Deep Blues Fest
Lake Elmo, Minnesota
July 18-20 2008
When Honest Tune interviewed concert conceptualist Chris Johnson back in the spring of 07, he was busy planning and preparing to hold the First Annual Deep Blues Festival. Inspired by gatherings like Kenny Brown’s North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic; he set forth wanting to do the same brand of party,inviting independent blues, rock, punk and gospel bands – known to many as the “Deep Blues.” The first fest came with lessons and went off with a ton of enthusiasm. In 2008, Johnson’s dream party returned bigger, better and stronger.
The second Annual Deep Blues Festival was held on the Washington County Fairgrounds outside of St. Paul, Minnesota. The three day congregation hosted 45 bands and a film festival showcasing 23 blues-based documentary films (three of which were new features, with filmmakers celebrating at the event). The grassroots efforts of Johnson were impeccable thought out; no one would ever have guessed that the festival was put together almost entirely by volunteers and philanthropy. Even bands donated time to be there or took minimal payment to help cover gas costs.
Johnson’s ardor of the bands that played and the music they make was reflected earnestly in the party he threw. It was very obvious that every person who attended the rural and rare blues extravaganza was considered a guest and made to feel that they should make themselves completely at home. Libations and liberties were taken by all. Family and friends were employed to run the logistics of the party and bands mingled freely through out the grounds. Coolers, shade tents and chairs were encouraged. Adequate food, beverage and plenty of artistic band vending were also provided. The only thing really missing on the rented grounds was a natural shade source for the audience to fall back on.
The showmanship and sheer enthusiasm of the bands who participated in this event was unsurpassed. Fifteen bands played each day on two stages. While one band played another band would set up. There was never more than five minutes between sets,as the always gritty music minced its way through the sticky Minnesota humidity. Sets were kept short and offered the audience a rapid fire barrage of entertainment varieties. If a person went to DBF to hear 101 ways to play dirty slide guitar, they surely went to the right place. The sheer array and display of vintage and home made equipment alone set this festival apart from any traditional corporate gathering you could attend.
CuzN Wildweed played the very first notes of the fest and set the pace of the first day to an instant rowdy. The ever-understated Chris Cotton graced the stage early in the day with drummer/blues aficionado Rick Saunders and brought a sunny-yet-dark upbeat vibe with them as the heat and humidity rose.
Traditional Hill Country blues were jammed to a sultry and subdued audience. T Model Ford (backed by Seattle’s Gravel Road) brought some rambunctious boogie to the afternoon mix. The Tail Dragger looked pleased as punch to be at the event and didn’t hold back any enthusiasm for an extended version of “Chicken Head Man.” Another highlight was the set by Mississippi’s own Juke Joint Duo featuring Lightening Malcom and Cedric Burnside.
Alive Records recording artists Left Lane Cruiser blistered the stage with their divine brand of blues punk, and North Carolina female duo The Moaners enchanted the audience with some more subdued and heady noise. The evening closed out with an invigorating set by Memphis solo street artist Richard Johnston, who sent all attendees home with smiles on their faces.
Saturday saw increased attendees for the event. The weather was slightly cooler and the forecast called for rain. (Tornado warnings were also in effect just west of the festival for a few hours). Highlights of the morning were the gothic blues of the dark and comical duo Those Poor Bastards. Minneapolis’s own A Night in the Box gave an incredibly energetic and soulful performance.
Vocalist Clayton Hagen displayed a powerful range as his band mates backed him up on the song “The Hustle”. Every ear in the crowd turned to listen to the perfect harmony and rhythm the band delivered. The Buffalo Killers took the stage with confidence and added a classic southern rock touch to the afternoon.
As luck would have it, mid-afternoon showers and thunderstorm did occur (true to Deep Blues Fest history) but only seemed to provide a brief networking break for all. While Mother Nature worked her magic on the muddy ground, guests ran together to cars for shelter to patiently wait out the storm and the musicians hovered under the shade tents and poured themselves another drink.
Once the sky cleared, the stages were up and running. The youthful in the crowd began to jump in the mud and celebrate Woodstock style to the always rambunctious performance of Portland Oregon’s beloved Hillstomp. The grand finale of the evening was a smoking display of Deep Blues energy from The Black Diamond Heavies. The heavy duty keys and vocals of John Wesley Myers left no stoner unturned.
Guests exited the grounds just a little grittier than they had arrived that morning, but the mud on everyone’s feet seemed like an appropriate way to signify the day.
Sunday was the day to rock at Deep Blues. The grounds had soaked up some of the water that was dumped the day before and hay was bailed over the mud pit formed in front of the stage. Unaffected attendees lounged in chairs and prepared for another full day of sunshine.
The morning started off with a greasy, grimy set from Luther the Devil. Portland, Oregon’s Cicada Omega brought their eclectic Appalachian gospel rock to the mass and provided a bit of Sunday morning to the culture of the fest. The church-inspired mood shifted slightly when Vancouver BC’s premier female rock duo The Pack took the stage. Vocalist Becky Black gave 101% to the microphone and sent demonic chills through the air.
Other afternoon delights included the very fresh rock of Colorado’s American Relay and the super psychedelic fretwork from Sweet Velvet C of Silver Lions 20/20. A heartfelt moment for all at DBF was the guest appearance of Chris Johnson’s three children at the microphone for a deeper version of the traditional ballad “Glory.” Guided with enthusiasm by Chet Weise, the kids gave everyone something to smile about and remember forever.
The final evening closed out with headlining sets from the ever filthy Scott Biram and Bob Log III. Fans of these classic one man bands were treated to the usual banter and clowning around that one expects from any given performance they put out. What was refreshing to see was the way the one man bands were truly connecting to being part of the closing rights of the weekend.
The featured film “The Folk Singer” was played after the last lingering note and gave attendees a place to rest and refresh before heading off. As fans dispersed from the grounds hugs and goodbyes were spoken and promises to attend again could be heard around every corner.
Festival organizer Chris Johnson clearly has the right ideas, and truly knows how to throw a party. Deep Blues Festival has been announced as “happening” for 2009. If Johnson continues to develop and refine his party concept it is highly probable the event will evolve beyond the success it has already attained in two years running. If you consider yourself a true blues fan, this grassroots festival is definitely a pilgrimage to plan.