One chapter in the long and complicated history of Duluth’s NorShor Theatre is the role it played as a rock venue and casual hangout for the city’s burgeoning music scene of the late ’90s and early 2000s when heavy hitters like Low, Trampled By Turtles, and Charlie Parr were just starting their careers.
Following that chapter, the building and its reputation both fell into disrepair as it became what many considered a blight in too visible a neighborhood, going through a stint as a strip club and hotbed for drugs and gang activity.
After the city purchased the building in 2010 and the Duluth Playhouse signed on as the theater’s anchor tenant, spearheading the renovation and officially reopening the doors Feb. 1 with a run of locally produced performances of the musical Mamma Mia!, many nostalgic local music fans wondered if the NorShor’s new identity would have a place for them. Those fans were positively reassured by “Don Ness Shows Off the NorShor,” which took place on Saturday night.
“I wouldn’t want to be one of those sad sacks who didn’t get tickets,” said Take It With You‘s Mary Fox into the mic as 650 ticket-holding happy sacks excitedly took their seats for the sold-out show. Fox and a few other members of the radio theater troupe then launched into a skit about what those without tickets might be doing instead, which included sitting at a bar, drinking copious amounts of Bent Paddle beer while singing Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.”
The Take It With You cast, known for humor and quick wit, are often tapped to emcee events in Duluth, and did so in place of Don Ness, who preferred his prime seat in the audience for the night. The city’s beer- and music-loving former mayor was the biggest proponent of the theater’s renovation project while in office from 2008-2016, and independently organized the show as a way to see it through. With performers like Low, Dave Simonett, and Gaelynn Lea, it was a very hot ticket indeed.
Those who arrived when the doors opened at 6:30 were greeted to a pre-show performance from local folk trio Coyote, whose quiet style provided welcoming ambiance for curious attendees to get situated and take in the room’s renewed visual and acoustic aesthetics. The first half of the evening was a variety show featuring music, humor and words from a carefully curated lineup of local guests.
After the introduction, Gaelynn Lea took the stage with occasional band members Martin Dosh and formerly Duluth-based musician Dave Mehling (the Fontanelles, Portage), whose guitar and drums added an upbeat and slightly more accessible quality to the normally somber solo violin music. The trio started with “Watch The World Unfold,” from Lea’s 2016 album The Songs We Sing Along the Way, then tried out two new singles from her forthcoming album All Changing Tides.
Following Lea’s three-song performance, Perfect Duluth Day editor and lifelong Duluth resident Paul Lundgren performed a brief standup routine recalling memories of his experiences at the theater throughout its many manifestations, including a particularly heartwarming story about “finding [his] people” at a mid-1990s performance by a short-lived Alan Sparhawk project called the Hospital People.
The audience got a few laughs in as songwriter Rick McLean won them over. His baggy jeans, flannel shirt, bright orange hair, raspy voice, simple chord progressions and raw, sarcastic lyrical style cut through the refined atmosphere with a grounding lo-fi charm, which faded out through his applause and vanished as three black-clad members of Superior Siren emerged from behind the curtain and reminded us we were at the “theatre” with a few slow burning melodies from their recent self-titled release.
After another nostalgic anecdote from a different Perfect Duluth Day staffer and spoken-word author Anna Tennis, Dave Simonett and Benson Ramsey (the Pines) emerged in their signature stocking caps to perform a few songs together, including Trampled By Turtles’ most unabashed ode to Duluth, “Winners.”
The novelty of the venue and occasion kept attendees away from their seats well past the advertised 20-minute intermission, until the unmistakable thump of Low’s “No Comprende” could be heard in the atrium, creating a sense of urgency. By the end of the first song, most of the crowd had returned. The normally stoic Alan Sparhawk found a way to lighten the mood his music creates with a joke about being invited to the “reopening” of a historic theater he had frequented before it closed, and what that implies about his age.
The band continued with The Invisible Way‘s “Plastic Cup” and “Holy Ghost” before once again proving their unfaltering relevance and evolution with three hard-hitting new songs. Every time I think I’ve put Low through the wringer I’m proven wrong.
When the classic “Dinosaur Act” transitioned seamlessly into an epic seven-minute rendition of The Great Destroyer‘s “Pissing” that ended with Sparhawk literally screaming into his pickups, before yanking the chord from his guitar and allowing the jack to hit the stage at the exact moment the room fell silent, I was blown way the attention to detail. There’s something about the intersection of order and chaos during a Low performance that reminds me of Fibonacci and spiral shapes. So simple, yet so enigmatically complex.
They ended the night by inviting Simonett and Lea onstage to perform their aptly named distortion monster “When I Go Deaf.” As the last notes faded out, Sparhawk offered an uplifting parting message. “Hey! I’m gonna make it…and you’re gonna make it,” he said, pointing to someone in the audience, “and you’re gonna make it and we’re all gonna make it!”
After all the roadblocks in the NorShor’s recent history, seeing people respond so positively to the former mayor’s call to create new memories in the space felt like a hard-fought win for Duluth.