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The Slabtown Ragband at Wussow's. Photo by Jill Fisher.
It was a Friday night, Feb. 3, when a surge of dancing fools converged on Wussow’s in West Duluth. With four acts on the bill, it was fairly slow at the outset with Ryan Lane, who I think of as a balladeer, kicking off the evening’s entertainment.
I arrived a tad late but in time to hear his outstanding rendition of “The Rocky Road to Dublin,” an Irish ballad with umpteen verses, which he performed by heart.
Lane, playing acoustic guitar, sang several of his original compositions, including “Rapture or Venus Flytrap,” “Lillies and Crocodiles” and “The Edge of the World.”
Then he invited Alyson Enderle (keyboards and vocals) and Ria Takhar (violin) to join him on stage. The three of them launched into another of his original tunes, “Psychoanalytical Disaster,” a doomed romance blues number with an upbeat tempo.
Several covers followed, one being a lovely duet between Lane and Enderele of “The Hill” by Marketa Irglova from the musical Once.
Enderle’s voice reminded me a bit of Claudia Schmidt (a well-known Midwestern singer- songwriter popular back in the 1980s) as she had great projection. In addition her tonal range had wide variations with strong emotive qualities that complemented Lane’s fine voice nicely.
Takhar, who was trained on classical violin, was exploring different musical genres, rounding out a nice folky sound. The ladies continued to backup Lane for the rest of his set.
Next in the lineup was a group of cloggers, who are known as the Cluckin’ Cloggers. I first saw these folks at last year’s Homegrown Music Festival and they will be performing again at the 2023 Homegrown. This evening they moved chairs out of the way to create a sufficient dance floor on which to strut their stuff to the music of the follow-up group, Slabtown Ragband.
It was fun to watch their circle dancing and rhythmic stomping and it palpably raised the energy in the place. I was disappointed that they performed only one number. I would have enjoyed seeing much more.
The Slabtown Ragband is a welcome addition to the Twin Ports’ band talent pool. The three guys who make it up are Kyle Orla, who plays both fiddle and acoustic guitar, “Mumblin’ Drew” Temperante on banjo-mandolin, acoustic guitar and harmonica and Brian Zimmerman on standup bass.
The first two have been playing together for some time, while Zimmerman joined several months ago. This was perhaps the trio’s fifth gig and they were something!
Slabtown has developed a solid repertoire of what I call old-timey tunes (now probably categorized as “Americana”) that make you want to get up and shake a leg. Drew’s downhome vocals were particularly appropriate to “Baby, When You Comin’ Back Home?” (His enunciation was perfectly clear, so I have no idea why his moniker includes “mumblin’.)
They performed excellent renditions of “Strawberry Blues,” the 1909 ditty “Temptation Rag” and “Jailbird Love Song.” The guitar-led instrumental, “Teasin’ the Frets,” revealed great picking and a real affinity for this genre. And their harmonies were sweet. Banter between numbers was amusing as well as politically on target with a pointed diss of ASCAP.
As I listened to this band, I was thinking this ragtime sound is typically played on piano, so I was gratified to hear Brian explain to the audience that the trio indeed has been arranging piano rag tunes for themselves. Their stated goal is to arrange 12 piano rag tunes for the band. My response: more power to them! I will be sure to be on the lookout for their future gigs.
Then came Four Mile Portage, a Duluth-based duo that plays old-timey fiddle and banjo dance music with vocal harmonies. Tom Maloney plays acoustic guitar while Brandy Forsman plays a ferocious fiddle.
On this evening the aforementioned Kyle Orla joined them. Like the Slabtown Ragband, they performed some gritty folk tunes, in this case from coal country; one, a tune written by Minnesota native Martha Scanlan “Guardian Angel.” Forsman is a songwriter too and we heard her melancholy original, “Last Boat.”
With a bit of gospel (“Matt 20” – based on the Bible’s Matthew, chapter 20), a bit of bluegrass, and a cover of John Prine’s “Bear Creek” they kept the rootsy energy of the evening going. They finished their set with an acapella rendition of “Black Lung” in which I heard a hint of Lucinda Williams’ raspy sound in Brandy’s voice.
A ”jamboree” of the musicians who played that evening performed “Sandy Boys” to wrap up a satisfying evening of Americana music.
Reminder: A “Tribute and Celebration of Zach Ross” (organized by Shane Nelson) takes place this Friday, Feb. 11. at Sacred Heart Music Center at 3 pm. See you there!