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By Emily Weiss
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On the weekend before the Fourth of July last summer, downtown Bayport baked under a scorching sun while a glorious noise, mixed with the pungent aroma of southern barbecue, drifted from behind a row of buildings a stone's throw from the St. Croix River. Over three days, 26 bands representing the raw, remarkably diverse, grassroots phenomenon known as deep blues regaled a small but robust gathering of the faithful in and around Chris Johnson's Bayport BBQ, one of the epicenters of the movement.
It was the fifth Deep Blues Festival, returning after a year's hiatus, almost Lazarus-like after a history of artistic success tempered by bad luck and financial drubbings. This time around, Johnson staged the fest indoors and out at his barbecue joint and limited ticket sales to just enough to break even, resulting in an intimate atmosphere somewhere between a crowded living room and a block party — albeit fueled by the wild, raucous, unwaveringly passionate sound of deep blues.
The spirit of that weekend is captured on Alive at the Deep Blues Fest, a live recording of seven bands that were there, all on the roster of the L.A. label Alive Naturalsound. Buffalo Killers, Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, Brian Olive, Radio Moscow, Left Lane Cruiser, John the Conqueror, and Wales's Henry's Funeral Shoe collectively confirm Alive's emphasis on the rock 'n' roll wing of outsider blues. The album is out this week, including a version on "barbecue-sauce red" vinyl.
Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires and Eleganza! play the Alive at the Deep Blues Fest release show on Saturday, December 1, at Bayport BBQ, 328 Fifth Ave. N., Bayport; 651.955.6337
"It's fantastic," Johnson says, beaming, at a listening party for the new album, while Left Lane Cruiser's rock 'n' ragin' version of the Robert Johnson classic "Rambling on My Mind" cascades from the BBQ's sound system. "It's true to what we're doing. Alive has its own niche. It's a segment of what's out there. Right from the beginning, it was a dream of mine to have a document of the festival."
"Really captured the general feeling of the festival. You can hear the dampness of barbecue-covered guitar strings and fingertips," says Andy Gabbard of Buffalo Killers, who kick off the disc with a pair of rollicking, psychedelia-laced blues-rock nuggets.
"Man, I'm honored to be included on it," Bains adds. "There are some bands on there that not only make rad music, but are absolutely killer live bands. Chris Johnson up there in Bayport really has been very cool to us. It's definitely galvanizing to have somebody with good taste support you in such a way."
Johnson says he actually approached Alive owner Patrick Boissel with the idea of a live album after recording all 46 bands at the 2008 Deep Blues Festival. Boissel then declined, questioning its commercial viability. But this year, he asked to attend the festival and arranged for Neil Weir of Minneapolis's Old Blackberry Way studio to record the proceedings. Mixed by Jim Diamond of Detroit's Ghetto Recorders, the disc captures the visceral immediacy of stormy guitars and shredded vocals rippling through the BBQ's back patio and parking lot.
"Seemed like a good opportunity since seven of our bands were playing the Deep Blues Fest," Boissel says via email. "Plus, I liked the idea of an old-school live album. Nobody makes these kind of records anymore. I thought it would be fun."
Besides simply capturing the moment, the album's release could shine new light on what's still a mostly underground movement, which grew out of the primordial blues of Mississippi's Delta and Hill Country, and artists like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, picking up bits of punk, country, folk, and bluegrass, among other genres, along the way.
"It's a big step," says Johnson. "It really is an accomplishment, and some recognition."
Boisell and the artists involved are optimistic about the album's role in spreading the word. "I hope it's going to help put the deep blues on the map and give Chris Johnson some credit for helping the scene grow and develop," Boisell said. "Hopefully, the album will bring some attention to the artists and the event. All these bands are the real thing. They are not backed by big companies expecting to make millions with them. They play for the sheer joy of it. These are all artists with integrity."
"This album will hopefully spread the disease to a few folks who may not already be in the know," Left Lane Cruiser Brenn Beck added by email. "Unfortunately, most people are used to clean, crisp, shitty music these days. Once people start listening with their heart and soul instead of their ears, I think this genre will be unstoppable."