A Familiar Face at Bayfront Blues

Woodbury resident Joe Thornton returns to emcee Duluth’s Bayfront Blues Festival for the 25th consecutive year.
A backstage view of Bayfront Blues.

Woodbury’s Joe Thornton is a regular presence at the annual Bayfront Blues Festival, a weekend-long event that draws thousands of blues fans to the shores of Lake Superior every August. This summer marks the festival’s 29th anniversary, and Thornton has been a part of the action for the past 25 years, working as the emcee and ensuring that everything runs according to schedule. It’s a role that he loves, but also one that he stumbled into.

“I was a TV news anchor at the Duluth station that was sponsoring the event,” Thornton says, remembering his first year as emcee in 1992. “They wanted to have the news personalities up on stage to introduce the acts, but people didn’t want to do it. So, I wound up, kind of by default, emceeing the show.”

Thorton’s energy, friendliness and humor made him an instant hit. When he left the Duluth-based television station to move back to the Twin Cities, he assumed his Bayfront Blues days were behind him. But the owner of the festival insisted on bringing him back, this time for pay, and Thornton has been the face and voice of the event ever since.

The Bayfront Blues Festival has changed throughout its nearly three-decade-long history. Owner Chris Mackey says that each year gets bigger and better than the last. “Originally, it was just a one-day event with one stage, and now it’s three days on three different stages,” he says. This year, festival goers can look forward to performances by some of the biggest stars in contemporary blues: Ana Popovic, Joe Louis Walker and Lucky Peterson & the Imperial Flames to name a few.

Mackey works closely with Thornton before and during the festival to ensure a fun and well-organized event. “I’m in contact with him all the time,” about all sorts of things, Mackey says: “if everything is running on schedule, certain announcements to make throughout the day, keeping people posted on weather conditions or letting everybody know if a band is delayed.” It’s a demanding job, Mackey says, but Thornton does it well.

An avid blues fan himself, Thornton once had dreams of making it as a musician. “I’m a capable saxophone player, but I was never going to tour the world,” he says, adding that he does perform periodically with a local jazz group.  Being a part of Bayfront Blues, however, lets him relive some of those musical dreams. “I get a chance now to sit here and introduce some of the really legendary names in blues,” Thornton says, but notes that his favorite part of the festival is the relationships he’s formed through it.  “I’ve gotten to know and work with some amazing people and made some amazing friends,” he says.

When the weekend is over, Thornton is happy to return home to Woodbury where he and his family have lived for nearly a decade. From serving as a civilian lead of the police reserve to coaching kids’ sports teams, Thornton stays active and engaged in the Woodbury community. “It’s just such a great place to be, just everything about it,” he says.