WOW - SoCal Americana and Nordic Folk!

Jill Fisher

The inaugural Duluth-stämman featured several players of the nyckelharpa –seen at the center of this group. Photo by Jill Fisher.

The Dustbowl Revival band swept onto the West Theater stage on Thursday, June 8, and blew the too-small audience away with its incredible, energetic performance. The band is based in Venice, California, and has toured in 10 countries “and counting.” It was kicking off a Midwest tour in Duluth, with shows in Minneapolis, Chicago and Milwaukee to follow.

Its founders, Zach “Z” Lupetin (acoustic guitar, lead vocals) and Josh Heffernan (drums), were aided and abetted by Lashon Halley (vocals), Joakim Toftgaard (trombone), Max O’Leary (trumpet, vocals), Chad Richard (electric guitar, vocals) and a mr. mysterious (five-string bass).

Membership of the band has been amorphous since its formation in 2008 and especially after COVID. As the band’s website describes it, the group is an extended collective of friends and collaborators that has evolved over time.

Typically, eight members have comprised Dustbowl Revival, with string and brass instruments. And the instruments played have varied as well – fiddle, mandolin, standup bass and even washboard having been used in the past, but not on this evening.

Despite the changing makeup, this band was not only tight, with wonderful, mesmerizing harmonies, but hotter than Mojave! Committed to “pushing the boundaries of what American roots music can be,” as asserted on its website, this evening’s setlist of nearly all original compositions showcased a wide range of genres within the category of Americana. Horns gave DR a Mexican flavor – a true So Cal band.

Beginning with the original tune “Lonely,” initially sung acapella, it morphed into a raging rocker that fired some in the crowd to jump up and dance (me for example). The second number, “Feels Good,” had a bluesy-funky vibe that Lupetin stated was the result of his being born and brought up in Chicago. “Sonic Boom” was a full-out blast of a love song that kept the place jumping.

Next Lupetin introduced the song, “Beside You,” saying it was inspired by the songs of Bill Withers, which indeed were reflected in lyrical references to Withers’ hits. Then the band brought us some New Orleans flavor with “Nobody Knows,” featuring the trumpet and trombone players. Before the break, Lupetin, Halley and Richard, moved to the edge of the stage, away from the microphones to treat us to another stripped-down melody, “Tall Tales.”

They demonstrated the West Theater’s fine acoustics, as well as the beautiful harmonies of these three musicians. Lupetin couldn’t say enough about the wonderful sound he was experiencing here and had in other vaudeville-era theaters. When the concert resumed, the music and song lyrics became more serious and  intense, as expressed by the song “Enemy,” which was inspired by a conversation between daughter and mother-in-law during the 2020 presidential election.

And so the concert continued to rev up, with Lupetin exhorting the attendees to get up and dance, which many did. A gutsy cover of the Beatles’ “Oh Darling” really showed off Lashon Halley’s powerful voice – that lady has some pipes! Her vocal range matched Lupetin’s perfectly.

Then it was back to the political, with a song Lupetin had been advised not to record or perform – “Get Rid of You” which was inspired by student activists and is a scathing condemnation of officials who did nothing after the tragic Parkland High School shooting in Florida. Sung with heavy emotion, it was one of the rare performances where I thought cuss words were completely appropriate. This tune segued into “Let It Go,” which was a bit more optimistic.

The concert concluded after a few more rockin’ numbers and the band returned for a demanded encore: “The Weight” in which band members traded off singing verses and the audience sang along on the chorus.

I enjoyed Dustbowl Revival so much that I had to buy one of their CDs. Its latest, Is It You, Is It Me, is the one I chose and I have been enjoying reliving their music. If you missed this concert, you might want to view the videos on DR’s website: And don’t miss them if they return to the West next year!

The next evening, Friday, June 9, I attended the first evening of the inaugural Duluth-stämman, a Nordic folk music and dance festival at Peace Lutheran Church. This was a two-day event organized by the Nordic Center Duluth.

Based on what I saw that first evening I would have liked to attend the Saturday events as well, which included daytime performances, jam circles, youth programming, a final concert and a closing dance, but other commitments precluded this. Workshops were also on the Saturday schedule, both for musicians and those interested in learning the traditional dances. What a contrast to the evening before!

Here you had old world music by musicians dedicated to keeping it alive. Several groups played short sets throughout the evening. The program reminded me of the Battle of the Jug Bands that took place on May 28, with a number of bands heard throughout the evening. But in this case, there was dancing!

The first group to perform was a Finnish brass band, Ameriikan Poijat that included a tuba, a euphonium, three coronets and two horns (an E-flat alto and a B-flat tenor). The group’s leader shared with the attendees some background on this music and the brass instruments, stating that back in the old country in the 1800s there was no electrical amplification nor were there many stringed instruments such as guitars, so brass orchestras were common. They played music for schottische and waltz dances (and another with a name I didn’t quite catch).

Immediately couples took to the floor to dance to these peppy tunes. It was so much fun to watch them! One of the most interesting aspects of the stämman was the old-style instruments played. Chief among these was the nyckelharpa – a bowed string instrument (key fiddle) that looks like an elongated violin crossed with an autoharp. Pushbuttons along the outer edge elevate what are called tangents to shorten the strings thereby changing their pitch.

Seven members of Twin Cities Nyckelharpalag played these strange instruments, while one played a mandolin and another a standard violin. The group is affiliated with the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis and its repertoire is drawn mostly from folk tunes in Uppland, Sweden. Here again, traditional dances were on full display as the music continued.

The third group was Ole Olsson’s Old Time Orkestra which included an accordion, two fiddles, standup bass and a funny little portable pump organ! Clifton Nesseth, one of the organizers of this event, played bass. Though there weren’t a great number of attendees this evening, many got up to dance to these old-timey tunes.

Ponyfolk is a duo that I had seen perform before (by the name Pony) at Sacred Heart Music Center back in September. The duo, in which Clifton Nesseth also played standup bass and Paul Sauey acoustic guitar, was formed in 2014. The two are based in both Duluth and Minneapolis and their traditional Nordic roots are ever present. Nesseth revealed that their name change was driven by Google consistently bringing up “My Little Pony” when folks were searching for them online. He was happy they are out from the dark shadow of that image! 

Next up was the trio the McNordiques, playing Celtic, French and Scandinavian music with an accordion, uilleann (Irish) bagpipe and nyckelharpa. The sound was unique, a bit eerie what with the bagpipe, but this did not deter the determined dancers who were back on the dance floor. An American-Swedish fiddler from Minneapolis, Paul Dahlin, played a few tunes while the next group assembled.

The ASI Spelmanslag is the fiddling group of the American Swedish Institute that plays the traditional folk music of Sweden, primarily from the region of Dalarna. Their repertoire includes traditional dance tunes such as waltzes, schottisches and polkas. There were 16 fiddlers in this group, which also included standup bass, acoustic guitar and a zither. It was an enjoyable evening of music far different than what I usually get out to hear. It made me recall my time living in Norway many years ago. P

erhaps I will be able to participate more fully next year if a Second Annual Duluth-stämman takes place.

ALSO OF NOTE: Although the 9th Annual Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wis., running June 22 through 24, is now sold out, I was pleased to see that a number of our local bands will be participating. They are: Pert Near Sandstone, Charlie Parr, Black River Review and Danny Frank & the Smoky Gold. This is a premiere festival here in the Midwest so it’s great that some of our local talent will be represented there.

Also, I want to report that local musician Ross Thorn was the winner of Trampled By Turtles’ 2023 Palomino Grant and will be performing at the band’s concert on July 8 at  Bayfront Festival Park. Congratulations Ross!