Erik Koskinen at Bayfront Fourth Fest

The Fourth of July celebration at Bayfront Park went off without a hitch this year, despite the forecasted rain that threatened to delay the fireworks and possibly the bands as well. But at 5 pm when Black River Revue took the stage, it was a happening place for lovers of live music. A few brief rain showers during the early evening hours did not dampen the mood.  

If you read this column regularly, then you know I’ve written positive comments about BRR in the past, so my expectations for its performance were high. They did not disappoint. Though the crowd in Bayfront was small at this point, the band put on a vigorous and professional show that was appreciated by those who were there.   Leader Adam Stariha stated this was the first time the band played at Bayfront, that it was a big stage and they had supplemented their ranks with the Mahon brothers – Jacob and Owen. Not only that, the four-person group has been expanded to five with the addition of Cliff Nesseth, who plays standup bass as well as fiddle.  

BRR played their own tunes plus a few covers, such as one I love, a Weem song, “I’ve Got No Dark Side” sung by Ian Kvale. While Stariha is generally the lead vocalist, we were also treated to mandolinist Nate Hynum singing “Straight & Narrow” and “Hope.”   The beauty of sharing lead vocals is it helps keep their songs from all sounding similar. It also helps that BRR has songs with a variety of tempos. One of the ways I know I’m hearing a great performance is when it’s obvious the musicians are having fun. This was certainly the case with Black River Revue’s time on the big stage.  

Black River Revue at Fourth Fest

Second on the bill was Erik Koskinen with his bandmates, Paul Bergen (electric guitar), Josh Gravlin (bass guitar) and Richard Medek (drums). They performed Koskinen’s original songs from several of the five albums he’s released since 2010, the most recent being Burning the Deal which includes the sexy “Pony To Ride.” A couple of other outstanding tunes from earlier albums were “Pocket Full of Money” and “Devil’s Blues.”  The driving drumming by Medek, throughout but particularly on the former, was powerful, creating a visceral pounding in one’s chest and compelling one to get up and dance. Koskinen’s cover of Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” was at once both country and bluesy.  

Each of Koskinen’s songs has a distinctiveness about them and some have some pretty dark lyrics. Though I’d seen the group a year ago this July at Earth Rider, I had forgotten how taken I was with them then: “Together these guys delivered a knock-out performance of both raucous and romantic tunes.” They were an opening act then as on the Fourth. I think they should be the headliner next time they play in town. Toward the end of Koskinen’s set a rainbow appeared behind the stage – perhaps a good omen for this exceptional band.  

By the time the band Wild Horses took the stage, the dance floor had become crowded with  younger fans wearing this band’s merch – T-shirts, hoodies and beanies. Husband and wife, Jed and Ariana LaPlant, were front and center as the two vocalists. He played acoustic guitar and she played both fiddle and keyboards. They harmonized on most of the songs, switching who sang lead. McKeon Hugh Roberts on bass and JJ Snell on drums backed them up. (Snell also added his own harmonies on a couple of numbers.)  

Ten of the 11 songs they performed were from their debut album Runaway. These included the outstanding “Son of a Gun,” “And It Rained” and “The Ledge.” Despite it being released less than a year ago, some folks in the crowd knew the lyrics and were singing along. However, they included one that was so new it didn’t yet have a title. Ariana was very energetic while fiddling, moving around the stage in time to the fast-tempoed tunes. She has a particularly fine voice that was featured when she was playing the keyboard as on “White Flag.” They ended with an introspective song, “Man In The Mirror,” that was inspired by Jed’s dad who died five years ago, and Jed’s realization that he embodied much of his father when he looks in the mirror each day.  

The band will be playing in Lutsen at the Lutsong Music Festival on Saturday, July 15, before heading west to gigs in North Dakota and Montana, then it will be back in Minnesota by mid-August.  

The dance floor quickly vacated after Wild Horses relinquished the stage to the headlining act, Derek Jones & The 50 South, which was too bad, as this was another rockin’ band. But the grounds had been filling up in readiness for the fireworks, so even those who weren’t there for the music got to experience a little bit of southern rock.  

Derek Jones’ website states that Jones toured with Billy Ray Cyrus for four years and shared stages with Charlie Daniels, Trace Adkins, Dwight Yoakam, Ashley McBryde, Jamey Johnson, Whiskey Myers, Phil Vassar and Blackberry Smoke. Jones is a veteran of the U.S. Navy and only picked up a guitar after completing his service. He is described as being a “relentless country-rock outlaw harboring a principled character and deep-rooted respect for people and our nation.” His band, The 50 South consists of Erik Fox (drums), Enrique De La Cruz (bass) and Santiago Bap (lead guitar). I found it intriguing that incense was burning on either side of the drum set.  

The band’s setlist consisted of both original compositions and covers. Examples of the latter include “Midnight Rider” by the Allman Brothers Band, “Axe” and “Let The Rain come Down” by the Nashville band Steel Woods, “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle,  and the Beatles’ “Come Together.” (!)   One of the songs he performed, “Meant To Be,” was co-written with Cyrus. Another original was “Last of A Dying Breed” the title track of an EP. All were enhanced by Jones’ gutsy country twang as the lead vocalist.

If you are hankering for some music of this genre, he’s going to be touring around the Midwest all summer and back in Minnesota by mid-September. See for the band’s tour schedule.  

So, in rating the Fourth of July music provided gratis by the City of Duluth and the DECC, I’d give it 4 out of 4!  

Finally SUMMER! With clearing skies over Bayfront Park on the Fourth and the kickoff of Glensheen’s Concerts on the Pier series scheduled for July 5, I couldn’t resist spending the gorgeous summer evening there. The Slamming Doors were performing, providing me an added benefit since I’d not had the pleasure of hearing them play before. I missed them when they played during the 2022 and 2023 Homegrowns. In any case, it was a gap in my local music experience I was happy to fill.  

The six-member band was amazing. It is comprised of frontman Adam Herman (electric and acoustic rhythm guitars), Tarek Makky (lead guitar) Ben Anderson (bass guitar), Matt Johnson (drums), Matt Groom (congas) and Alex Nelson (keyboards). The setlist covered a lot of ground with some Grateful Dead-like jamming on several of the tunes. Two of the songs were “Goddamn Lonely Love” and “Goddamn Duluth,” not especially sensitive to a family audience. The slide guitar action on their cover of the Tom Petty tune “Walls” was really nice; it is included on their 2021 album Brown Bears Volume 2, one of three studio albums they’ve released within the past decade.  

The Slamming Doors wrapped up their concert with the Dylan song, “I Shall Be Released” which folks sang along to. Then, in dramatic fashion, after being egged on by a Glensheen staffer, all six of them jumped off the pier into Lake Superior! What a great bunch of guys!  

The Slamming Doors at Glensheen

Not to get Trampled By Turtles (the Bayfront concert was sold out months ago), the Curmudgeon and I hit the road to see Danny Frank & the Smoky Gold on the “Long Iron Stage” down at the Rugged Spruce Golf Course in Mahtowa (Colleen and Jim Myhre’s place). It was another beautiful evening with a crowd that spilled over from the outdoor patio, where golf carts were positioned in a semi-circle outside the patio and available for seating. Sitting in one, I noted the sound was perfectly fine.  

Since I’ve written about Danny Frank & the Smoky Gold before, suffice it to say it was an outstanding concert. But I do need to mention that Jake Rohde filled in for banjo-player Harrison Olk who had a conflict. Rohde was fabulous on the mandolin and went head-to-head with the ever-amazing Erin Aldridge on fiddle.  Bassist Smokin’ Joe Scarpellino lived up to his name and brought some real funk to their otherwise country sound. Danny Frank was as good as ever; he brought his wife Angie up to sing several songs with him, and Colleen (Boss Mama) joined in on several tunes, including a husky rendition of “White Freightliner.” All in all, it was a worthwhile trip down I-35. I think we may have to do this again, what with the lineup of great talent ahead.  

Danny Frank & The Smoky Gold at The Rugged Spruce