DULUTH IS A CITY UNLIKE ANY OTHER. Okay, maybe that's true of all cities, but it's really true of this one. I've lived in a lot of different places, but nowhere else is as simultaneously intimate and various, worldly and homey, wild and civilized, as this one. And the most Duluth event of all, the one that best sums up the city and its music-obsessed citizens, is the annual, week-long Homegrown Music Festival.
Homegrown is all Duluth or Superior bands, all week; over 200 applicants registered this year and, among them, 150 were chosen. They'll perform in a dozen different venues scattered across the city (plus one evening will be Superior Night, when Souptown gets to shine). Some shows are 21+, some are all-ages. From circuit-bending to reggae to popism, from balladeers to folk scholars to punk, from indescribable to unlikely to the perfect thing -- all varieties of music unfold in the streets of Duluth.
So you should visit. Lots of hotel rooms this time of year. Try the Superior Inn, a well-kept secret just across the Blatnik Bridge in Superior: a nice pool, a decent free breakfast, and great prices.
Homegrown 11 runs from Sunday April 26-Sunday May 3. A free public trolley will make the rounds of the venues, to ensure the safety of revelers and their potential automotive victims. An armband gets you into all the clubs, or you can buy tickets for individual shows at the door.
The week starts slowly, with a few bands per night. Finally, things ramp up to Friday and Saturday nights, and conclude with the annual kickball game between the Friday bands and the Saturday bands, the Rawkers vs the Rollers. Sprinkled in are art shows, a film festival, an open-mic poetry reading, a hash run from Chester Park to the Electric Fetus downtown, where a barbecue and live band await the runners, and more.
Scott "Starfire" Lunt founded the festival in 1999, one year after his infamous 30th birthday party, which served as the (unofficial) first Homegrown. After growing the festival from 10 bands to over 70, Lunt sold it to music promoters (and musicians) Tim and Brad Nelson in 2005.
The Nelsons booked over 90 acts that year, and found the event was becoming too large to manage as a for-profit. So they donated it to the Bridge Syndicate, a local nonprofit organization, run by arts-interested, young business types in Duluth, which is committed to increasing cultural opportunities in the Twin Ports. In 2006, a steering committee, made up primarily of artists, was put together to organize and run the festival.
It is now a big nonprofit, civic-minded fest, attended by our cool mayor Don Ness, who himself was in the Bridge Syndicate when the festival was adopted.
15 little pieces of Duluth (and Superior)
150 bands are too many even to list. How to give you a flavor of the festival?
Mark Lindquist, one of the darker godfathers of the Duluth music scene, created Lindquist's Mix this year as a preview and fundraiser for Homegrown 11. It's quite a collection, and it showcases many hallmark elements of the "Duluth sound." It's a worthy successor to Starfire's Mix, last year's festival collection, compiled by the man whose birthday party provided the excuse for the very first Homegrown.
This year's CD is purposefully disparate, each cut a faceted little fake-crystal chunk of the blazing, outlandish chandelier that is the Duluth music scene. So I'll write about each cut individually and attempt to give an introduction to the musicians who created it.
- Retribution Gospel Choir's "What She Turned Into" is a particularly Low-esque ballad to be coming from this bluesy side project of Al Sparhawk; the group usually features more straight-ahead rock. (Steve Garrington and Eric Pollard fill out the roster.)
- Equal XChange contributes their classic "Weird," which cranks along with a concentrated hip-hop energy, celebrating the fact that we "all have weirdness," a phrase perfect for hip-hop's favorite metric foot--each syllable gets equal stress. Duluth's hip-hop scene is small but distinctive. Crew Jones, with Burley Burlesque, plays their more rural form of hip-hop this year too.
- The Alrights do "Happy Birthday Universe." These classic popsters seem to have been listening to the jingling English music-hall tunes that so delighted Mr. Lennon and crew. But the Alrights are singing about evolutionary history, arthropods and all. "We weren't the first but we were the first that waved goodbye to Africa and walked right off the edge ... Happy Birthday Universe, It's a wonder that we even wonder at all... we don't know everything but we sure been tryin hard to understand just what you are."
- The Keep Aways, the hardest rockin' girls in show bizness, spit pure nitric acid in "Rivalry" -- abused adenoids and raw vocal cords texture the Mindy's voice, wrenching out "You gotta lotta nerve!" They are much beloved around here.
- The Hotel Coral Essex, mysteriously named, claims (rightfully) influences like the Velvet Underground and the Fuggs. Their piece on this CD, "Great White Dinosaur," nominally shares the Alrights' archeological interests, but the Coral Essex elixir is far more atmospheric.
- Trampled by Turtles is one of Duluth's better-known exports. Rootsy to a fault, their sound grows out of the folk/roots/string jammy aspect of the local scene--one of its stronger bits. Its anthem to refusal, "Never Again," is pretty funny and wonderfully unconvincing. Like hell, guys. Never again til next Thursday.
- Bitter Spills is Rich Mattson (of Little Sparta recording studio fame) playing with Baby Grant Johnson. These stringmeisters beat away on their ol' gits like they're making meringues, and to fine effect. The songs are carefully gleaned real old material, heirloom grains growing from the loam of history.
- Mark Lindquist himself, the punk funny uncle of the Duluth scene, contributes a cut called "Hey Buddy." Barroom floors figure into it, of course. Writer Chris Godsey did a great short review of Lindquist's latest on mnartists; read it here. I can't better his evocation of a younger Charles Bukowski, stained with grief and bliss.
- "Free Man" is Fred Tyson's popsy soul invention: "I'm a free man / free as the morning sun / catch me if you can / cause I'm a free man." Plus a falsetto yell that Yma Sumac would regard fondly. It'll make you feel all affectionate toward your brother.
- Dave Mehling, everyone's favorite soul barely contained in a highly permeable pellicle, sings "Idaho" in such a way that you really don't need to know what it means to know what it means. "The string is undone, the string is undone... it's a messed up world... "
- Amy Abts in "Approach and Attack" gives a classic singer/songwriter account of the general romantic cluelessness of guys. Her slightly husky, melodic mezzo sounds as honest as the day is long: "I have to go because I love you so. / Last night we were out walkin quietly without talking / but you can't take it now / ... that I've seen your approach and attack." Abts is a fine musician but you almost don't notice that in the quirky wit of her lyrics. "I Could Kick Jewel's Ass" is another favorite.
- Portrait of a Drowned Man involves Paul Connelly, the guy running Homegrown for the Bridge Syndicate. It's an interesting project, instrumental drone with lots of tone color that's not all electrofuzzed . It has edges, crud in the corners, sticky bits, real guitars and drums. "The Marina Is Too Shallow," on this CD, is a classic of theirs and the title is just right: completely incidentally true. The huge list of their influences makes it plain that these are men who love sound in all its vast potential.
- Bluesiness -- another thread of the Duluth sound--is injected into the Mix with the Supertacks' "Sweat." Hendrixian power guitar riffs wind the song up and hammer it home. It trails minimal tracks of vocorder-esque hyperbass vocals, like slick snail slime, under the refreshingly callow-sounding tenor of lead singer. It's like a Christmas tree decked with varieties of testosterone.
- Both's "777" (a funny take on 666, I'm guessing) is terminally witty sampling of religious rags and bones, like something you hear when car-radio channels cross as you're driving across Nebraska.
- Southwire, a folky mystic trio, offers a healthy antidote to the, perhaps, overly cynical back end of this mix. "Bell" is a lovely cacophony of two voices, some cymbals, samples and strings. It testifies, and it's got the blessing of the No Irony Brigade.
About the author: After being a lot of things, Ann Klefstad is once again, in Duluth, simply herself.
Mark your calendars: Duluth's Homegrown 11 will take place the week of April 26 - May 3, a venues all over the Twin Ports.