As I mentioned in my overview of the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival and the Twin Ports scene, I had a chance to attend the last half of the eight-day-long local music bonanza and caught about 30 different acts. While the first night was centered around downtown Superior, the rest of the shows were primarily booked on and around Superior Street in downtown Duluth, making it easy to hop around to many different venues. Here’s a rundown of some of my favorite moments, with photos of the acts by Ben Clark.
Don’t Sweat September: This was my first band of the festival and my introduction to bassist Mark Glen, who I saw perform with at least four other projects and who played a total of something like nine gigs at this year’s Homegrown. Don’t Sweat September were a great introduction to the Twin Ports sound: A lively bar band with a solid lead singer who sounded just as engaging covering Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Games” as she did singer her own tunes.
Portage: Coincidentally, this was a band I’d singled out a few months back while scouring through Vita.mn’s Are You Local? submissions and had been meaning to scope them out live ever since. The band had a slightly harder sound than I was expecting (I had remembered their demo sounding willowy and folky), which might have been a result of the packed house and sub-standard PA, but I found their rootsy sing-alongs compelling. I’d like to catch them again in a space where I can hone in more on their sound and less on the boisterous atmosphere, but they definitely got the party started out right.
The Cutthroats: This band used to go by Old Knifey & The Cutthroats, and are now performing under an abbreviated name — from what I gathered, many of their songs were the same and lead singer Adam Depre (who also had a hand in organizing the festival this year) still goes by the moniker Old Knifey, but after a brief respite they have returned with a slightly different lineup and new vigor. I was really impressed by their harmonic, alt-country inspired pop tunes, which came across despite the somewhat challenging sound setup at Superior’s Main Club. Depre says the band are working on a new record now, but you can get a taste of their sound from his 2011 EP. Did I mention Mark Glen was there?
The Half Hearts: The self-promotional nature of the Duluth scene was on full display during this set by Twin Cities-based trio The Half Hearts, as the room all but cleared out by the time the Duluth bands had wrapped up and they took the stage. Which was a shame, because they proceeded to play one hell of a show. Ain’t that the way it always goes?
Bliss & Sitter: Easily one of the more artistic and ambitious performances of the festival, not to mention detail-oriented. Rapper David “Bliss” Kittelson dutifully marched off stage and changed his t-shirt before each song as multi-instrumentalist Kyle Sitter altered the mood by switching between bass and guitar, and a troupe of rotating dancers emerged in a variety of costumes to interpret the duo’s winding spoken-word jams physically in front of the stage. The effect was mesmerizing.
Colleen Myhre: I had originally intended to poke my head into Colleen’s set en route to another show, but was so captivated by her voice and storytelling that I ended up staying through her entire show. Myhre has a low, full voice that is similar in timbre to Lucinda Williams’, and she harnessed it and released it with ease, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar and the stomp of her cowboy boot heel. The intimate confines of Teatro Zuccone were perfect for soaking in her story-songs.
Three Song Sunday: Hey, it’s Mark Glen once again! This time the omnipresent bassist bounded onto the stage within seconds of Three Song Sunday’s opening notes, cracking up the crowd. The band had a rich, nuanced Americana sound and was led by vocalists Dan Dressers and Stephanie Longstreet. Their set also included one of the cutest moments of the entire festival: As Longstreet ripped into a blazing harmonica solo, a small child in the front row flashed her a set of devil’s horns in approval. Rock on, little dude.
Southwire: Of all the acts I caught at this year’s Homegrown, this was my favorite new discovery. Southwire is led by vocalist and piano player Jerree Small and singer/spoken word artist Ben Larson, who also performed later in the night as Crew Jones, and layered beautiful harmonies over harrowing, stirring poetry to glorious effect. Their blues-folk sermons actually reminded me of some of Roma di Luna’s earlier work when Alexei Casselle would sing lead, and I got the strong impression that Larson would get along well with the Twin Cities musicians who comprise the Coloring Time collective.
Diet Folk: As this young duo was setting up their gear, I couldn’t help but notice drummer Boyd Smith carefully unwrapping his shiny black drum kit and accessories from its packaging. The new kit was put to good use as they fired up a set of accessible, upbeat folk songs, with lead singer and guitarist Dedric Clark exhibiting quite an ear for pop melody. The players are still in college at UMD (and are typically joined by a third bandmate, Tony Petersen, who plays banjo), and I’m curious to see where they’ll take their budding sound next.
Murder of Crows: The deep, unknowable darkness of despair unearthed and transmitted through an electric guitar and a pair of violins. The sound of a couple hundred people holding very still and waiting to see where the music will lead them next, with only the slight sniffling of the woman who is openly weeping next to me punctuating the band’s soaring strings. A voice, small at first and then piercing and powerful, ringing out like the wind across an open prairie.
“I hope tonight pushes you to your limits, because man, spring’s coming, and you’re going to recover,” Alan Sparhawk deadpans, granting the crowd permission to party.
As the set proceeds, Sparhawk’s interactions with his Murder of Crows bandmate Gaelynn Lea, who transfixes the audience from her motorized wheelchair, becomes increasingly tender and sweet.
“You’re making me break all my rules here, Gaelynn,” he sighs between songs. “Don’t sell stuff from the stage –”
“Sorry,” she titters.
“Don’t apologize –”
“I’m not sorry about that,” she adds without missing a beat.
Their banter provides much-needed comic relief between their sobering, almost overwhelmingly sad compositions. An instrumental cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” is an easy crowd favorite, as are Lea’s original songs. By the end, Sparhawk singing Low’s “From Your Place on Sunset” seems like the only appropriate way to end the set. The audience responds with an instantaneous standing ovation.
Yester: A highly accessible, harmonic indie-folk quartet that reminded of Megafaun, Fleet Foxes, or maybe Eau Claire group the Daredevil Christopher Wright. At first their sound was almost distractingly derivative to my ears, perhaps because of the high volume of bands with similar aesthetics that have come out of this region recently, but after letting the melodies soak in a bit and revisiting their material on Bandcamp I’m finding myself drawn to Kyle Ollah’s voice. This was also my first time seeing Matt Mobley, Duluth’s other bass player. Mobley was in pretty much every other band I saw on Saturday night.
Appropriately, Yester’s latest EP was recorded in the same space where I saw them perform, the gorgeous Sacred Heart.
Actual Wolf: The solo project of Eric Pollard, who also drums in Retribution Gospel Choir. Pollard is a fantastic singer and it turns out he’s got some compelling stories up his sleeve, too. Many of his tunes were so new that he read their lyrics off a music stand, dramatically tossing each page to the ground when he was finished with it, but the more polished songs really showcased his pipes and reminded me of early Mason Jennings. He has some new songs recorded under the Actual Wolf name and should be putting out a new EP soon.
Electric Graveyard Afterlife: I’d be lying if I claimed to be a conossoir of hardcore screamo bands, but these guys had a lot of punch. Their song about donating your cat’s blood for money (featuring the chorus “Kitty bloooood!”) was unsettling and bizarre, but that’s pretty much the point, right?
The Surfactants: Initially, I thought the band had donned Mexican wrestling masks in honor of Cinco de Mayo, but after a bit of digging around it seems that they are in the habit of wearing creepy face masks at every show. For some reason, it made for a surreal and disorienting live experience. They looked like juggalos, yet sounded like a dark, new wave-y dance band… BRAIN DOES NOT COMPUTE. Still, I really dug their hard-driving songs and would recommend checking them out. They had a synth player tucked all the way at the back edge of the stage and I’ve got a feeling she’s actually the player at the heart of their burgeoning sound.
Fred Tyson Funk Tsunami: As soon as I set foot in Tycoon’s for this show I was kicking myself for not booking it down Superior Street a little sooner. I only caught the last few songs by Fred Tyson, but from what I could tell he was an incredibly positive and high-energy performer. As the name suggests, he belted out funk tunes with a live band and trio of back-up singers/dancers, one of whom had the special job of holding his mic everytime he needed to scoot to the edge of the stage and bust a move.
The Alrights: It figures that I would fall in love with this band at their last show ever. After somehow sliding under my radar for a decade, power-pop trio The Alrights called it quits at a beyond sold-out farewell show at Pizza Luce. Their harmonic songs reminded me of groups like Trip Shakespeare and They Might Be Giants, and you could feel the hometown pride and love for the group coursing through the room. At the end of their set, the Duluth mayor even jumped up on stage to declare May 5, 2012 The Alrights Day. Though I was disappointed to stumble on the band at such an inopportune segment of their career arc, I’m curious to investigate the members’ other projects — especially Toby Churchill, who often gigs in the Cities as a solo artist.
Black-Eyed Snakes: If you’re still on the fence about whether it’s worth it to make the trek to Duluth for Homegrown, here’s a little anecdote: On Saturday night, after the bars had closed and the swarms of fans had been pushed out into the streets, I made my way to an afterparty that promised to have a surprise guest. As I walked up to the house, I noticed a small chalkboard with the words “Black-Eyed Snakes” scrawled across it, and not 20 minutes later I stood two feet from Alan Sparhawk as he thrashed his way through an aggressive, no-holds-barred blues set with his dynamite band. At times, Sparhawk would get so worked up that he’d kick his chair out from under him and tower over a tiny, old-timey microphone, howling out songs like he was possessed and then grinning like a fiend. I’m trying to avoid hyperbole here, but it was easily one of the best live experiences I’ve had in the past year. Dude was on fire.
Mary Bue: What a contrast from the night before. At this noontime show, Bue performed a set of “kid-friendly” songs as a troupe of tiny toddlers stormed the sanctuary of Sacred Heart. Bue was totally charming, and it was a lovely way to wrap up an insane weekend of music. Happy Homegrown!