’s also appreciate for a second that one of Led Zeppelin’s most sweltering, aching, and potent numbers was written by Memphis Minnie. So next time you hear that levee break, thank the sisters of the blues. They’re still out there, and they will rock you. The Blue Sisters rocked me.
I heard the names of many legends mentioned on the stages: Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Nina Simone, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf. But there was only one legend present in the flesh and that was John Mayall. It’s impossible to talk about British blues without bringing it on home to Mayall. His lineup included Clapton, who needs no further comment really, and John McVie and Peter Green, who went on to form Fleetwood Mac before Lindsey and Stevie showed up with their pop influence and the chemistry that set the band on fire. John Mayall played with them all. He’s like the Kevin Bacon of the 60s blues scene (I mean this in the best possible way—in the Six Degrees kind of way), and pretty much only one or two degrees separate him from everyone else playing at the time. John Mayall was the mortar between the bricks.
He took the stage in front of the mother of all lakes, and this old papa showed us all that he’s still got it. One could go on about his age, about the miracle that he’s upright and still bending notes on the harp and still singing howling love songs about sexy young things and that he means every word and every note. But what is time to the blues? Time is nothing. Although our time with his set was too short—we would have happily stayed up past all our bedtimes to hear more, but long drives home and Monday morning office jobs and city noise ordinances are necessary evils. But John Mayall was a joy. John Mayall is still joyful about making his music, and he was so warmly appreciative of the crowd, even after all his years of being worshiped and adored. But time is nothing. John Mayall is everything.
Maybe you’ve been meaning to hit up the Bayfront Blues Festival but just haven’t gotten around to it. Maybe you’ve been there once and haven’t found the time to make it back. Maybe you’ve gone every year and will go every year until either the festival or you leave this earth. I give advice cautiously, but I will advise this: The Bayfront Blues Festival is a gift. Go see it, go hear it, go get yourself rocked. It will be healing; that’s the agency of the blues after all.
Jump on in. The water’s great.
Written by Andy Browers for Duluth.com. Andy Browers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Aqueous, The Talking Stick, Cleaver, and Drawn From Marvel: Poems From The Comic Books. He writes regularly for the website Book Riot and also acts, directs theatre, and is generally ridiculous. Andy grew up in Cloquet, tripped all over Duluth, earned his BFA in Creative and Professional Writing from Bemidji State University, and currently lives in Minneapolis. He would probably love to write something for you.