The Blues beauty and the jam beast

Jill Fisher

Ana Popović’s performance was simply incredible and her backup band that featured horns (trumpet and saxophone) along with keyboards, bass guitar and drums were top-notch as well. Photo by Jill FIsher.

Gee, just as we got through the great but grueling Bayfront Blues Festival, the 2023 Twin Ports Music Festival was upon us this past Friday and Saturday, Aug. 18 and 19, at Earth Rider Festival Grounds. There was a fairly hefty price for the two-day pass (though less expensive than BBF) but there were plenty of people ready to fork over $65 to be there for both days. I was particularly interested in attending since I had not seen most of these acts before.    

This is the second year of this music festival, which was organized by Jon Miller (who also hosts The Shamrock Shakedown in Minneapolis). Evidently I missed  last year. If it came on the heels of the Bayfront Blues Fest, as it did this year, I don’t wonder why.    

On Day One the first band in the lineup was one of my local favorites, Feeding Leroy, which unfortunately I missed given the starting time of 4 pm. Nor did I get inside Cedar Lounge to hear another favorite group, New Salty Dog, which played during outdoor stage set changes. It was just too beautiful a summer evening – 76 degrees, sunny with just a light breeze at 6 pm – to even think of going inside the hot and crowded bar. However, I stood outside the front door to hear some of the “Doggies” usual fabulousness.    

There was a good-sized crowd by the time I arrived on Friday evening to hear the second band in the lineup, the Minneapolis-based band Cactus Blossoms. Members of the band include two pairs of brothers: Jack Torey and Page Burkum (electric and acoustic guitars, respectively, and vocals) and Jake and Jeremy Hanson (electric guitar and drums, respectively). The fifth member of the group is Phillip Hicks (bass guitar), who is cousin to Jack and Page.    

At least one person asserted that this was his absolute favorite band. I was told beforehand that their sound was very much like the Everly Brothers, which I found to be an accurate description, though others describe them as alternative country and indie folk with hints of hillbilly. One might even categorize them as a “soft rock” band, which wouldn’t be far off.    

Jack and Page had lovely close harmonies that were easy on the ear. The mostly original compositions they performed had a laid-back, romantic feel that was very nice to sway to and their lyrics were quietly optimistic in feeling. Songs like “Powder Blue,” “You’re Dreaming,” “Is It Over?” and one, “Runaway,” off their newest album, were well-known by their fans, who sang along to more than one song. Jake had three different guitars, one of which he played with a slide to great effect on “Please Don’t Call Me Crazy.”  

What a contrast then with Them Coulee Boys who were up next. You could also call these guys “the wild bunch” as they started rockin’ from the get-go, with bouncy, even happy music. The band is based in Eau Claire, Wis., and is comprised of Soren Staff (electric guitar), his brother Jens Staff (mandolin), Beau Janke (banjo, keyboards), Neil Krause (bass) and Stas Hable (drums). Their original tunes were insightful with heartfelt but not sappy lyrics. Their four-part harmonies were right on and their song, “Ten Feet Tall,” was a real crowd pleaser with seemingly the entire audience chiming in on the chorus, “I was 17, ten feet tall.” For those who missed this show, you might want to catch them at the West Theatre on Nov. 30 or on Dec. 2 at First Avenue in Minneapolis.  

The late-evening headliner was Feed the Dog – again a contrast to the previous band. Tim McIlree on fiddle was the driving force with eery, crying notes and wailing licks. The other members were Nick Spielman (6-string bass), Erik Juvonen (drums) and Jon Miller (electric guitar). Their music was pretty dark, both because of the ominous sounds they produced (rumbling thunder on one song) and lyrics like “…mamas’ babies alone in the cold.”  

One song described a debased life: “I drink when sad, I drink all day and gamble all night, I lead a life of cliches.” Feed the Dog’s website calls them an action-packed, experimental jam-grass act. There was certainly sufficient jamming! Despite the high energy and fine musicianship, I found much of their music to be a downer, like a soundtrack for doomsday, reinforced by a heavy drumbeat.    

The dwindling late evening crowd left hardcore fans dancing and singing along to their tunes. But I was not among them. When the lights started flashing and the smoke billowing, it brought to mind the band Trampled by Turtles.    

Day Two of the Twin Ports Music Fest also began at 4 pm. Katy Guillen & the Drive was the first act, which I missed entirely, arriving just in time to catch the second group: The Big Wu. Its members, all wearing dark sunglasses, embodied the look of the classic blues band but it was free-form jamming that they were really into. While the first song was relatively short with clearly enunciated lyrics, the following two songs took 20 minutes!    

According to its website, members of the band are Chris Castino (guitar, vocals), Mark Joseph (guitar, vocals), Andy “Padre” Miller (bass, vocals), Al Oikari (keyboards, lap steel guitar) and Terry Vanderwalker (drums, vocals). However, there was a second drummer on hand this evening, whose name I didn’t get, pounding out additional rhythms on congas, bongos, snares and other assorted percussion instruments. The tempos varied a fair amount with some very peppy tunes to which many in the good-sized crowd danced, but after another long jam, I took a time out.    

I got back to the festival in time for Ana Popović’s set. And what a set it was. Her band was clearly the highlight of the entire festival and I have yet to discover how Jon Miller snagged her act.    

At first she appeared to be a glamorous show person in a sexy outfit. But hearing and seeing her play her electric guitar (the '64 Fender Stratocaster she credits with saving her life?) put any questions about her talent to rest. Not having researched her beforehand, I had no expectations whatsoever, but this lady, who was born in Belgrade, Serbia, is a world-class talent with awards up the wazoo.    

Just looking at her tour schedule shows what a hot commodity she and her band is and explains why she is said to reside “in the United States” without a specific location. (At present she has 121 gigs in the U.S., Canada and Europe scheduled for 2023, flying back and forth over the big pond. In early 2024 she will be a performer on the West Caribbean Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise).    

Popović’s performance was simply incredible and her backup band that featured horns (trumpet and saxophone) along with keyboards, bass guitar and drums were top-notch as well. She announced that her drummer (probably the notable Chris Coleman) was from Chicago. Funk, blues and rock were all explored to the audience’s delight.    

And yes, this group jammed on several numbers too. At one point the trumpet and sax players mounted the big speakers in front of the stage for a fun and impressive musical back-and-forth interlude. A few of the songs I noted were “Queen of the Pack,” “Taste For You” and “Brand New Man” plus “Doing This” with a Tina Turner-like talking lead-in by Ana.    

Members of our local band, Fenestra Funk, were there, mesmerized by her sound and full of praise afterwards for her guitar chops, including slide work, and the bass player’s perfection. I can’t say enough about how great she and her band were; every other performance this weekend paled by comparison. Not one to follow bands, I may have to make an exception for this one! (Move over Bonnie Raitt!)    

Between Popović’s and the final act, Frogleg, I checked out the Jon Sullivan Band inside Cedar Lounge. It was a brief foray into the bar, finding myself in the middle of another long jam. Since it was again a beautiful evening with temps in the high 70s, it was hard to remain inside, so I can’t offer any opinion on their performance.    

Last up on the outdoor stage was the seven-piece Twin Cities-based band, Frogleg. I was interested in hearing this band since New Salty Dog had opened for it a couple months ago down in Minneapolis at the Hook and Ladder Club. Members are Joe Dunn (electric guitar), Demitri Rallis (electric guitar), James Geisinger (bass), Doug Christianson (congas and bongos), Terry Van Dewalker (drums), Brian Powers (saxophone) and Kevin Dorsey (keys).    

The band seems to have a strong following among the younger set. But since it turned out that Frogleg also was a jam band, albeit with fine vocals, I headed home shortly before 11, missing the last of their 1-1/2-hour performance. Its website posted the setlist for this evening, which is helpful as I wasn’t able to catch the names of their songs. I will have to check this group out again sometime, when I am fresher and haven’t just seen one of the best bands ever.    

I have to say this about the Twin Ports Music Festival – it was refreshing to see younger people making music after three days of watching and hearing mostly old men perform at the Bayfront Blues Festival, even though I thoroughly grooved to those old cats.    

There seems to be a generational divide in music taste. Many of us older folks are disappointed that younger adults, musicians in particular, aren’t exploring the blues genre. More than one person of my cohort dissed the up-tempo, raucous acts that the younger generation prefers.    

Meanwhile, Grateful Dead-like jamming appears to be what is trending these days.  

Upcoming: Hope to see you all at the free Shiprock Concert in Leif Erikson Park on Thursday, Aug. 24, which features three terrific bands – Boxcar, Erik Koskinen and New Salty Dog. Should be a fun evening of music!  

In Remembrance: It was sad news that the Rex Bar in the historic Fitger’s complex is closing. With a capacity of 500 (standing room only), the bar has been an important venue for live music and those who like to dance to it for 15 years. I’ve been there only a few times in the last three years since moving back to Duluth – most memorably seeing Fenestra Funk there during Homegrown, as well as Big Wave Dave and the Ripples and Dr. Greg Moore’s UWS Rock meets Jazz concert. It seems this is a significant loss for the music scene in Duluth.