Checking in on Bayport BBQ on the deep blues haunt's second anniversary

Categories: Deep Blues
Thumbnail image for CHRIS JOHN.jpg
Photo by Danny Sigelman
Bayport BBQ's Chris Johnson with Black Diamond Heavies' James Leg
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.

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