As Scott Lunt looked back on those quieter, more innocent days in his doubly cool bayfront town, he remembered the first official Duluth Homegrown Music Festival in 1999 had the same kind of all-encompassing, citywide vibe it has today.
There just wasn’t nearly as much to encompass.
“There were only about eight bands in town back then,” Lunt said. “So we didn’t need more than one weekend.”
Actually, many consider Lunt’s birthday party the year before that to be the first Homegrown. Leader of the twang-rocky band Father Hennepin and a former pirate-radio host known as Starfire — he went on to have a Low song and a Fitger’s beer named after him — Lunt was the main instigator of what is now an eight-day festival, opening Sunday and featuring almost 200 acts spread among a couple dozen Duluth venues.
A sense of community has been key to the festival’s success.
“It seemed like everyone was just getting to know each other at first, which was probably the first step,” said singer/songwriter Amy Abts. She recalls both the Lunt birthday bash and the true first-year Homegrown, held at the then-crumbling but now newly refurbished NorShor Theatre on Superior Street in the heart of downtown.
“That birthday party really planted the idea that people in Duluth would even turn out to see original bands,” recalled another Homegrown pioneer, Mark Lindquist, who fronted the band Giljunko and had a low-tech home studio used by most of the bands in town. “By the second or third year, the festival really took off.”
Duluth’s sleepy little music scene — musically somnolent at times in the case of Low, the city’s best known band — has also taken off.
The city has been home to such nationally recognized names as Trampled by Turtles, Charlie Parr, Gaelynn Lea, Haley (nee Haley Bonar), Rachael Kilgour, Actual Wolf and Retribution Gospel Choir, and regionally known players like Rich Mattson & the Northstars, Mary Bue, the 4onthefloor, Al Church, Teague and Ian Alexy, the Fontanelles, Superior Siren, Toby Thomas Churchill and the Black Eyed Snakes.
Of course, there are also many, many lesser-known acts waiting in the wings.
Homegrown’s regular participants say the festival hasn’t just reflected and benefited from Duluth’s blooming music scene. It’s played a big role in planting it.
“Getting to play Homegrown became a good thing for younger, newer bands to aspire to,” said Marc Gartman of Two Many Banjos and Glitteratti. “And for some of the older bands that couldn’t really keep it together, it became the one thing that would bring them back together each year.”
Looking back on how his birthday party sparked this whole shebang, Lunt said, “If my birthday had been July 6 instead, it probably never would’ve worked, because by then everyone is busy with summer stuff.”
Always opening before the first weekend in May, “the timing [of Homegrown] sort of perfectly coincides with the end or near-end of the college year and the first signs of warm weather — which in Duluth is obviously a huge incentive,” he said.
Lunt based those initial Homegrowns on the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Conference in Austin, Texas, which he visited a few times in the late ’90s with his friends in Low.
Like Austin — and unlike Minneapolis and St. Paul — Duluth is a good festival hub because of the relative proximity of the bars and other spaces that host live music during the festival.
With Homegrown helping lead the way, the Fitger’s Brewhouse, R.T. Quinlan’s Saloon, Sir Benedict’s Tavern, Grandma’s Sports Garden and the West Duluth coffeehouse Beaner’s Central became music venues mostly year-round.
They’ve been complemented in recent years by Clyde Iron Works, Teatro Zuccone and the city’s flourishing brewery and distillery scene, including Bent Paddle, Black List Artisan Ales, Hoops Brewing, Ursa Minor Brewing, Duluth Cider and Vikre Distillery.
Fitger’s recently stopped hosting regular gigs, however, and this year’s Homegrown might be the last for Duluth’s most happening music venue, the Red Herring. Its owner, Bob Monohan, has put the space up for sale.
Still, as happens at SXSW, there are always new venues, new bands and the never-ending turnover of new college students to keep Homegrown rolling for years to come. The festival is now a nonprofit organization, run by a committee of local musicians, music professionals and other arts volunteers. Executive Director Melissa “Ginger” La Tour’s background includes being a roller girl and a choir girl.
A lot of the people who first made Homegrown now mostly just sit back and enjoy it — or sit at home and let others enjoy it.
“I used to speed around on Rollerblades to get from one place to another quicker, I loved it so much,” Gartman said. “But now I’m old and leave all that craziness to the newbies.”
Said Lunt, “I think like SXSW or any festival that reaches a certain age, some people who’ve been around it a long time get a little jaded about it.”
However, he added, “Every year there’s always excitement around it. There are always kids lining up for the shows. When it’s Homegrown time, Duluth always ramps up.”
We asked some of the Duluth Homegrown fest’s longtime participants to share favorite moments:
Charlie Parr: “The first Homegrown I played  is still my favorite. I played in the Brewhouse right before Gordon Thorne and then wandered over to the NorShor to see Baby Grant Johnson and Father Hennepin. I’d only just moved to Duluth and the feeling of inclusiveness in the music scene was just what I needed at the time. That spirit is what has kept this festival and the Duluth arts scene so vibrant all these years.”
Mary Bue: “The Black Eyed Snakes at Pizza Lucé in 2001 or 2002. Lucé was a fairly new venue, and Duluth was jonesing for spring in the most feverish way. The show was sweaty, smoky — smoking ban wasn’t up yet — and packed. The Snakes have that super sexy, grungy blues thing going on. People were clambering up on the bar, taking their shirts off and grinding. It was awesome. I was still in college and ‘almost’ 21. A peak Duluth show for me.”
Al Church: "One of my fondest memories from Homegrown was when I played acoustic guitar on the DTA trolley, strumming a bunch of sing-alongs for people going around to the various venues. It's these little things about Homegrown that make it such a unique festival and highlight the historic elements of Duluth."
Marc Gartman (Two Many Banjos, Glitteratti): “Three years ago, back when Retribution Gospel Choir were still a somewhat active band, they did an unannounced show at the Red Herring that was just incredible. I’d heard it was going to happen, so I got there early and was right up front hugging the monitors. It was really really loud and really epic, and they played some great new songs that they probably still haven’t recorded. God, I miss that band.”
Mark Lindquist: “In the second year, when we did the kickball game, you saw all these so-called rock stars trying to play kickball on a muddy field at 11 in the morning. That’s when I knew something unique was happening around the festival. Also, I think it was the first time any of us saw [Low’s] Al Sparhawk in sweatpants, which was sort of strange.”
Scott “Starfire” Lunt: “A lot of my favorite moments are with bands I didn’t know, and whose names I can’t even remember. I don’t plan anything when I go out; I just surrender to the night. When you do that and find a band you’ve never seen or maybe never even heard of, and they blow you away, that’s always the best. That’s really what it’s all about.”