Is it a concert or a light show?

Jill Fisher

The highly distracting light show of Rocket Club at the West Theatre. Photo by Jill Fisher.

After a day’s respite from all the Homegrown activities, the appearance of Prank Williams at Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake beckoned on Tuesday, May 9. Prank Williams is not a solo artist but a duo, sometimes a trio as when I first saw the group at Cedar Lounge last October.

This five-to-seven-o’clock gig was sparsely attended, perhaps due to others being in recovery mode from Homegrown like me. Despite this, Chris Hollister and Tony Petersen (AKA Ditchbird) performed at a high level of energy playing the acoustic guitar and banjo, respectively, with Hollister also pounding out rhythms on his bass drum.

The duo was midway through a Midwestern tour promoting their latest five-song EP release, Palindrome, before heading back to its Twin Cities home base for a short break. The two sets performed consisted of alternating original tunes with covers of popular songs by a range of artists – from John Prine and Johnny Cash to Talking Heads and Violent Femmes.

Quite loud (not horribly so and a prerequisite for bar performances) their sound was satisfyingly basic, rhythmic and with understandable lyrics. This helps when presenting new material the crowd isn’t familiar with. These included “Dumb Luck,” “Cease Fire,” “Long Way Round,” “Hurricane Utah,” “Glue” and “How Much it Cost.”

Most of these are on the duo’s new EP, which is a polished and highly produced recording that contrasts with Prank’s rustic and rambunctious performance on Tuesday evening. I’ve enjoyed listening to it several times now and recommend folks check it out on Spotify.

On Thursday, May 11, Rocket Club with Chris Hawkey (a Twin Cities radio personality) performed at West Theater to a full house of mostly millennials. The band is based in Minneapolis and it appeared some of its Twin Cities fans made the trip up to Duluth to see them.

But before that group took the stage, solo artist Bryan Loweree, who splits his time between Fargo, North Dakota, and Nashville, Tennessee, opened the concert with his version of country music. First up was “Listen Man,” which advised people (I got the impression it was aimed at men) to set aside their opinions and listen to others who may not agree. The second number was “I’ll Be the Bad Guy,” in which he offers to take the blame for relationship failures.

Several of Loweree’s songs were devotions to his wife, one of which was “Nothing She Can’t Do.” This ditty was prefaced by a story about a broken snowblower and five inches of snow on the ground in Fargo while he was in Nashville. He proudly announced that his wife managed to fix it herself by Googling a how-to video. One hopes she found the song a balm for her irritation. A second one, “Old Fashion” was about both the cocktail and his wife. He promised to share that drink with attendees if they could point him to the best place to get one.  

Loweree’s voice was nicely nuanced, bell-clear and on-key, so he was fine to listen to if it wasn’t for the overt sentimentality of his lyrics. At the break I quizzed him as to what venues are worth checking out in Nashville (I should have asked about Fargo as well); he responded that bands playing venues in the famous Lower Broadway District downtown were basically cover bands and to hear original live music, The Local and The Listening Room Café were the places to check out. Just a hint for those of us headed down that way!

After the short intermission, the headliner Rocket Club came on like gang busters with its signature song “North Country,” and a fog and light show they brought along with them. I found the constantly changing lights highly distracting and needed to close my eyes so I could actually listen to the music. I’m surprised such shows haven’t triggered seizures in some. (Loweree’s show used a few of Rocket Club’s lights, but nothing compared to theirs, some of which were aimed out into the audience.)

This appears to be a trend with big-name bands, bringing arena-type productions indoors. Maybe they thought they needed to transform West Theater into the First Avenue of Duluth.

Rocket Club, which is currently comprised of Chris Hawkey (vocals), Matt Kirkwold (guitars, vocals), Don Smithmier (vocals, keyboards), Brian Kroening (guitars) Joel Sayles (vocals, bass, guitars) and Billy Thommes (drums; absent this evening with Walter Powell filling in), was formed in 2008 at the instigation of Kirkwold.

The initial four members (Kirkwold, Smithmier, Kroening and Hawkey) were interested in songwriting and were instantly successful with their original songs landing on the Billboard Country chart. After producing several albums during their first six years together, the group went on an indefinite hiatus in 2014, reemerging in 2022 with a fifth album to great fanfare.  

On this evening, the group ran through its repertoire in a fast-paced 90 minutes that showcased songs from all five of their albums (the second release was actually a 7-song EP, Serenade). Starting with “Running Out of Time” from North Country they followed it up with “Lifeboat” from their latest album, Come On Home. The lyrics in the latter are a metaphor for a woman “saving” her man. “Share the Road” featured Joel Sayles on electric guitar rather than the electric bass he played throughout most of the show.

I found this group hard to consider a country rock band, probably because that genre has morphed significantly into something far different than what I knew back in the late 20th century with bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Eagles. Yes, there were stories which are a bedrock of country music and a rock-and-roll approach to its songs with nicely composed close harmonies.

After a while, however, I found it hard to distinguish the songs from each other, though their fans did not. They were not particularly nuanced; the loudness and tempos did not vary enough from number to number to make for memorable tunes.

One exception to this was “Four-Letter World” from the North Country album. The crowd merrily joined in on repeated choruses about “not giving a f**k.” Before that there were several overt religious references, including Hawkey repeating “God Bless You,” which was a strange juxtaposition.

Out of the blue, Hawkey invited Tyler George, Duluth’s hometown 2018 Olympic Gold Medalist in Men’s Curling, up on stage as a tribute and tried unsuccessfully to get him to sing along on “Come On Home,” the title track of the group’s latest album. It was only during the last several songs that fans stood and crowded up to the stage to get moving and close to their heroes.

Of course there was an encore, “Silos” from their album Lucky, to which the audience enthusiastically sang along to interminable repetitions of that word. As for me, I’ll take my country with a little less show and a little more modulation.

For all that Rocket Club is a hot ticket, it pretty much left me cold. One final note to report: I stopped in at Carmody Irish Pub late Saturday evening for what appeared to be a private concert by Shane Nelson for friends and family.

Bizarrely, in addition to performing some brand-new compositions he’s written for an upcoming album, he sang the Arrowhead Autobody Repair jingle! And I also found out that his was the winning submission in the recent theme song contest for Bentleyville’s annual holiday extravaganza. Congrats to Shane!