Checking in on Bayport BBQ on the deep blues haunt's second anniversary
Bayport BBQ's Chris Johnson with Black Diamond Heavies' James Leg
Photo by Danny Sigelman
By Rick Mason
Just off the main drag in an unassuming Minnesota river town is an outpost of the deep South and an underground musical phenomenon whose ripples extend far across the globe. Bayport, on the St. Croix just south of Stillwater, may be home to a state prison and a massive windows factory, but it has a small-town, Midwestern feel that's been sharply tinged lately by the pungent aroma of southern barbecue and the hard-edged sounds of the blues.
Chris Johnson is the equally unassuming owner of City Pages' Best Blues Club of 2012, Bayport BBQ, whose menu sports barbecued ribs and white whiskey, and whose tiny performance space regularly hosts artists like Scott Biram, Rev. John Wilkins, T-Model Ford and Buffalo Killers, representing the raw, surprisingly diverse movement collectively known as deep blues. A former insurance man, Johnson is also the founder of the Deep Blues Festival, which has miraculously survived despite myriad problems since its 2007 debut.
In fact, survival could be the theme tonight as Bayport BBQ celebrates its second anniversary with a show featuring Tav Falco and Panther Burns along with Texas one-man-band John Schooley. Falco is a former Memphis running mate of Alex Chilton who has been based in Europe for a couple of decades. He could almost be a godfather of the deep blues movement since his music is a surreal blend of rock'n'roll, country, blues, rockabilly, tango and European cabaret, all slathered in Memphis soul. The evening will include a short film Falco made in 1974 featuring hill country blues icon R. L. Burnside.
When Johnson established the BBQ it was sort of the last shot at a dream repeatedly hammered by circumstances summed up by a classic blues line: If it wasn't for bad luck, wouldn't have no luck at all. Johnson absorbed heavy losses from the first three Deep Blues Festivals, and only the restaurant's success has enabled him to continue bringing the music he loves to Minnesota.
Without saying so directly, Johnson radiated a mixture of satisfaction and relief as he sat dressed in chef whites at a table in his restaurant one recent afternoon, reflecting on his somewhat unlikely journey deep into the heart of the blues and his joint's second birthday. It's a path that's also made Johnson well known in a burgeoning deep blues community that extends far beyond the banks of the St. Croix. Mention Johnson's name to virtually anyone in the deep blues realm and the response will invariably be something along the lines of, "Yeah, Chris is a good guy."
For the uninitiated, deep blues refers to the kind of primordial, unadulterated, gloriously ragged blues rooted in the Mississippi Delta and Mississippi's northern hill country. The late music journalist Robert Palmer wrote an historical account of the style in an early 1980s book that he called Deep Blues, which led to a Robert Mugge-directed documentary film that focused on then-living blues stalwarts like Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill and Junior Kimbrough. A guy named Rick Saunders also has a longstanding blog called Deep Blues that Johnson cites as a key to his education in the genre.
At some point, perhaps inspired by bands like the White Stripes or festival appearances by guys like Burnside, a younger generation of musicians picked up on the gutbucket glories of hard, outsider blues, and, sensing a spiritual connection, began adding similarly rough elements of punk, country, folk, metal and bluegrass.
"It's real raw, passionate music," Johnson said. "I can find the connection between all these bands. When you hear something that's real and passionate and you believe it's from the heart, that connects with me. I feel I can really appreciate what they're doing."
For Johnson, the great revelation that essentially changed his life was discovering gravelly Mississippi blues vet T-Model Ford opening for Johnny Winter at the Cabooze. Growing up in the small southern Minnesota town of Jackson, Johnson had liked a lot of mainstream rock, and remained a music fan as an adult, attending a lot of shows. But Ford in particular blew him away, prompting Johnson to check out Ford's label, Fat Possum, which in turn unveiled its roster of similarly wizened blues guys, and eventually led to the younger artists they were inspiring.
"It just opened the door. Now I had known Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House, and I knew some of the elder bluesmen, but not in that new environment where they were influencing Gun Club and these guys who were taking it in a new direction."
Gradually he got to know some of the musicians personally, bringing some in to play block parties in his Hudson neighborhood, as well as some benefit shows, including one to keep Hemphill from being evicted from her home. Finally, Texas troubadour Scott Biram suggested he rent a room and sell tickets. Instead he tried a festival.
Johnson invited 18 bands to participate in the first Deep Blues Festival in 2007, situated on a driving range in River Falls. After a summer-long drought, the skies opened up on the day of the festival and there was a deluge of rain. Nevertheless, he said, "We had 130 paid tickets, we had 50 musicians. So there's 200 people hangin' out and they loved it. Nobody left." His favorite story from that year involves a sheriff's deputy hired to provide security. After his shift was over, the guy went home, changed clothes, went back to the festival and finally left happy after buying ten CDs of music. Johnson, however, lost 30 grand.
The next year, Johnson staged the festival over three days at the Washington County Fairgrounds. Again it poured one day, attendance was far below the break-even point and he lost another $30,000. In 2009 he moved the festival to the Cabooze in Minneapolis, intending to use both the indoor and outdoor stages. But it was one of the coldest August days on record, there was a competing blues festival nearby, scant press coverage, and he dropped yet another 30 big ones.
Besides uncooperative weather, Johnson knew he was battling the fact that none of the artists were well known, and the entire genre was a niche without a mass audience. "We weren't getting the love from anybody," he recalled, except the bands themselves and hardcore fans, who came from 15 countries to attend.
Even Johnson's attempt to mount a show with a big headliner failed. Although the members of the Black Keys, who Johnson had gotten to know personally, agreed to do a show with him, their agent nixed the deal at the last minute.
Meanwhile, Johnson was still looking for a new career after selling his insurance business and liked the idea of opening a small restaurant where his three kids could help out and he could put on some live shows. He'd always liked to cook, had worked at a bakery as a kid and through college, and had become somewhat accomplished as a pastry chef. So he bought the long-vacant building that previously housed the gourmet Bayport Cookery, added a barbecue pit, came up with some Texas-inspired barbecue recipes and opened in 2010 on Halloween.
Two years later the restaurant is supporting itself and Johnson's family, and Bayport is a regular stop for the quirky lot pursuing the increasingly diverse essence of deep blues.
"I chose to do this to be different," Johnson explained. "Our bar is different. Our music is different. The food is different. So hopefully it's a destination where people will appreciate it and want it. There's just not very many Texas barbecues in Minnesota. Deep Blues, the festival, started here just because it was my back yard.
"We do things a little differently. We do an early show, so it doesn't really connect with the late night, club scene crowd. But I have no interest in being out until two in the morning unless I absolutely have to. I'm going to be 50 in February and I got my kids and I'm busy here all week, so I guess it's out of convenience.
"The music end of it, I still pay out more than we take in in revenue. All the ticket money goes to the performers. I still have some guarantees for the occasional band that I just wanna see. I wanna have John Wilkins here. We can't get the ticket buyers to support his shows, so I take a bit of loss on that. But I just think it's important. I want my kids to know who T-Model Ford is. I just think that when you get the opportunity to have one of these people come through here and play, I wanna figure out a way to try to make it happen."
Last summer's resurrected Deep Blues Festival was an artistic success too. Johnson avoided hemorrhaging barrels of cash by aiming to break even, doing it on a smaller scale with one stage set up inside the restaurant and another in the patio out back. He limited ticket sales to only 120 and they cost $150, but for that you got three days of music from 26 bands, all the food you could eat and a real sense that the deep blues movement is thriving on a genuine communal spirit.
A little more widespread recognition may be coming next month with the release of Alive at the Deep Blues Fest, featuring the performances of seven bands from the Alive Records roster that played last summer's event, including Buffalo Killers, Left Lane Cruiser, Radio Moscow, Henry's Funeral Shoe, Brian Olive, John the Conqueror, and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires. Bains and his band will play a record release show at Bayport December 1.
Sometimes it's been a struggle, but Johnson can now appreciate a certain satisfaction from establishing a beachhead of outsider blues in an unlikely spot.
"When I put on the very first festival I said if I'm the only ticket buyer, if I'm the only person standing there, at least I got to see 18 bands I really wanted to see," he said. "And I've gone on with that attitude for every show I've ever done. All I can do is put it on and if people want to be there and share it with me, great. But I never did it to try and do anything more than give the bands a paycheck. I always wanted to take care of the musicians. And I hope it meant more than just a paycheck. Some just want their fee and go. But there's a large percentage that are into it and love the connection, love meeting the other bands. They love seeing the other bands. They love the camaraderie. It's a gathering, it's a networking thing. So there's definitely a sense of community with the musicians. And I like that.
"We accomplished some things and it's pretty neat. Bands got signed because of the festival. Connections got made. Careers got launched. Definitely friendships were formed, and lots of good things happened. Still are."
Tav Falco & His Unapproachable Panther Burns. $20. 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 12. Bayport BBQ, 328 5th Ave. N., Bayport. Click here.
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