DULUTH — “You’ve never been to Homegrown?!”
I heard that a dozen times over the course of one day in Duluth. Each reaction sounded far more surprised than when I told people in March I was skipping South by Southwest Music Conference (SXSW) in Texas for the first time since high school. One was understandable, but the other apparently not.
In its 18th year, the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival (DHGMF) is a lot like Austin’s SXSW — a weeklong live music marathon that takes over bars, performance spaces, coffee shops and even a church in downtown Duluth. Volunteers work the doors. Bands work for more or less a pittance. Patrons work the sidewalks, bouncing from venue to venue, sometimes just because they can.
One key difference from SXSW: The artists who play DHGMF are all from the Twin Ports area or nearby towns. Well, and there’s the fact that Duluth is not known as the Live Music Capitol of the World, like Austin. Some of its residents may differ on that point, however.
For at least Homegrown’s culminating weekend, Duluth is the most fun place in Minnesota to be a live music fan. It’s sort of the perfect size, too — the city and the event.
A fest of this type in Minneapolis would be too spread out, even if you left out St. Paul. And who needs bigger? There’s really no difference between 15 venues offering live music and 150. Not even John Belushi could have made it to 150 bars in one night.
On Friday, when I finally got on the Homegrown bus — there really is a bus, by the way — I took in 16 acts in one day. About half were below the cutoff where I consider them neither newsworthy nor praiseworthy, sure, but that’s about the same average I get at SXSW.
Many of the performers I liked best were the ones that sounded the most … Duluthian. I didn’t want to go to the bay-front city and see some Young Thug-wannabe rapper, nor another damn band trying to be Radiohead (although, to be fair, Radiohead’s new record sounds like it’s trying to be Low, Duluth’s resident indie-rock heroes).
When in Duluth, I’d rather hear a no-frills, blue-collar, hard-rocking power-trio such as the True Malarkey, which kicked off the lineup at the city’s new musical hot spot, the Red Herring Lounge, and offered a new rallying cry for local residents, “The Pothole Effect” — a rager against weatherworn streets.
When in Duluth, give me a collegiate hippie band such as the Social Animals, which packed the city’s Pizza Lucé outlet — long a happening music venue — and had students from UMD and St. Scholastica singing and dancing along to its Spin Doctors-meets-Dawes original tunes. Guitarist Tony Peterson seemed a tad overdressed to be doubling on banjo decked out in a white ruffled shirt and gold lamé pants, but he and the quartet tastefully added a twangy side to their jangly rock sound that may have been enhanced by their recent woodshedding stints in Nashville.
And when in Duluth, give me a wry, rowdy, tough, soulful singer/songwriter such as Hannah Rey, who asked for whiskey from the audience at her solo set inside the Dubh Linn Pub and had a shot in hand within 15 seconds. Rey gave back a potent cocktail of hard drinking and soft love songs, coming off like a Robbie Fulks or John Prine type of tunesmith with a deep but tender voice like Lissie’s. Sample lyric: “I know I’d feel better if I wasn’t hung over.”
Some familiar names
Rey was my favorite discovery of the fest, the one act I knew nothing about before walking into a bar to see her and would now head to any bar to catch again (attention: Twin Cities music bookers). Perhaps the other big new endorsement out of my one night at the fest could be for the band I didn’t get to see at all: The Fontanelles, who had an impossibly long line outside Lucé. At SXSW, anyway, that’s cause for a buzz.
Over at R.T. Quinlan’s Saloon, there was another surprising crush of bodies for Fred Tyson, an old-school R&B singer. Decked out in a flashy hat and billowy shirt straight out of an old Kool & the Gang video, Tyson sang out sweet but meaty versions of such songs as the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her?” accompanied by a drum machine and three female backup vocalists.
From slow grooves to fast and fiesty cowpunk, the Iron Range Outlaw Brigade — co-helmed by the Glenrustles’ Glen Mattson — took over the Dubh Linn Pub with a riotously fun mash-up of Johnny Cash-style country and Cramps-like riffs. I tried to take in another country-ish band, the Dan Dresser Trio, at Tycoon’s Alehouse, but they took more than a half-hour to set up, a no-no at these type of rapid-moving events.
There were some familiar names in the festival, too. Twin Cities rocker Al Church — who grew up in Duluth and thus claims dual citizenship for Homegrown — delivered his ’80s-flavored, sax-enhanced moody pop/rock tunes to a packed and impressed Pizza Lucé crowd. He brought out another former Duluthian, 4onthefloor frontman Gabriel Douglas, in an apparent showing of expat solidarity.
The city’s most noted export of the moment, violin-looping singer/songwriter Gaelynn Lea — fresh off her win in National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Contest — crammed in three sets Friday, starting with an informal in-store at the Electric Fetus on Superior Street and ending with a regal show at the intimate Teatro Zuccone. In between, she headed west of downtown to Beaner’s Central coffee shop, where she joined the city’s grand poobah of rock musicians, Alan Sparhawk of Low, in their long-standing duo Murder of Crows. Sparhawk’s guitar work added a dark groove to Lea’s winning tune “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” and together they churned out a riveting instrumental version of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.”
Sparhawk apparently wasn’t satisfied with just one set on Homegrown Friday, either. With Eric “Actual Wolf” Pollard back in town for the festival, the Low frontman threw together an unannounced late-night set at the Red Herring by their reverberating trio Retribution Gospel Choir, also featuring Low bassist Steve Garrington. The threesome hadn’t played together in about a year, but you wouldn’t have known it as they hammered out an hour of bash-and-roar improv jams.
Yet another way DHGMF mimics SXSW: secret shows by big names. They weren’t Kanye West big, sure, but size is very relative in the case of Duluth’s booming little festival that could.