DULUTH – He wasn't yet a fan of Bon Iver or Hippo Campus, but George Martin loves Bob Seger. So the Vietnam and Korean War veteran was touched to have Seger's song "Like a Rock" dedicated to him from Bayfront Festival Park on Wednesday afternoon.
"This is a special day," said Martin, 85, of Wisconsin's Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, after Minneapolis singer Annie Fitzgerald gave him and his service a shout-out.
Martin's wife, Sydney, added, "This makes our heart feel powerful, seeing so many people young and old come out to an event like this."
The event was the Water Is Life Festival at Duluth's waterfront amphitheater, which — depending on your view — was either a rock concert with a purpose or a protest with a great soundtrack.
The 10-hour, 14-act music marathon carried a strong undercurrent of American Indian culture and brought together a lot of different groups of people based around a divisive issue: the Line 3 pipeline, which Canadian oil company Enbridge is currently building across northern Minnesota near the Mississippi River and other waterways.
Organized by Indigenous environmental activist Winona LaDuke and Minneapolis musician David Huckfelt with production help from First Avenue, the festival came together in less than a month's planning time but surprisingly still ran smoothly — even after 11 other northern Minnesota mayors sent a letter to Duluth Mayor Emily Larson trying to stop the event. They cited a risk of violence and their ongoing support for Line 3 to provide jobs and energy.
In the end, the only thing that seemed dangerous at Water Is Life was Wednesday's baking heat and the wildfire in nearby Superior National Forest, which LaDuke singled out on stage.
"It's not supposed to be like this in Duluth," she said in one of a dozen-plus speeches from Native activists about protecting the environment. The concert doubled as a fundraiser for her long-running nonprofit Honor the Earth.
Many of the 4,000 or so attendees were there mainly to catch the main-stage music, a lineup that included Bon Iver — playing his/their first post-quarantine concert — along with other Upper Midwest mainstays Charlie Parr, Hippo Campus and Lissie, plus bluesy South Carolina singer Adia Victoria.
Still, the music fans on hand also seemed to appreciate the added messaging.
"Especially after the pandemic, I want to find ways to contribute and make this a better world," said University of Minnesota Duluth student Emma Bursinger. "This feels like the right way to do it."
Native voices weren't just prominent as speakers but also as musicians throughout the day.
Dorene Day Waubanewquay added spiritual chants to Minneapolis folk musician Larry Long's old-school-folk fight songs. Drum duo Giniw and Nigigoons joined Duluth indie-rock vet Alan Sparhawk of Low fame during an improvised set of electric guitar drone and traditional Indian singing. Hoop dancer Samsoche Sampson and Oregon singer-songwriter Quiltman joined Huckfelt for the earthy soul-searcher "The Book of Life." Red Lake's Thomas X rapped about the struggles and strengths on Indian reservations as he filled in for no-show Mumu Fresh in the slot right before Bon Iver.
A hundred mostly non-Native attendees formed a traditional Indian dance circle during Ojibwe songwriting legend Keith Secola's anthem "NDN Kars."
"Welcome to the resistance," Secola yelled at the dancers, a scene impossible to resist smiling over.
Many of Wednesday's performers purposefully dropped in songs about water. Huckfelt and his all-star band the Unarmed Forces delivered a lush cover of Willie Nelson's "The Maker" ("Oh, deep water / Oh river, rise from your sleep"). Lissie talked about growing up near the big river and pollution in Rock Island, Ill., before her spirited "Oh Mississippi."
Performing as the sun set over the Duluth hillside, Victoria delivered a shimmering set full of poetically haunted, gospel-based songs based on her family's Old South African American heritage: "We have a lot in common," she noted toward her fellow Native performers.
With as many fans singing along as in Bon Iver's set, St. Paul-reared pop-rockers Hippo Campus looked downright giddy playing their first show of 2021, offering extra-buoyant versions of "South" and "Warm Glow."
Bon Iver's eight-song set started out mellow with "Flume" but quickly turned feverish as a pair of Indian drum circle singers, Jeremy and Dylan, set up a smoldering "Blood Bank." Singer Justin Vernon ended with a cover of "With God on Our Side" — "a song by a man born in Duluth [dedicated] to the men of Enbridge," he said.
After 10-plus years of building up Bon Iver's set musically and visually, singer Justin Vernon made a bold step back to a raw, three- and four-piece band that exposed a few cracks (namely his voice in the high-reaching "22 #Stafford Apts") but also added a tenderness (especially in a cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You" accompanied by Mike Lewis on sax).
Summing up his emotions about being back on stage, Vernon said music "started as an expression of being alive."
"And you know what the number one thing is to keep us alive?" he asked.
"Water" was the answer, but live music like the passionate and often urgent performances at this festival also might have sufficed.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658