Rock icon Bob Dylan has never played the Bayfront Blues Festival but his spirit usually makes an appearance or two during the annual event.
On a gray Sunday afternoon, it was Jackson, Miss. blues vet Zac Harmon who channeled the Nobel Prize-winning songwriter in the shadow of his Duluth birthplace.
“Sometimes I want to feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door,” said Harmon, from the main stage as his four-piece band slowly played opening chords to the Dylan classic.
He said he would not play the gospel-tinged Jazz Crusaders version of the song. “No, I’m going to play it like Guns N’ Roses,” he shouted.
A loud and moving showstopper followed, bringing fans to their feet and rendering the singer speechless. Returning to the microphone, Harmon simply thanked the audience: “I love you,” he said.
After the performance, piano player Corey Carmichael said the song is a setlist mainstay. “Sometimes it gets real emotional,” he said.
After the Harmon set, the heavens eventually brought rain and chased hundreds of fans to the Big Top Tent Stage.
Dressed head-to-toe in rain gear likely designed for a Brule River duck hunting expedition, Jeanette Kindred and Glen Tapper, both of Superior, said rain is part of the experience.
“We usually get at least one day of this,” said Kindred, a blues fest regular. “Sometimes we get more. It doesn’t make a difference.”
Grant Little and his son, Nathan, both of Superior, agreed. They said rain can’t ruin good music.
“One of the greatest shows I ever saw was right here and it was was pouring rain and full of mud,” said Nathan Little, referring to a Trampled by Turtles show at Bayfront Festival Park.
“Sometimes it makes it more memorable,” said Grant Little. “You don’t remember the nice days as much.”
With wet conditions, about 600 people overflowed the tent to hear North Dakota native Lisa Wenger roar through a 60-minute set.
“There is something so magical about playing Bayfront,” said an excited Wenger. “I’m going to take pictures of you all.”
Wegner belted out the Ruth Brown classic “5,10,15 Hours” and sang with Crow bass player Larry Weigand for “I Believe in Love With You.” Guitar players Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin traded solos throughout the performance.
Organ player Lucky Peterson and the Imperial Flames closed the festival on the big stage with a loose, rambling performance for a few thousand wet but enthusiastic fans.
“No rain, No rain, No rain. Gonna be bright sunshine day,” sang Peterson, covering at least part of the Johnny Nash classic “I Can See Clearly Now.”
Oddly enough, a light rain stopped.
Dressed in a white suit with a pumpkin-orange Panama hat, Peterson led his four-piece band through long, wandering blues workouts. He played a keyboard that seemed to talk, encouraged fans to raise their hands and at one point grabbed a guitar, commandeered a golf cart and rolled into the audience where he led a 20-minute jam session.
Later on stage, Harmon joined the festivities playing guitar during a Muddy Waters medley.
“Is this a blues festival?” shouted Peterson. The crowd responded with a roar.
As fans exited the park, Miller Concession workers Nikia Olson, Mary Zehowski, Brandi Doble and Victor Girdenis, all of Foley, Minn., line danced behind the deep fryer to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll.”
“It’s not the radio. It’s through a phone,” said Olson. “We picked it.”
Spirits come from all over the music world to the Bayfront Blues Festival.