Old men and their harmonicas

Jill Fisher

Rick Estrin. Photos by Jill Fisher.

As far as I could tell, a main theme of the 2023 Bayfront Blues Festival was old men playing with their harmonicas. Not surprising, I suppose, for a blues festival.

Beginning with Friday morning’s opening act – Wisconsin's own Reverend Raven and the Chain-Smokin’ Altar Boys – the notable Westside Andy (Andy Linderman) gave us several powerful solos on his blues harp. It proved he isn’t actually a chain smoker, but man was he smokin’!

The second band up, Kevin Burt and Big Medicine, showcased Burt on the harmonica while strumming his electric guitar. Another excellent set.  

Mississippi Heat

The theme continued on Day 2 of the festival as it kicked off with the renowned five-piece band Mississippi Heat led by harmonica master and songwriter Pierre Lacocque. The band is in the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame and played at the West Theater last May 25 (which unfortunately I missed since it was during the Duluth Dylan Fest). They were hot.

Then there was Rick Estrin & The Nightcats. That Estrin, what a showman! Decked out in a fancy purple suit, white satin shirt and white spats, he blew his heart out on the harmonica and added a few lascivious licks to it as well.  

Charlie Musselwhite

Charlie Musselwhite capped the evening of Day 2 off with another bluesy performance on his vocals and harmonica, of course. Estrin is in his 70s, Musselwhite in his 80s.  

Day 3 began with Lamont Cranston—the 21st  time this band has performed at BBF. Lead man Pat Hayes, who really knows how to wail on his harmonica, was in fine form. The band (which is named after the alter ego of The Shadow of pulp fiction and radio drama) opened Day 3, same as last year. Before that it had been more than 20 years since I heard the band at BBF and 30 years since I first heard it play at the Caboose as well as opening for Bonnie Raitt at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis in the early 80s. So, like me, he has been around a while!  

While not every band performing at the 34th Annual Bayfront Blues Festival had blues harpists, the players were all old men. Saxophones seem to have been the alternative to harmonicas and we experienced some great sax blowouts with those acts. (Not to mention that Lamont Cranston also has a saxophonist.)

In particular, Kilborn Alley, which played on Sunday, featured Kenny “Knock Out” Odom who played not just one saxophone, but three: soprano, alto and tenor (not all at the same time) in addition to the flute! This definitely added to the distinctive sound of this group.  

Mr. Sipp

Highlights of the 34th Annual BBF included Mr. Sipp, who together with his bass guitarist, demonstrated a new dance step set to “Walkin’.” They kicked their way in unison across the stage on Friday and had many of us doing likewise on the dance floor. Fun stuff.

Annika Chambers

Also on Friday we heard singer Annika Chambers, a Black lady with a fulsome voice and a figure to match. She’s married to bandmate Paul Deslaurieres and they kept the energy high throughout the midafternoon including some Gospel at the end of their set. They also sang George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity” as a tribute to the late Congressman John Lewis.  

Mississippi Heat featured Cheryl Youngblood, another Black woman singer who has a voice perfectly suited to the genre. Though she wasn’t on stage throughout, she certainly added to their set, especially on “W.O.M.A.N.” I found it interesting to hear the old guys in the band really get into the instrumental interlude on that song!

Then there was the trio King Solomon Hicks; Hicks was the youngest performer of this year’s crop. By all accounts he was very good and folks thought he would mature into one of the greats.  

Elvin Bishop

Finishing out Friday’s program was old-timer Elvin Bishop, with his Big Fun Trio. Percussionist Willie Jordon sat atop a wood drum box playing it with his bare hands and what rhythms he produced. I noticed that all the other bands shared the same drum set, though I trust they all used their own sticks. Jordan’s vocals were exceptional as well—he had a wide range with an incredible on-key falsetto.  

Of course Saturday’s headliner, Charlie Musselwhite was also a highlight of the fest, while the band that preceded him, Ronnie Baker Brooks, was thought by many to be the best act. Understandable since he is the son of Lonnie Brooks, a Chicago blues legend who died in 2017. This was Brook’s second time at BBF, having been here back in 2005. He provided a bit of history as intro to several songs made popular by the Rolling Stones, which in truth are tunes recorded much earlier by blues artists. Brooks also did a “Buddy Guy”—that is exiting the stage to roam among the audience with his guitar still blasting from the stage’s sound system. He offered a youngster the chance to pluck the strings of his guitar, which the audience loved.  

An act from Brazil, new to BBF, was something of a paradox—The Blues Beatles. One might  call it a novelty act. For some it was a perfect pairing of music they loved from their past with a blues mood. For me it caused a bit of cognitive dissonance with its alternating between proficient blues rifts and well-known Beatles lyrics (“Help,” “Oh Darling,” “Love Me Do”). Indeed, I found it hard to enjoy this band at all, despite the band members’ obvious musicianship. But I must admit that its version of “Yesterday” is the best cover I’ve ever heard of that ubiquitous song.  

Blackcat Zydeco

Like last year, Zydeco music capped the festival. Playing BBF for the first time this year, the Blackcat Zydeco band delivered an extremely lively Cajun/Creole sound. One simply had to dance to this fast and fun music. No need for harmonicas or saxophones with this group! Leader Dwight Carrier played an accordion while his bandmate accompanied him with exuberant strumming of a chest-covering “rubboard” (a modern version of the old reliable jugband washboard).  

There were some pretty significant changes in this year’s BBF program. The main one was elimination of a second stage. Every returning blues fan I spoke with over the three-day event bemoaned this change since the total number of acts was thus reduced (from 28 bands to 17 this year). Given this reduction, the increased cost for the event was resented. Fans also pointed out that they missed the lesser-known, local and smaller blues groups and individual musicians that are best seen in a more intimate setting as had been previously accommodated.

The lack of a second stage also required attendees to endure the 45-minute breaks between performances needed for band setups. This caused some to leave the festival grounds to grab a bite to eat and something to drink elsewhere. Others complained that fewer food vendors were present as well, which they pointed out could reduce the festival’s revenue overall and create a downward trend in what will be offered in the future.

On the other hand, several noted that  money had evidently been spent on getting top-quality acts, which was appreciated.   A review of BBF wouldn’t be complete without noting the rainy weather during these three days. We are used to it in Duluth but it certainly plagued some of the musicians. However, the rain not only did not delay the bands but also had a couple starting early in an attempt to miss the worst of it.

At the beginning of Day 1 there was a light breeze off the Lake, some drizzle and a mist hanging over the hillside. It did warm up a bit before the wind picked up and the rain moved in shortly before 4 pm. There was also some lightning which sent many in the audience away. Still, the bands played on and by the time Elvin Bishop took the stage the rain had stopped. Bishop was appreciative of the die-hard fans who stuck it out to see him that evening.

Saturday was a redux of Friday, with rain in the late afternoon and early evening but fortunately letting up by the time Musselwhite took the stage. Sunday turned out to be more conducive for an outdoor concert since the rain forecasted for that day didn’t arrive. Still, it was quite breezy and cool, so the audience was decked out in classic Duluth layered attire.  

For those of us who must have our blues fix, we were able to purchase three-day passes for the 2024 BBF for the same price as this year. So that is something to be thankful for. I know I am! Let’s hope we don’t have to wait an entire year before we get to hear some more top-notch blues musicians here in the Zenith City of the Unsalted Sea.