Like any other Minnesotan, I enjoy hopping a plane to somewhere warmer for a week or so in the winter, but summer is the perfect time to enjoy local offerings out on the open road.
Some vacation for leisure; others for adventure. I always find myself drawn to the nightlife of my various destinations — particularly live music. When I visit a new city, the first thing I like to do is find a small venue and check out a local band I haven’t heard of. As a long-time radio warrior and 11-year resident of the musically rich cityscape that is downtown Duluth, a city’s musical talent (and residents’ level of engagement with it) says a lot to me about local flavor and has become a benchmark by which I judge livability.
So let’s follow the naturally air-conditioned shore of the greatest Great Lake in search of the best music the North has to offer. Here’s to summer, rock ‘n’ roll tourism, and Lake Superior as your compass.
The surplus of talent and rapidly increasing number of venues make the city a perfect gateway for a musical tour of Lake Superior. The Homegrown Music Festival — Duluth’s annual local art extravaganza — celebrated its 20th anniversary this year with a lineup that fell just shy of 200 acts.
Hometown heroes Trampled by Turtles are back from hiatus and have announced they’ll be returning to Bayfront Park on Saturday, July 7 with Charlie Parr, the Last Revel, Superior Siren, Bad Bad Hats, and Teague Alexy for what is sure to be the city’s musical event of the summer. The park will also host Bone Thugs-N-Harmony with Naughty by Nature and Coolio on July 6, Bayfront Reggae & World Music Festival on July 21, and the Bayfront Blues Festival, celebrating its 30th year, on Aug. 10-12.
In the early 20th century heyday of lumber, steel, and railroads, Duluth was an industrial hub. Today, with its antiquated infrastructure and entangled lore of murders, miners, and millionaires, the city’s as good a destination for history buffs as it is for music and craft beer aficionados.
Get up to speed with a visit to the town’s historic venues: Sacred Heart Music Center is a late 19th century neo-Gothic cathedral turned performance venue and recording studio for musicians who don’t mind a bit of natural reverb. It frequently hosts acts like Haley, Mason Jennings, and Low. Tickets are now available for Har Mar Superstar’s Sam Cooke tribute on Aug. 10.
Duluth’s pioneering musicians and fans who frequented the newly renovated NorShor Theatre in its glory days as an underground artist space are still anxiously anticipating what role music will play in its new era with the Duluth Playhouse as its anchor tenant.
On the east side, Glensheen Mansion enters its fourth summer as a makeshift outdoor music venue with Concerts On the Pier, a Wednesday night series in July featuring performances on a literal pier in the mansion’s backyard. This year’s lineup includes a brass-heavy soul/funk collective, Big Wave Dave and the Ripples, on July 4; R&B three-piece, the Latelys, on July 11; bluegrass quartet Black River Revue on July 18; and heavy blues rock outfit (fronted by Low’s Alan Sparhawk), the Black Eyed Snakes, on July 25. The events are free and open to the public, many of whom tend to arrive via watercraft.
Word on the street
When it comes to music in Duluth, there’s no need to plan too far in advance. As you walk through downtown, you’ll encounter around 10 music venues in as many blocks. Stop by Sir Benedict’s, Carmody Irish Pub, or Canal Park’s Amazing Grace Bakery & Cafe for a casual acoustic experience. Dive into R.T. Quinlan’s for a noisy underground escape.
To enjoy Grandma’s Marathon weekend, you don’t need to be a runner or a spectator. You just need to like being around people…lots of people. Between the marathon traffic and road construction downtown Duluth will be a headache to navigate by car June 15-16 but luckily most of the action takes place in the very walkable Canal Park, which hosts two large-scale entertainment options for those in town.
Rock the Big Top is the official Grandma’s Marathon hosted event taking place all weekend. G.B Leighton was the returning headliner for years until they took a big-name 90’s nostalgia approach with groups like Smash Mouth and Everclear. This year’s headliner: Fever Ray. Taking place simultaneously — directly on the other side of the block — is Lake Ave Live, a more locally-focused showcase of music and eats hosted by Lave Avenue Restaurant and Bar. This year’s event features Duluth favorites including Superior Siren, Alamode, and Red Mountain as well as some noteworthy visitors like Gramma’s Boyfriend and the Milwaukee-based GGOOLLDD.
The now four-year-old Red Herring Lounge hosts local and national acts three to four nights a week and has established two main summer events: The Current Goes to Duluth, July 27–28, which coincides with All Pints North Summer Brew Fest on July 28, and the Super Big Block Party come Sept. 8. The lineups for both are still TBA, but past performers include Lizzo, Grieves, Caroline Smith, Dead Man Winter, the 4onthefloor, and deM atlaS.
In the last year, several new stages have appeared in downtown Duluth.
Blacklist Artisan Ales now occupies the space on Superior Street once home to the infamous Last Place On Earth. They specialize in high-gravity Belgian/German-style brews and have recently been booking the taproom several nights a week with a mix of Minnesota’s rising talents like Night Moves, Nooky Jones, Mike Munson, the Lowest Pair, Dwynell Roland, and a host of Duluth marquee artists. Rebooted Twin Cities favorite Roma di Luna will share a bill with Duluth veteran Toby Thomas Churchill on June 30.
Right next door is SOUND, which takes a leaf from Minneapolis’s Dakota. The focus is on genres complementary to a fine dining experience. Since opening in January, the stage has featured national acts like Brett Dennen, G. Love, Anders Osborne, and Dessa.
Slightly off the beaten path of Canal Park is BLUSH, which opened in August of 2017. The 46-capacity bar/gallery/venue with no stage creates an up-close-and-personal atmosphere with the lo-fi, experimental acts that drive its overall sound. BLUSH is a queer community safe space, owned and frequented by gender non-binary members of the music scene’s youngest echelon.
Beaner’s Central is approaching its 20th year as a live music staple in the tourist-free West Duluth and hosts Petefest, June 6–10, a week-long local music showcase curated by well-known bouncer, merch salesman, and all around local music fanatic, Pete Cich. This year includes performances from Ingeborg Von Agassiz, the Brothers Burn Mountain, lake walk busker Jeffrey James O’Loughlin, and more.
Duluth’s most unexpected show announcements of the year so far would have to be the city’s first ever visit from Modest Mouse Sept. 18 at the DECC Symphony Hall and Mastodon with Dinosaur Jr., slated Sept. 7 — sandwiched between stops in Winnipeg and Sioux City. Though the real head scratcher is the venue: Lincoln Park’s Duluth Heritage Center — a youth/high school-sized hockey arena in Lincoln Park-West End.
Wisconsin/Michigan — Upper Peninsula
Across the harbor in Superior, Wisc., Thirsty Pagan Brewing has built a lively happy hour culture around daily acoustic performances, and the Cedar Lounge is known for its occasional Wednesday residencies with Charlie Parr. The beer bar, which serves as Earth Rider Brewery’s taproom, also released a collection of live recordings in 2017 called The Cedar Sessions Volume 1.
As you head up the South Shore, you’ll reach Bayfield, home of Big Top Chautauqua — famous for its iconic blue canvas tent and yearly summer lineups of national touring roots and Americana acts. This summer’s noteworthy visits include Brandi Carlile on June 16; New Power Generation on July 7; Arlo Guthrie on July 19; Shakey Graves on July 31; Ladysmith Black Mambazo on August 2; and Son Volt with Pokey LaFarge on August 11.
From Bayfield you can ferry to Madeline Island to meet the colorful regulars of Tom’s Burned Down Cafe, or keep heading east to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Marquette’s Hiawatha Festival, which often draws from Minnesota’s musical pool, turns 40 this year. The Cactus Blossoms and Pert Near Sandstone headlined last summer’s fest and 2018’s main stage welcomes 11 performers, including Minneapolis zydeco group the Bone Tones, set for July 20–22. According to the festival’s website, “The Hiawatha Festival is the only event of its size and scope in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Without Hiawatha, local performers and fans would have to travel between four and six hours to the nearest festivals of its size and type.”
Lake Superior’s shores are home to more than one Grand Marais. Grand Marais, Mich. is located on the U.P., about halfway between Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie, and this year is hosting the 37th Grand Marais Music & Arts Festival, August 10-12 with Toronto-based headliners the Sadies.
Similar to Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park, though smaller, is Thunder Bay’s Marina Park, which hosts regional acts during Live on The Waterfront every Wednesday through July and August and the Thunder Bay Blues Festival on July 6-8, with headliners Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge, and Sarah McLachlan.
The Foundry Pub is located in the entertainment district and is similar to South Minneapolis staple Icehouse, serving high-end pub fare and cocktails in a theater-esque atmosphere with live music on weekends.
Just over the border from Thunder Bay is Grand Marais, Minn., where the Gunflint Tavern books touring groups for two-night stints on summer weekends. Space Monkey Mafia, the Lark and the Loon, and Black River Revue are among this season’s residents. To wrap up the town’s tourist season, The 4onthefloor takes over Wunderbar Eatery and Glampground September 20-22 for Stompers’ Retreat, a festival curated by frontman Gabriel Douglas.
Papa Charlie’s is the nightlife arm of Lutsen Mountains and is at its busiest during winter après-ski hours, but features an intimate Monday night songwriter series through the beginning of October for the hiking, canoeing, and disc-golfing summer crowd. The bar also features live music every Saturday night throughout summer and fall.
So pack your swimsuit, a sweatshirt, and some earplugs. You’ve got ground to cover.
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the June edition of The Growler.