Monday, July 6, 2020

Blues & BBQ bonfires ignite in Owatonna

A decade of fire for Smokin’ in Steele
I’m not dead yet. I think I can do better.” -- John “Blueshammer” Hammer

A fire that was initially ignited a decade ago has burned slow and steady, flaring up each year in June and leaving lasting embers burning deep and hot in the hearts of those who love to be caught in this inferno.

Smokin’ in Steele now has a decade of blues, barbecue and blaze under its belt. Each year, the standard has been raised a little higher and a little higher until this year, when the heated fever pitch incinerated the bar altogether.

People have never seen anything quite like it. Incredible bands, one right after another, power giving way to power, people losing their voices, pulling muscles on the dancefloor and delighting in the insane adrenaline energy that brought the performers into the crowds to perform “table top.”

“I want someone who sees the fire in my eyes and wants to play with it”


The festival itself grew out of the minds of the brothers Elbert, Tom and Joe, who had a nagging aching hunger to start something fun and to find yet another cause for the Knights of Columbus Council 945 to champion. While at a festival “far, far away,” and keeping their eyes peeled for festival ideas, Joe asked Tom, “what do you think about barbecue?”

Tom liked the idea, not to mention chowing anything with barbecue sauce, and they planned a road trip to Kansas City. The world hub for all things barbecue. The rest, shall we say is history.

Enter John “Blueshammer” Hammer, and you now have the perfect storm for a warm “summah” rain. 

“John knows a LOT of people,” Tom Elbert said. “He has been the thrust behind getting the entertainment for our venue, and the bands who come, don’t come for the money, they come for the party and because they love John.”

Hammer, who is constantly driven to build bigger and bigger shows for Owatonna was, most of the time standing in the shadows enjoying the people who were enjoying the show. The line-up was so spectacular that there were many comments about the magnitude equaling a category 5 tornado.

Hammer, whose passion is only surpassed by his humility said, “I’m not dead yet. I can do better.”


Perhaps it’s just because I was only in my sophomore season at Smokin’ in Steele, but I walked away in 2016 and thought to myself, “there is no equal to what I just witnessed.” And then, 2017 came and it pretty much ticked all the boxes on my bucket list, so I’m probably close to death at this point.

All the crowd could mutter as the grand finale ended and drifted off into the fog of “camp grab-me” was, “he (Hammer) did it again.” 

He did. They raised that bar and he jumped it. HE JUMPED IT. I can only imagine now, just how high that bar has become. Certainly those without vision won’t be able to see it anymore.

And as big as this blues fest has become, Tom Elbert warns, “this is the best kept secret in the Midwest and we need to be careful to protect it. If it explodes, and we’d see 30,000 people, it would be our last year.” 

There is a sadness and a bit of fear that I heard coming from his mouth. The festival as it is now, is more like a family reunion for the performers. They have the luxury of playing the small venue to avoid the big crowds, to sit and talk to the small-town voices of Minnesota. They tell their tales of the road with other performers, let their hair down, camp in an intimate setting and come back to their roots.

They find themselves, rediscovering the reason they are musicians and they rekindle the passion of what brought them to the dance in the first place. And bottom line, they love the Blueshammer and the tireless work he does and the causes he fights for. 

There was a video I had posted of a young girl, probably no more than 3 years old, playing her harmonica while sitting in the cool grass of Park Square on a very warm second day of the fest. Of all the videos I had posted, Hammer saw this one and said, “this one brought a tear of SWEET JOY to my old eyes.”

John posted a message to his friends and fans Monday which thanked everyone else but himself for a successful weekend. He said, “to those who danced with the dream, it was truly a labor of love with individuals coming together to make our little corner of the world just a little bit better, while raising support and awareness for those in our community that need the helping hand of kindness, while engaging in the joyous fun. That is simply how it is done.”

The replies and comments that came pouring in from bands and fans alike are echoing praise and thankyous. Blues aficionado, Spike Stephan might have said it best when he said, “Life is music and music is life. Thank you.”

A good number of bands themselves were nationally acclaimed and had enough energy to light up the Eastern Hemisphere. Joyann, a Minnesota girl with a Memphis voice and Mississippi mud in those deep pipes brought her band as the warmup Thursday night for the VIP banquet. Most of us sat awestruck and thought, “if this is the warmup, kick-it-off band, what ARE we in store for?”

It was beyond the realm of our consciousness what would happen next. From old familiar faces like Brother Sun Sister Moon and the Mark Cameron Band to bands like the Jeremiah Johnson Band and Mississippi Bigfoot, it was a show unlike many had ever seen before. Certainly not in such an intimate setting and appearing all in the same weekend.

Dee Miller, Renee’ Austin, Grammy-nominated Shaun Murphy, Craig Clark, Slim Willie, Big George Jackson, Boom Boom Steve V, Mike Munson, Mike Beckmen, Mike Fugazzi and the Harrison Street Band to name a few. Yep. All here. In Owatonna. Can anyone see Hammer clearing that bar with a new record? How could it be? But we’ve learned not to bet against Hammer.

The Reverend was here Friday night bringing a sense of pride to all of us Wisconsinites and a sound unique to any blues club they grace. From Chicago, there was the Norman Jackson band with his protégé Rick Short, a comedic singer/sax player that brought the house down as he played his sax with red face and sweat on stage. On the floor. Lying flat on his back. On the chairs. On the tables of the fans. 

And then there was the sisters who grew up singing gospel in church and expanded their pulpits to the blues clubs of America. It was a righteous performance by drummer, Tikyra, power singer, Tierinii and the entire band, Southern Avenue.

The newbie, however had to be Jeremy Powell the SA keyboardist. I can remember turning to my wife and asking her, “Did he just make that thing growl?” As she nodded her head, I immediately went home, put my piano on eBay, and with a tear in my eye played my last tune poorly and I knew that he ruined it for me. 

All event pictures and band videos can be seen if you go to the Steele County Times Facebook page. They will remain posted all week. Also view our Opinion column in section A Page 2.

Not only was this a blues festival, but also a Kansas City sanctioned barbecue cook-off event, a 5K, a bike cruise, a kids cook-off, an antique tractor and big rig show, a classic car show and more food than one could eat in a lifetime.

The best quote was perhaps thrown in by Mark Cameron who told Hammer, “I’m sending you the bill from my weight loss clinic. I just couldn’t stop eating.”

For the best of the best of the band pictures, please click here.

See full story in this week’s print edition or subscribe online. Please subscribe here or current subscribers can login here.

Steele County Times & DCI

Steele County Times

411 E. Main St.
P.O. Box 247
Blooming Prairie, MN 55917

Dodge County Independent

121 West Main St.
Kasson, MN 55944

Dodge County Printing

121 West Main St.
Kasson, MN 55944


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