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Porchfest kicked off at Billings Park last week and continues through the summer. Look for a story on it in next week's Reader.
The outdoor music season is upon us, a relief after a late spring. With outdoor venues opening up ,already there is an entire summer season of music scheduled.
One of the harbingers of the season was revived this past week – the Annual Battle of the Jug Bands. Previously held at the now defunct Amazing Grace Café, the Battle had been on hiatus due to COVID and a different venue had to be found. Thus, on Sunday, May 28, during the Memorial Day Weekend as it has been traditionally held for years, six jug bands, one local and five from the Twin Cities, converged at the Dovetail Café in Lincoln Park. This program was, in part, a memorial for Elliot Silberman, the originator of Duluth’s Battle back in the 1990s, who died last September, as well as Davy Lynas, a long-time jugband member who died in September 2021.
First up was the 5-member U Can Jug Or Nots. The three men and two women were dressed in vintage attire, bringing a sense of history to their performance of some old-time tunes. Next up was Cannonball Paul in the character of Parson Paul and the Gloryland Express, who added some gospel flavor to the proceedings.
Third were the Jug Demons, a Twin Cities group, who really cooked it up with their renditions of classic jug band tunes like “Booze In the Bottle” and “Rag Mama Rag.” Their performance was a reminder that jug band music is one of the roots of Rock and Roll.
The Procrastinators, made up of eight folks hailing from both Duluth and Sandstone, were next. Its member, Tom Hollenhorst, organized the Battle this year. They performed a fine cover of “Richland Woman” and ended their set with “I Like It In Duluth.”
Got Jugs? was the fifth band performing beginning with “Gonna Dance To a Band From Louisianne.” They stood out with an original train song, “I Watched You Go” and another train song, “Mobile Line.” The Fat Chance Jug Band was last up. Its seven members did a good job on “Jug Band Music,” “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” A member of the band played a euphonium, not a traditional jug band instrument, which was customized with a kazoo mouthpiece giving them a distinctive sound.
When the famous Battle of the Jug Band trophy, an engraved krumkake iron, was awarded, it went (appropriately, in my book) to the Jug Band Demons. Our local Procrastinators took second place. In short it was a fun, family friendly event that will hopefully return next year.
On Thursday, June 1, Porchfest, in Superior, got underway with four acts performing in Billings Park. It was an unusual setup with the musicians spaced out along the path leading to Girl Scout Point for the first hour. Steve Sokola played his accordion and Kaylee Matuzak on acoustic guitar were the first encountered. John Sonofmel was second in line, solo with his acoustic guitar; Nate Weiler on banjo was a little further along the path. Lastly it was the Hot Club of Duluth (standup bass and all!).
When it began to sprinkle, the musicians took a break, protecting their instruments from the threats of a heavier rainstorm. The second half of the evening began with a march along the path to Girl Scout Point led by Sokola playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” on his trumpet, as musicians and listeners along the way joined in. The procession ended at the fire pit at the point, which overlooks the St. Louis Bay – a wonderful place to watch a sunset by the way.
The fire pit is at the center of a large circular stone bench, that is the form of a “Council Ring,” a hallmark of the important historical landscape gardener, Jens Jensen. Sonofmel acted as a sort of Master of Ceremonies for a group sing-along, announcing that the goal of Porchfest is to enable “meeting one’s neighbors, one song at a time.”
Several of the songs sung were in memory of musicians who have died this past year, such as Gordon Lightfoot and Tina Turner. Porchfest will take place on every other Thursday this summer from 7-9 pm at various locations around Superior. The next one will be on June 15 in the Central Park neighborhood and will feature the music of Slope City, Janie and the Spokes, Lioness Lioness and Sidestreet Detour. Just be forewarned – don’t request a song during the sing-along portion unless you are prepared to lead it!
And let’s not forget that the Chester Bowl Concert Series will kick off on Tuesday, June 13, with Rich Mattson and the Northstars. This is another of those free outdoor music events we are so lucky to have here in the Twin Ports. These concerts take place each Tuesday evening throughout the summer, the last scheduled for August 15 with a rain date for August 22.
Another outdoor music event you may wish to put on your calendar is Summer Solstice Celebration, to be held at Thirsty Pagan in Superior on Saturday, June 24, with music well into the evening and craft vendors there from 11 am to 6 pm.
And don’t forget Glensheen’s Concerts on the Pier! These are scheduled for Wednesday evenings in July and August. See glensheen.org/calendar for all the particulars – it’s another great lineup!
One of the fun surprises I had was hearing Russ Sackett singing our National Anthem at the Duluth Huskies game on Saturday afternoon, June 3. Now there’s an interesting gig for local musicians to exploit! He did a fine job but did not follow up by singing “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch.
Becky Schlegel & The 48s
That evening I attended a concert at Sacred Heart Music Center by Becky Schlegel and the High 48s. Breanne Marie opened for them with the able accompaniment of violinist Kailyn Spencer, a member of the Front Porch Sinners band that backs up Breanne.
This duo was unusual as Breanne normally plays with that full band or solo (though I did hear her playing with Misisipi Mike a while back at Cedar Lounge). It was a pleasant enough warm up for the headliners with a mix of covers and original ballads. One of the latter was “Salt in the Snow” that included a well-done and haunting wolf howl. I also enjoyed another original, “Good Bones” about a 100-year-old house.
Before relinquishing the stage, Breanne announced that she and the Front Porch Sinners will be joining Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra Players for the last of three “Bridge Sessions” on Saturday, Aug. 5, in the Depot Theater. Based on what I heard of these sessions last year, you’ll want to be there or be square.
Then it was Becky Schlegel’s turn to bring us her version of Minnesota bluegrass together with the High 48s, a Minneapolis-based bluegrass band. It was an excellent evening of some of the very best bluegrass I’ve heard. They also included covers of country songs, one by Kitty Wells (“Honky Tonk Angel”) and another by Buck Owens (“Tiger by the Tail”).
There were plenty of original compositions by both Schlegel and the 48s to boot. Schlegel’s “Drifter Like Me” was a sensitive take on her encounter with a homeless man. Becky has a pure and not unpleasant piercing voice that conveys real emotion, as on her original composition “So Embarrassing.” Another was one about a North Country girl gone south to get away from heartbreaking memories, “Not Coming Home.”
Their music was not “Speed Grass” (or in my parlance, “Fast Grass”), though there were some energetic kick-up-your-heels tunes played. The numbers ranged in tempo, from the slow and sultry, “Tennessee Waltz” to the faster-paced cover of Dave Carter’s “Crocodile Man” and another bluegrass/country cover, “Slew Foot.”
Five men make up the High 48s (the name derives from railroad slang for the box cars on Hot Shot freight trains – fast trains that traveled non-stop from one large U.S. city to another). They are Anthony Ihrig (banjo), Clint Birtzer (guitar), Eric Christopher (fiddle), David Robinson, (mandolin) and Rich Casey (standup bass). All except Casey are vocalists who contribute to the group’s beautiful harmonies.
One particularly memorable song was written by Ihrig about his grandfather who worked on the railroad: “Great Northern Railroad.” They also sang Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” which seems to have become a favorite cover by several of our local bands. They closed the evening with the old gospel number, “The Sweet By and By.”
I know there were competing gigs on this Saturday evening – I was sorry to miss Big Wave Dave and the Ripples at Earth Rider myself – but was glad I took the opportunity to see this excellent group of musicians instead. It’s too bad that more folks were not in attendance to enjoy their music.
If all this weren’t enough music for one week, I crossed the High Bridge to Superior to hear Colleen Myhre (Boss Mama) on Sunday afternoon, June 4, at Earth Rider’s first Sunday Strum event. It has been a little more than two years since I heard Colleen for the first time, soloing at the 2021 Duluth Dylan Fest. I had gotten used to hearing her backed by two other bands, the Jebberhooch and the Hootenanners, so had forgotten how great she sounds all by herself. Her guitar work is fabulous too. She can really rock and her distinctive voice can be truly appreciated when she solos. One of my favorites of her’s is the slower paced and heartbreaking “Slip Away.”
One more outdoor venue to keep in mind for this summer: the Blue Umbrella Patio Music Series on Saturday evenings at Myhre’s Rugged Spruce golf course in Mahtawa. The lineup is enticing; check it out at golfruggedspruce.com. If you miss one of our terrific acts here in Duluth, you can take a half-hour drive south to enjoy them there.
Here’s to a fun music-rich summer!