Logistically, traveling from the Twin Cities to Duluth is a breeze. It’s a quick two-and-a-half-hour jaunt up I-35, barely enough time to work up the need to take a bathroom break much less stop to fill the gas tank, and the downtown strip is less than a half-mile off the highway. And yet, as Duluth’s music scene continues to flourish and more and more bands break out nationally and internationally, the divide between the Twin Ports and the metro area remains noticeable. Music fans in the Cities are familiar with Low and Trampled by Turtles, of course, not to mention Charlie Parr and omnipresent songwriter and recording engineer Rich Mattson. But after that? Well, much like staring out across the grey waters of Lake Superior, the Duluth scene can seem vast, mysterious, and oddly impenetrable to outsiders.
In the interest of initiating an honest conversation about this chasm, I’ll disclose my own embarrassing misconceptions about music in the North Country. (Duluth concertgoers, this is your cue to roll your eyes at me en masse.) I expected the music scene to be small, cliquey, and obsessed with banjos. I expected most of the bands to sound roughly the same, and for each set to include at least one Bob Dylan cover. And I expected the whole scene to be centered around one or two tiny bars.
Oh, how splendid it feels to be wrong.
In reality, Duluth is home to a vibrant and prolific music scene. Much like in the Twin Cities, players hop between several different projects, embrace the collaborative spirit, and turn out in droves supporting one another at live shows. During this year’s Duluth Homegrown Music Festival, especially, many of the players seemed hell-bent at packing in as many sets as possible in order to showcase all their creative endeavors.
One aspect that fascinated me was the fact that their artistic community is very tactile. The Homegrown schedule came packaged in a well-written and laid out magazine that was distributed heavily throughout the city, and one concertgoer observed that many of the acts seem resistant to networking online and instead market their shows exclusively through print newspapers and flyers. It makes sense, I suppose, given the personal relationships that seem to bind the scene together, but it made me wonder whether their heavy reliance on word-of-mouth and printed promotional materials has prevented artists from breaking out to nearby metropolitan areas like the Twin Cities. Which is a shame; given the pool of talent I experienced at this year’s festival and Trampled by Turtles’ recent upswing on the national scene, it seems like the time to pay attention to artists from Duluth is now.
Portage at Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior; photo by Ben Clark
Though most of my preconceived notions about the area turned out to be false, I should mention that Duluth isn’t lacking in either banjos or Dylanophilia. At one point I found myself driving down Superior St., which has been rebranded “Bob Dylan Way,” while listening to KUMD’s weekly Dylan special Highway 61 Revisited, and most venues were plastered with flyers advertising the upcoming week-long Duluth Dylan Fest. But what I found is that there is a young, active community of musicians who are not only embracing their roots but also pushing the city forward, channeling their Americana influences through the steely industrial landscape of the Twin Ports area to create music that feels immediate, distinctive, and vital.
Alan Sparhawk could probably be considered the figurehead of modern-day Duluth music, and holds the title for most famous musician to have lived in the city past the age of six (which is how old Dylan was when his family moved him north to Hibbing). It wasn’t until I saw Sparhawk perform amid a lineup of other regional acts, however, that I had a chance to experience and reflect on his music within the proper context of his hometown. On the last day of the festival, I had a chance to see Sparhawk perform in three of his four current projects — and given that he performed the Low song “From Your Place on Sunset” during his Murder of Crows set while wife and bandmate Mimi Parker looked on from the audience, it kind of felt like a whirlwind eight-hour tour of his entire career. Over those hours I heard him partner with a profoundly expressive violinist and singer, Gaelynn Lea, in an awe-inspiring former church filled with stunned onlookers; power through a punchy Retribution Gospel Choir set to an over-capacity basement bar full of adoring fans; and sweat and swashbuckle his way through an intense 3 a.m. deep blues set at a raucous house show with the ferocious Black-Eyed Snakes.
Throughout my little Sparhawk-fest I wove in and out of sets by singer-songwriters, screamo bands, synth enthusiasts, a funk powerhouse, power-pop groups, and yes, a Trampled by Turtles side project called Two Many Banjos, but my mind kept returning to that powerful performance by Murder of Crows and specifically how mournfully Sparhawk’s guitar and Lea’s violin commingled in the early evening air and laced the whole Saturday experience together.
There’s an underlying seriousness and sadness to Duluth that has penetrated my psyche every time I’ve stepped foot in the city (and having grown up in a nearby town called Moose Lake, I’ve been there for non-musical purposes quite often over the past few decades). Even on sunny summer days there’s a cold breeze that sweeps up off the lake and sends a chill down the spine, and the winter nights can make the city seem downright uninhabitable. Much like how the constant grey skies and rain of Seattle lend the city a certain feeling, the bleakness of the Duluth weather, the ghosts of old shipyards and factories, and the never-ending grey waters give artists all the more reason to band together and pump a lifeline through the city. There is a defiance in the vocal delivery of Duluth singers and a communal nature to their songs and concerts that all feels quite poignant.
Eric Pollard at Amazing Grace in Canal Park; photo by Ben Clark
I know I’m making the experience sound very sobering, and that is far from the case — rage-against-the-bleakness was the vibe that resonated with me throughout week and seemed to be a thematic trend in many of the songs. In all, Homegrown is a time of great joy and celebration, not to mention great partying. Each night, as the concerts get going, cries of “Happy Homegrown!” can be heard in the streets and on the stages, and proper small talk involves some variation on “Are you having a good Homegrown?” or “How’s your Homegrown going so far?” Even Duluth mayor Don Ness seemed beside himself throughout the week, beaming proudly at venues across town and even hopping on stage at Pizza Luce during the festival’s closing night to proclaim it The Alrights Day in honor of the now-defunct band and declare, Portlandia-style, that “I’m the mayor so I can do this sh*t.”
Both Duluth and Superior are home to a lot of drinking establishments, which gives musicians all kinds of spaces to develop their craft, and it was impressive to see just how many different venues were utilized by the sprawling Homegrown fest. The festival runs eight days and I was able to attend the final four, including a night across the harbor in Superior, and came away with a list of nearly 30 bands I plan on investigating further. My recap of the highlights is by no means a comprehensive report of the festival but rather a way to feature some bands that I feel are well worth your attention; I plan to continue plumbing the Duluth scene and spotlighting artists as they come through the Twin Cities in the coming months.
And Minneapolis and St. Paul music fans: Join me for Homegrown next year, won’t you? If there’s one thing the festival could use more of, it’s attendance from people outside of Duluth who could have a blast discovering all of their homespun talent. It is a city-wide holiday, after all. You’d have a happy Homegrown, too.