Now in its 15th year, the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival is officially an institution. That much was clear as soon as I picked up the festival guide, a meaty, 82-page directory of all of the shows happening over the eight days of Homegrown; in addition to a play-by-play of each day and descriptions of all 150+ scheduled bands, there was an in-depth history of the festival that stretched all the way back to its first year in 1998.
Homegrown didn’t start as a musical festival. In fact, it was just supposed to be a party for Scott Lunt, a music fan and musician who booked a handful of bands to help him celebrate the fact he was turning 30. What Lunt couldn’t have possibly known was that his birthday party would soon begin to grow exponentially. In 1999, it was referred to as “Homegrown” for the first time, and by 2004 so many acts were involved and so many logistics needed to be figured out that Lunt pulled out of organizing the festival and handed the reigns over to Don Ness (now the mayor of Duluth) and an organization called the Bridge Syndicate to make the proceedings more official.
Now Homegrown is a citywide affair, with venues along Superior St. and down into Canal Park jumping on board to help showcase all of the Duluth acts. Lunt still plays the festival every year with his roots act Father Hennepin and gives obligatory interviews to the TV news, while Ness can be seen sipping on pints of beer and taking in the music throughout the week. It takes a much larger team to make Homegrown a success these days, but there is still very much that spirit of “everyone knows everyone”; even an outsider like myself still gets the sense that they are crashing someone’s very cool, very out-of-control birthday party, or perhaps some kind of rock ‘n’ roll family reunion.
This year I got a chance to attend the final three nights of the festival, starting with Thursday, a.k.a. “Superior Night,” where everyone migrates over the Blatnik bridge to take over the bars and venues across the border in Wisconsin. Below, find some of the highlights from my Homegrown 2013 trek. As with my trip to Winona recently for the Mid West Music Fest, I tried to avoid bands I had seen before (Actual Wolf, Trampled by Turtles, etc.) and seek out new-to-me acts from the Twin Ports.
Fever Dream: This was an act I had already flagged going into the festival and planned to check out because of his trippy series of videos and singles, particularly the Hot Chip-invoking “Hold On.” Live, Fever Dream mastermind Marc Gartman (who I also saw perform earlier in the week as part of roots trio Coyote with Jerree Small and Matt Mobley of Southwire) took the stage dressed in a bathrobe and headband and proceeded to unspool a series of downtempo, analog electro jams. For his Homegrown show Gartman was joined by Eric Pollard of Actual Wolf and Retribution Gospel Choir, who manned a set of electronic drum pads, and the pair created a mellow, groovy mood that was a stark contrast to the folk-leaning sets that seem to make up most of the Duluth fest.
Fever Dream will release his first LP, Fever Dream ’83, on Chaperone Records later this month.
Jack Campbell and the Skeleton Keys: I first heard the name Jack Campbell uttered by Jordan Gatesmith of Howler when I interviewed him about the big Howlergate kerfuffle last year, and have been meaning to check him out since. He doesn’t seem to play many Twin Cities shows, but given his age, it makes sense, because though he already has an EP under his belt, Campbell is still just a senior in high school up in Duluth.
“I wrote this one when I was a freshman. I’m a senior now. It’s weird looking back,” Campbell scoffed at one point, while at another he introduced a new song by saying it would appear on a new record that’s coming out this summer that was recorded with “the bassist for the Fray and the drummer from Dark Dark Dark.”
Live, Campbell was a scrappy and snarky frontman, and was dressed in shorts, Ray Bans and bare feet despite the plummeting temperatures outside. He and his band commanded the packed room at the Teatro Zuccone and the band’s surf-meets-punk sound easily won over the mostly middle-aged crowd.
He explained that he first formed his band, the Skeleton Keys, so he could open for Howler last year, and that Rough Trade-signed band has clearly made an impression on his sound. He has the songwriting chops, and he certainly has the attitude; something tells me Campbell could be a hit with certain members of the U.K. press and music industry.
Toby Thomas Churchill: This was Churchill’s 15th straight year performing at Homegrown, and I have no idea how he hasn’t broken out of the Twin Ports area and become a larger story here in the Twin Cities by now. Not only are Churchill’s songwriting abilities and lyrics delightfully sharp, but his backing band creates such a sense of atmosphere and drama behind each song that they managed to send a chill up my spine.
Churchill is currently performing live with members of Roma di Luna (R.I.P.), and guitarist Ben Durrant had an especially sizzling influence on his unique folk-pop songs. At times, when all the musicians on stage came together behind Churchill’s melodies they reminded me a bit of Spoon, while at others the set was reminiscent of Beck.
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Rich Mattson: I saw the Sparta Sound engineer and multi-talented musician perform twice over the course of my three-day festival run, and that was only a fraction of the amount of times he played Homegrown this year in his various projects. As half of the Bitter Spills, Mattson and Baby Grant Johnson played an early evening set at the Teatro Zuccone that showed off their complementary, unwavering Midwestern voices, with lyrics like “I’m going up north baby, won’t you come along?” speaking to their role as staples of the Minnesota music scene.
The next night, Mattson played an unplanned gig with his on-hiatus band the Tisdales, and rumor has it that may have been their last time performing together. They took advantage of the rare opportunity by performing a fiery, fierce set that had fans at the Twins Bar dancing in front of the stage and waving their beers in the air.
Bratwurst: I’ll be honest, I did not come to Bratwurst for the music, nor do I remember anything specific about what they played during their set beyond the fact that it was industrial, electronic dance music. Nope, I checked out this band because literally everyone I talked to about this year’s Homegrown lineup told me, “You just have to see Bratwurst.”
So in I went, down the stairs of basement dive bar R.T. Quinlan’s and into the scene of a B-movie horror film, as Bratwurst’s leader Tyler Scouton fired up power tools, sawed through chunks of bloody, raw meat, and flung said meat out into the crowd. “The woman next to me was holding a heart in her hand,” photographer Kip Praslowicz giddily reported after the set, as we waded through the foam pellets strewn about from a disembodied stuffed monkey Scouton had sawed in half on stage.
Everyone was right: I had to see it.
Todd Eckart: I caught Todd on Superior Night over at Norm’s Beer and Brats, and was delighted to witness his polished, engaging performance. Eckart was the kind of soulful rockabilly-influenced crooner you might catch playing a place like Lee’s Liquor Lounge here in the Twin Cities, and he had a timeless quality about him that reminded me of both Elvis and Chris Isaak. He apparently calls L.A. home now, but the Twin Ports native was clearly happy to be back in his hometown to play Homegrown.
Silverback Colony: This was one of the most comical sets to witness, if only for the fact that the band would take long pauses between songs to cheers over beers and hold a mini-conference about what song they’d play next. Led by Gabriel Douglas of the 4onthefloor, Silverback Colony play blue collar drinkin’ music in the vein of Twin Cities stalwarts the Evening Rig and Sprinsteen lovers the Gaslight Anthem.