Aside from the name of one of the opening acts — Wheelchair Sports Camp — there’s no clue in the poster or digital ads for Saturday’s gig at Ordway Concert Hall as to what the artists all have in common, or how they’re different from most performers who take the stage there.
And that’s exactly how headliner and organizer Gaelynn Lea wanted it.
“Obviously, we’re advocating and hoping to spread a message,” said the Duluth singer/songwriter/violinist. “But that’s not all the show is about. I didn’t want people who aren’t disabled to think this isn’t for them.”
As many Minnesota music fans know by now, Gaelynn Lea Tressler is the Duluth scenester who won National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2016. Since then, she has been touring the world singing her original and traditional folk songs. On the side, she’s also become a speaker and advocate for disabled people.
In the performance video submitted to the NPR contest, viewers were famously won over by her song before the camera panned out to reveal she was singing it from a wheelchair — a tactic she humorously chalked up to it simply being filmed on a cellphone. (“We really only had one camera effect to work with: zooming in and out.”)
She is taking a similar approach to Saturday’s concert. After performing at the Ordway’s Sally Awards last year, Gaelynn applied for a grant to put on a showcase there with other physically challenged performers — “something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said, “but I wanted to do it right.”
Saturday’s concert will also feature Denver hip-hop group Wheelchair Sports Camp and two Twin Cities musicians, acoustic guitar virtuoso Billy McLaughlin and teenage turntablist DJ FunSize.
Musically, the acts are about as far apart as one four-act lineup can get, but they all perform with physical challenges, which they will discuss in a preshow Q&A.
McLaughlin had to switch from playing his guitar righthanded to lefthanded — essentially starting over — when he was diagnosed in 2001 with dystonia, a neuromuscular disease. DJ FunSize (Aidan Stromdahl) is a person of short stature who’s become a big-time record spinner while still a student at Edison High School in northeast Minneapolis.
As for Wheelchair Sports Camp, its wordsmith leader Kalyn Heffernan was born with brittle bone disease, the same as Gaelynn.
“So there was no way we were not going to meet,” Heffernan said of her Duluth compatriot, whom she first learned of via the NPR contest. Since then, they have performed together several times and shared notes on the challenges they’ve faced as touring musicians.
Heffernan, whose latest album was released by indie-rap star Sage Francis’ label Strange Famous, believes Saturday’s show will set a good example of what disabled musicians need — and what they bring.
The Ordway will make room for extra wheelchairs at Saturday night’s performance, and is providing a sign-language interpreter, too. That’s a good start, the musicians say.
“It’s more than just making sure a venue is totally accessible on and off stage,” Heffernan said. “It’s also about representation on stage.”
‘I decided to own it’
Heffernan has made her short physical stature and use of a wheelchair a point of pride and even sometimes humor in her bluntly worded tunes with Wheelchair Sports Camp.
Case in point: Her band enjoyed something of a viral hit in 2016 with a song called “Hard Out Here for a Gimp,” a play on the Oscar-winning “Hustle & Flow” soundtrack hit “Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”
Said Heffernan, “I started writing rap songs when I was 12, and back then I just figured there’s no way I could hide the way I look, even if I wanted to. So I decided to own it from an early age.”
Gaelynn has weighed in recent years whether to make her disability a part of her act or just let her music speak for itself.
“It’s one thing to identify as a disabled artist, as I’m proud to do,” she said, “but it’s not the only thing I want to be identified as.”
The Duluth native, who teaches violin when she’s home, always tries to accommodate fans with special needs at shows. One often-overlooked barrier is simply the cost of concert tickets. That’s why a discount code is being offered for Saturday’s show for those in need.
“A lot of disabled people also have their own unique financial challenges,” she said. Such a service should be the rule, not the exception, she believes.
Both Gaelynn and her Denver cohort view their advocacy as part of a broader campaign for human rights.
“Oppression is oppression is oppression,” Gaelynn summarized.
An outspoken supporter of LGBTQ rights and homeless services around Denver, Heffernan ran an unsuccessful but attention-grabbing mayoral campaign over the past year.
“From early on, I’ve been a good story in the press because of the adversity I’ve had to overcome,” she said, “and it didn’t take me long to realize I can use that to my leverage, and to the leverage of the things I believe in.”
As serious as these issues are, though, Gaelynn said she hesitates to sound “too preachy.”
“If all you want to do is come and enjoy an entertaining evening of good music,” she said, “this will definitely do the job.”