Ryan LittleEagle performing at Sir Ben's. Photo by Jill Fisher.

One of the things we have going for us local music lovers is an abundance of venues where solo acts can be seen. Ticking them off I readily think of Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake, Wussow’s, Carmody Irish Pub, Thirsty Pagan, Cedar Lounge, Fitger’s Brewhouse, the Barrel Room at Fitger’s, etc.

There are several others out there in the Twin Ports that I have yet to get to such as the Spirit Room in Superior and the ski resorts Mont du Lac and Spirit Mountain. I appreciate that these places are available to not only showcase our local talent, but also get a glimpse of touring acts.  

Sir Ben’s brings in out-of-town talent on a regular basis. This past week I spent two consecutive evenings there listening to the fresh offerings of newcomers to our music scene. The first was Ryan LittleEagle who performed on Tuesday evening, March 28. He was listed in the Magnificent 7 in the March 23 issue of the Reader (to which I have zero input), where he was billed as an international performing Native American singer-songwriter who plays traditional indigenous music. So I was intrigued.  

When I walked into the place a few minutes after he started his set, my first reaction was “Wow!” that’s some bass voice. It turns out that LittleEagle’s range is considered  baritone not bass, but it was powerful and booming. The next few songs he performed were covers, “Big Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce, to which he brought real heft, “On the Road Again” was a very nice rendition and the Johnny Cash hit “Ring of Fire” that was perfectly suited to the musician’s voice.

In two of these he inserted electronic harmonies to create a fuller sound. I soon forgot what I was expecting to hear!  

Then LittleEagle introduced his next number, explaining he lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota and that this original song, “Remember Me,” tells the story of his people and of the person called “Crazy Horse.” Now this is what I had expected. His single was released on Oct. 7, 2022, and is available on Spotify. In performing it, he recorded his acoustic guitar riffs on a loop, allowing him to accompany himself with one of the many Native American wood flutes he had with him. He repeated this digital enhancement with several of his other songs as well.  

I was a bit disconcerted when, following this rather profound song and performance, he covered some classic bar-oriented tunes, including “Crazy People” with the chorus refrain “God is great, beer is good, people are crazy.” Next up was his rendition of what he called the “most famous bar song ever”: Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” (I thought it would be “Margaritaville”!)

LittleEagle continued to alternate his original compositions with familiar covers, both featuring his flute playing. The sound impressed me as being evocative of deep woods and as additional evidence of his powerful lungs.  

LittleEagle performed another cover I found interesting: “Jolene.” It was a gender-bending version with a twist of perspective that ended with the lyric: “don’t take me just because you can.”

Between songs he offered witty observations of the bar scene in Sir Ben’s. Nearing the end of his performance he stated this was the first time he has played in Minnesota and so he felt he must play a number appropriate to this place. I waited to hear the obligatory Dylan tune and was again taken off guard when he launched into a jazzy rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” complete with flute interludes!

It was a unique show, one where he definitely held his own amid the noisy bar crowd. It left me with the desire to see him again if he ever gets back this way, which may actually happen as he told me he’d been in touch with the local Native American community at AICHO.  

Jason Helder

The next evening, Wednesday, March 29, I heard Jason Helder, a resident of Mankato, a solo musician who also played an acoustic guitar. His was a more conventional performance covering a number of Dylan songs. His version of “Sittin’ on The Dock of the Bay” included some good whistling.  

Helder may have written a song he called “Charlie Brown.” It was about a character analogous to the hapless cartoon character who is always tricked by Lucy. However I wasn’t able to confirm that was his original tune. Helder’s voice was pretty strong and his guitar playing energetic; at times he sounded a bit like David Bowie, which I found arresting.  

But I must admit I found his performance less engaging than LittleEagle’s, so I moved on to check out a couple other music options happening that evening. One being the “Taproom Splash Reggae Jam” at Bent Paddle.

On a previous occasion I had popped in right at the 6 pm start time to see what this was about, but seeing it was a DJ spinning vinyl, hadn’t stayed. Since then I heard that some musicians do show up to jam along with the Reggae music. None were there this evening, but I arrived when the music was going full force. The Reggae sound hooked me. An hour of dancing to it provided a very satisfying “fix” for my desire to hear one of my favorite genres. DJ Alex Pederson was gracious enough to take requests and to share historical information about various Reggae artists and their output. I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll get back there again.  

My last stop that evening was to hear the group Landscapes at the Rathskeller. I enjoyed the smooth and relaxing jazz, despite the strange (new?) light and fog effects that made me close my eyes and therefore threatened to lull me to sleep after a long evening. But I managed to stay awake to appreciate the individual solos, noting that Sam Detters of New Salty Dog was filling in on electric guitar for the absent Carl Olson, displaying his adaptability and polished licks. Joe Anderson has also been playing with this group, mostly on sax, though on this evening also on flute.

This jazz stuff is growing on me!