The doors at 132 E. Superior St. opened again Friday for the first sneak peak at SOUND: Duluth, the new restaurant and venue set to occupy the upper two floors of Duluth’s historic city hall. The space has a tumultuous recent history, having undergone a $2.4 million renovation prior to opening as Tycoon’s in late 2011, being re-branded as the Blind Pig last fall and closing again several months ago.
Chef/owner Patrick Scott Moore announced the new venture last month with several bulky-for-Duluth music bookings including G. Love on Jan. 9 and last weekend’s soft-opening; an all-star bluegrass string summit on Friday and California crooner Brett Dennen on Saturday.
“Most of these performers are friends of mine,” Moore said. Aside from his extensive and impossible-to-pronounce list of culinary credentials, he boasts a background in the live music industry, gaining production experience with Peter Gabriel’s traveling WOMAD Festival and a handful of west coast venues, including 19 Broadway in Fairfax, Calif. and Seattle’s Aro.Space, now Neumos. “Between everything, I used to book about 280 shows a year. I learned to be a chef as something to fall back on once the mafia took over.” The “mafia” – he clarified – meant large talent agencies.
His connection to the area is his wife Allison. “She’s a Duluthian, graduated from [Duluth] East.” The pair met five years ago while consulting at St. Paul’s French Meadow. ”We were both with other people at the time, but ran into each other again a few years later, got together and decided Duluth would be the best place to move our families — we had five kids between us from previous relationships. The original plan was to buy the spot that’s now the Boat [Club], but that didn’t work out so I took a job at Silos just to get us up here to Duluth. Then we found this opportunity.”
Last weekend’s attendees were greeted by a familiar, brightly lit atmosphere. A softer interior paint job and the obvious removal of view-obstructing bar posts were the only notable changes to the room, though the space is still lightly under construction.
Night one’s string summit catered to Duluth’s hub of bluegrass fans, featuring guitarist Grant Gordy (the David Grisman Quartet), banjo master Danny Barnes (the Bad Livers), mandolinist Joe K. Walsh (Joy Kills Sorrow, the Gibson Brothers), bassist Bryn Davies (Jack White, Guy Clark, Patty Griffin, Steve Earle), and fiddler Darol Anger, who all came down the stairs promptly at 8:30 p.m., walked through the crowd, and took positions on stage. Following an unceremonious “Thanks for coming. Enjoy yourself,” from Moore, they struck up a jamboree-style rendition of the old standard “Deep Elem Blues” to the delight of the several dozen astute string fanatics who had claimed their seats over an hour earlier.
Despite being a temporary arrangement, the band continued with the improvisational ease of a jazz ensemble; the audience chiming in with applause when necessary. The crowd grew rapidly during the first hour of music, with a line forming at the door. When the band broke at 9:30 p.m. the 250-capacity room was suddenly full; a feat usually achieved only during the annual Mayor’s Proclamation and Brewhouse Hempen Ale release, which mark the start of the Homegrown Music Festival.
Presumably due to a large guest list, much of the performance was muffled by chatter from people whose attendance seemed purely curiosity-driven, causing one irritated fan to approach the owner saying, “You’ve got these amazing musicians in a room full of people who won’t shut up.” Most, though, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the novelty of the occasion.
With the official opening in January, there was a very limited — beer and wine — drink menu, and no food service, save for a small kitchen staff periodically sending out complimentary hors d’oeuvres, which Patrick and Allison casually offered the appreciative crowd.
A stellar performance from world-class musicians, a full house, and charming hospitality despite the place’s not-technically-open status left smiles on the faces of those who came, and the convoluted recent history of the space seemed like a distant memory.
When asked later how the Brett Dennen show went on Saturday, Moore said. ”We had about 150; but during the show Dennen asked the crowd, ‘How many from Duluth?’, and only about ten percent of them made noise. We had a lot of folks drive up from the Cities and down from Canada.”
It appears the strategy is to book big names whose Duluth performances won’t be flanked by shows in other nearby cities, an approach that hasn’t yet been brought to the table in Duluth.
Writer Mike Novitzki is the host of The Current’s Duluth Local Show. Photographer Savannah Miller is a student at the University of Minnesota — Duluth.