When Chris Johnson put together the inaugural Deep Blues Festival last year, he had no idea that the event would come off like a hardcore blues song.
"If you remember last summer, we had a bad drought that lasted like 90 days," the insurance salesman turned fest organizer recalled with a pained laugh. "Somehow, on the days our fest arrived, it turned into a flood."
In other words, the Deep Blues Fest's first year did not exactly see a steady stream of attendees or revenue. That didn't stop Johnson and his crew from throwing another one, though, a fact that pretty well proves Johnson's claims that they're solely in it for the love of the music.
Landing once again at the Washington County Fairgrounds (between Lake Elmo and Stillwater), the DBF is akin to a museum exhibit on authentic, gritty, rural Delta blues -- albeit a living, breathing, butt-kicking museum exhibit.
The second-year lineup includes a handful of old coots from back in the day, including T-Model Ford, Robert Cage and Hezekia Early, along with a bunch of younger hot-shots putting a modern spin on the tried-and-true stuff, including the Black Diamond Heavies, Richard Johnston, Scott H. Biram, Cedric Burnside, former Timbuk3 singer Pat MacDonald ("Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades") and Minnesota favorites the Black Eyed Snakes and Charlie Parr.
None of the Deep Blues performers is a household name, even among average blues fans. But they're giants to purists such as Johnson, 45, of Hudson, Wis., who first got into the music business a few years ago when he booked two of these bands, Black Diamond Heavies and Biram, to a neighborhood block party. Call this his overgrown block party.
Unlike most festival organizers, Johnson encourages his acts to perform in Minneapolis while they're here, at such clubs as the Cabooze and Palmer's Bar (where T-Model Ford and Burnside's Juke Joint Duo perform Thursday, respectively). (Click "Live Shows" at www. DeepBluesFestival.com for all the extra gigs.)
With his knowledge and affinity in mind, we asked Johnson to highlight and talk about (i.e., gush over) some of the 45 acts in the lineup.
Richard Johnston (8:30 p.m. Fri.): "He's sort of a one-man band that people from all over the world have seen on Beale Street" in Memphis, Johnson said. "He doesn't do a lot of festivals, so we're excited to have him at ours. He plays a cigar-box guitar, built by John Lowe, a guitar builder in Memphis. It's a traditional four-string instrument that a lot of the old blues guys played as their first instrument because they couldn't afford anything else."
Robert Cage and Hezekia Early (7:30 p.m. Fri): "Robert is filling in for Elmo Williams, who had to drop out because he had intestinal surgery. Both Robert and Elmo regularly sing with Hezekia around Mississippi. They're all old guys from down there who've got to be in their 70s, if not 80s, so they're the real deal."
Black Diamond Heavies (8:30 p.m. Sat.): "They're one of the most exciting live acts out there today. They're a two-piece band with drums and organ, which is unusual for a rock band and especially a blues band, so they do it like nobody else."
Bob Log III (8:30 p.m. Sun.): "A truly unique character. He's another one-man band. His goal more than anything else is to entertain, and he always does. He has a really fun show. It's a little R-rated and raunchy but definitely entertaining."
Scott H. Biram (7:30 p.m. Sun.): "He's probably my favorite solo performer out there right now. He can play such a wide range of music. He'll do an old Leadbelly kind of traditional blues song, but then he'll turn it into this heavy punk-rock thing. Or he'll also play a real sweet bluegrass song or country song and sound just as great."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658