Local Current Blog

Duluth: Coming home to Minnesota’s musical Zenith City

With my sister Jenny in the early 80s

When Trampled By Turtles went on David Letterman’s show earlier this month to play their song “Are You Behind the Shining Star?”, their host wasted no time revealing what a New Yorker knows about the band’s hometown.

“Duluth. That’s iron ore country? Taconite, that’s right.” Then Letterman turned to Paul Shaffer, who seemed to be laughing off camera. “What’s the matter? It is! Then they lower ’em on the ore boat and send ’em down where they used to make steel.”

The Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas (a nickname bestowed in 1868 by newspaperman Thomas Preston Foster) is about much more than taconite, but the mining and shipping industries continue to define the city in the national imagination—and to shape its urban landscape. When I was growing up in Duluth in the 1980s, I was awed by the towering mountains of taconite pellets, the vast ore ships, and the giant trucks with tires taller than I was.

On the banks of the Great Lake stretching to the horizon—local meteorologists providing separate weather forecasts for “inland” and “by the lake shore”—everything was big, from the anchors we climbed on at Canal Park to the flocks of seagulls we fed there. My dream of a seagull following our car home and staying to live in our house on Woodland Avenue never came true, but I still have a handful of Christmas ornaments attesting to my short-lived fascination with those gregarious grey-and-white fowl.

I didn’t know very much about Duluth’s music scene: for me as a grade-schooler, Duluth music was “Time After Time” and “We Are the World” on MTV, and booming ads for THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH, where you could go to buy the hottest new cassettes. (Christmas shopping for my cousin, my mom walked up to the counter and asked if they had a copy of Heart by Bad Animals.) The only live music I remember seeing was a polka band at Ironworld.

The great local music scene that was off my radar as a kid is definitely on my radar now—mine, and everyone’s. Duluth is making a name for itself far and wide as a North Country hothouse of musical collaboration; two of Minnesota’s best-known bands are Trampled By Turtles and Low, whose Alan Sparhawk produced TBT’s new album Wild Animals. Musical voyageurs like Charlie Parr have found the city to be a welcoming home, and touring bands like Wilco love to play there. Exuberant indie rock bands like Low Forms rub elbows with EDM DJs and hip-hop MCs.

Duluth is full of unforgettable places, and that includes places to hear music. There’s the epic Bayfront Festival Park, the hopping Pizza Lucé, and the historic Norshor Theatre—soon to reopen after renovations. When the Current visits Duluth this weekend, we’ll be presenting performances by Low, Tin Can Gin, and Sarah Krueger at the new Red Herring Lounge, opened by Chaperone Records founder Bob Monahan. (Update: This post was originally written in 2014. It’s now 2015—and we’re going to Duluth again, with even more live music and a live recording of the Local Show!)

A house now stands on the empty field where my friends and I used to play Wiffle ball, and my family’s former house on Woodland has been expanded with a giant porch in place of the concrete patio where I used to hit a tennis ball against the wall and imagine I was playing against Snoopy at Wimbledon; but otherwise my old neighborhood is much the same. You can still walk down past the dead end street to Chester Creek, you can still bike up to Mount Royal and buy candy, and you can still hear the ships sounding their horns as they approach the Aerial Lift Bridge.

I live in Minneapolis now, and much as I remember about Duluth as it was, there’s a lot I’m excited to learn about Duluth as it is today. I’m looking forward to visiting new spots—such as the Endion Station Public House—and meeting new people, and hearing new music on a new stage. But then I’ll head down to the the Depot and climb into the driver’s seat of one of those giant locomotives. I’ll lean out the window, smell that tangy air, and I’ll be home again at the edge of the unsalted seas.