Venue. Venue. Venue, venue, venue. With welcoming signs unmissable on sidewalks throughout downtown Red Wing, it seems like every bookstore, wine bar, and Scandinavian gift shop (okay, maybe not the latter) has been deputized as a music venue for the first-ever Big Turn Music Fest.
It’s a triumphant homecoming for Sam Brown, who’s had such resounding success since 2010 with the Mid West Music Fest. Red Wing is his home town, and the whole community has pitched in to show that a similar event can work in “the Desirable City.”
That nickname for the city dates at least to the 1904 construction of the Sheldon Theatre, where I spent much of last night as emcee for a quartet of acts that each brought a special energy to the historic stage.
Red Wing mayor Sean Dowse, who was executive director of the theater before being elected in 2016, was back in his old stomping grounds last night, enthusiastically supervising the venue and keeping me posted with updates on crowd size. He even gave me a couple of Big Turn t-shirts to toss into the crowd, an experience that’s given me new empathy for merch-tossers who can’t quite make it into the balcony. (One of my attempts just flew straight up and then landed back on the stage.)
The night’s first two acts performed intimate, stripped-down sets. Singer-songwriter Trapper Schoepp, accompanied on bass by his brother Tanner (yes, those are both their stage names and their actual names), captivated the crowd with his story songs about back therapy, car crashes, college, and roller coasters — a subject of his latest EP, Bay Beach Amusement Park. Schoepp now hails from Milwaukee, but he was born in Red Wing and even showed off his locally-crafted footwear.
Open seats were scarce as a beaming Caroline Smith took the stage to a crowd eager for the rare opportunity to hear the wildly popular artist in such a hushed setting. They cheered for quiet versions of songs like “Bloodstyle” and “Child of Moving On,” but also embraced her heart-stopping new material, which included a devastating song about loss that Smith said she’s rarely able to perform without tears. She even treated us to “Closing the Doors,” a nugget from what she described as her “folk phase.”
The backline of amps hummed to life for the Twilight Hours, whose rich orchestrations and warm harmonies filled the theater for fans who know the band well: after I mentioned only co-frontmen John Munson and Matt Wilson in my introduction, guitarist Steve Roehm got supportive shouts from audience members who didn’t want him to feel under-appreciated. “My Return” and “Call Me” were standouts in a sterling set.
Brown, beaming, stepped out to thank everyone who made the festival possible before we welcomed the event’s headliners: Porcupine. The dynamic power trio have a unique relationship with Big Turn: they’ve been anchors of the Mid West Music Fest, and bassist Greg Norton has called Red Wing home since the early ’80s. After all those decades, it was Norton’s first time on the Sheldon stage — “unless you count a father-daughter dance,” he told me backstage. In the elegant environs, even Porcupine’s explosive sound seemed to take on new dimensions, with the members’ tight interplay gratifyingly apparent.
— Local Current (@LocalCurrent) February 17, 2018
My girlfriend and I walked down the street to grab breakfast-for-dinner at Liberty’s Restaurant and Lounge, where a steady stream of wristbanded fans made their way past us to the back room, where Winona’s Fugnacious were bringing the funk. We settled up and hurried around the corner, where Red Wing’s quiet streets belied the sprawling party scene inside the Elks Lodge.
Everyone was out, it seemed: as I was snapping a shot of the lodge’s leadership photo wall, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, that’s him!” There behind me was the Esteemed Leading Knight himself.
Speaking of military ranks, General B and the Wiz were nearing the climax of their set. Vocalist Quincy Voris was working his Sun-Studios-style microphone behind a barrier that kept the enthusiastic crowd at bay. Fans of all generations were nodding their heads, noshing on pizza, and grabbing drinks as lights played over a taxidermied buck head; by the end of the evening, an article of someone’s clothing was draped over the deer’s glass eyes.
The omnipresent Brown was posted up near the front as hip-hop heroes Heiruspecs fired up for their midnight set. The lodge turned out to have a bone-crunching sound system; eight hours later, Sean McPherson’s bass lines are still thrumming through my sternum. Red Wing’s truly playing with power, and tonight the music continues. Check the festival’s website for lineup and ticket information.