The first two years of the Blues on Belgrade Festival in North Mankato saw few glitches. Block-party atmosphere, check. Solid crowds, check. Stellar music, check. Only one minor gripe lingers from last year: Too much hot sunshine sizzling the musicians.
“With the concrete blacktop, it was like playing in an oven last year,” said Billy Steiner of the Minnesota Barking Ducks/City Mouse All Stars. “We thought we were going to need emergency medical personnel. But it’s a summer festival, you’re going to be in the sun.”
To combat any worries of excessive heat and sunshine, the stage this year will face east on Belgrade instead of west. To ensure the audience doesn’t feel like it’s listening to music in an oven, a 52-foot wide, 15-foot high sunblock will hang over the stage.
“I think that’s going to make it more comfortable for everybody,” said Jim Whitlock, owner of Brick House Graphics and president of event organizers Business on Belgrade. “This is all about giving people a reason to think about us in beautiful lower North Mankato. People like this festival because it’s free, it’s outside, you can bring a cooler and folding chairs, and you’re going to get some good music.”
Buoyed by the estimated turnout of 6,000 people in 2010 — up from about 3,000 in the festival’s first year — Whitlock anticipates a larger crowd this year and says the festival confines will now include Spinners, stretching past the 300 block of Belgrade.
“It’s becoming more friendly to the local businesses,” said Steiner, a North Mankato City Council member. “They’ve all put a lot into this.”
The number of arts and craft vendors is expected to double to about 24, while Belgrade restaurants Spinners, Dino’s, Bobby Joe’s and the American Legion Post 518 will provide food and drink vending. Other non-musical components include Jack McGowan’s children’s activities and the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota.
“Cross the bridge and have some fun,” Whitlock said, echoing the festival’s mantra.
The Elks Club will also have a booth, where they will be selling military blankets and accepting donations to raise funds for the Veteran’s Memorial Park in Mankato.
“Even though the veterans’ park is in Mankato,” Whitlock said, “we’re committed to drawing our communities together and, of course, it’s for a great cause.”
During their afternoon set, Steiner will be paired on vocals with a kindred musical spirit, “the unofficial seventh member of City Mouse,” Kit Kildahl.
“I love playing with him,” Steiner said. “He’s a great guitar player and singer, and sometimes we’ll do a double harmonica jam. Kit’s got the heart and soul. He’s a musician through and through; he lives and breathes it.”
Kildahl says he first met Steiner around 1974, when he was living in his car and “stumbled” into Mankato.
“Me and Billy were competitors at first,” said Kildahl, who lives in Bloomington but still plays sporadic local gigs with the Barking Ducks and Ace in the Whole. “That was when I was in the Dust Bowl Blues Band, but over the years it became a brotherhood. It’s a really beautiful thing to have this wonderful circle of musicians down there that are lifelong friends.”
Filling out the Barking Ducks/City Mouse lineup is the brilliant guitarist Mick McCormick, drummer David “Burnie” Benson, bassist Ed Dunn and City Mouse keyboardist extraordinaire Dale “Hawk” Haefner.
Also returning are Blues on Belgrade veterans Boom Boom Steve and the Knockouts, led by MSU alum and harmonica player Steve Vonderharr. Twin Cities blueswoman Lisa Wenger, the headliner at the inaugural Blues on Belgrade, tops the bill again in 2011.
“She has a rough, smoky voice that gets the crowd going,” Whitlock said. “People loved her the first year and we’re thrilled to have her back.”