Ross Thorn on the map!

Jill Fisher

Ross Thorn at Ursa Minor. Photos by Jill Fisher.

After last weekend’s Twin Ports Music Festival, I decided to take it a little easier this week. But of course there was one show I wasn’t going to miss: The Shiprock Community Concert in Leif Erikson Park on Thursday, Aug. 24.

And then I was offered tickets for a Big Top Chautauqua show in Bayfield for Saturday, Aug 26. So much for taking it easy. But before all this was added to my schedule, I have been tracking what is happening with singer/songwriter Ross Thorn, this year’s winner of the Third Annual Palomino Grant awarded by Trampled By Turtles and the Homegrown Music Festival.  

The Palomino Grant is announced and given out each Spring to an area musician. The award came with $5000, two days of recording time at the Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls and the opportunity to open for the Trampled By Turtles at its early July concert at Bayfront Park.  

I first heard Ross Thorn perform on a Sunday morning this past January at the former Amazing Grace café in the DeWitt-Seitz Building in Canal Park. After praising the venue as comfortable for musicians as well as for a listening audience, the place closed a few weeks later. (Hopefully the place will be revived once again as it has in years past.) I wrote about Ross briefly in the January 12 issue of the Reader, noting his “strong tenor voice and a decent falsetto.” Since then this 31-year-old, who happens to have a full-time job as a cartographer, released his first album Hugo.  

When it was announced on June 7 that Thorn won this year’s Palomino Grant, I was on the lookout for when I might hear him perform again. I missed him at Bent Paddle at the conclusion of Diona Johnson’s Celebration of Life on June 29, and again when he was an opener for the Trampled by Turtles concert at Bayfront on July 8. I had  Aug. 1 on my schedule to see him at the Chester Creek Concert, but that was canceled due to forecasted rain (which never arrived). Finally I connected with him when he played solo at Superior Tavern on Tower Avenue in Superior, Wisc. on Sunday afternoon Aug. 3, a venue that was new to me. Although there for just one set, I got to enjoy a few of his original tunes amid his preferred covers, despite this not being an ideal place for quiet, solo performances.  

I tracked Ross down again when he played a benefit for TransNorthland at Ursa Minor Brewing on Aug. 19 where he was joined by friends Marshall Dillon on electric guitar and Cavan Denning on pedal steel guitar. He mostly played requests texted to him with donations. I am sorry to say the sound and mix left something to be desired, with Ross’ booming voice and guitar work drowning out the accompaniment by his compadres. In addition, like Superior Tavern, the brewery setting is not ideal for listening to his finely crafted original ballads.  

Ross Thorn's String Band performs at Chester Creek. 

At last I got to see Ross perform at the rescheduled Chester Park concert on Tuesday, Aug. 22. Having been to many of the free concerts at Chester, I enjoyed hearing him here in this more casual listening venue without needing to order drinks and/or food. On this occasion he was joined by several area musicians forming what I am calling the Ross Thorn String Band. Besides Ross on his Martin DCRSG acoustic guitar, the group included Kyle Orla (acoustic guitar) and Jen Grussow (standup bass) both members of the Field Birds, Clifton Nesseth (fiddle) of Ponyfolk and Leon Rohrbaugh (mandolin), member of A Band Called Truman. It was a happy mix of talented musicians to backup Thorn’s compositions and covers—in spite of a rather dark theme concerning mortality and death running through most of the songs on this evening; nice setlist!  

After a short instrumental number, the second tune established the tone for the evening: “Grave Digger’s Son” is one of Ross’s originals. It was followed by an adaptation of the Woody Guthrie song, “Old Black Train” (with the line, “where it takes you, you can’t come back from”). Other songs in the set list were “Ghost Woman Blues,” “Troubles” and “Saturday Mourning” (see what I mean?). But then they wound up with Ross’ upbeat original, “South of Somewhere” and a great mashup of “Joker” by the Steve Miller Band, the Juice Newton hit “Angel of the Morning” and Shaggy’s sample of the latter song.  

Thorn’s music is a fortuitous blending of Bluegrass, Blues and Gospel, plus a Folk song or two with good stories that produce interesting and engaging material. It will be fun to follow his progress in the music realm. Look for him at upcoming gigs at Bent Paddle (Sept. 7), Ursa Minor (Sept. 23) and his Wednesday-evening residency at Cedar Lounge this coming October.  

Later in the week there was the free ShipRock Community Concert at Leif Erikson Park on Thursday, August 24. It was a glorious summer evening with three great bands—New Salty Dog, Boxcar and Erik Koskinen—performing great music, which was wonderful to dance to. I have written about each of these three bands in the past and could only repeat my praises here. What I heard over and over from folks who attended the concert was their appreciation for this picturesque venue and amazement that it isn’t used for more music events like this.  

ShipRock Management Inc. sponsored this evening of wonderful music. As Blake Shipee, who is the lead singer in Boxcar as well as the Investment Manager at ShipRock explained, community giveback is a part of the company’s core values. He further stated that this particular event was inspired by his many walks over the years on Duluth’s Lakewalk and thinking that the Leif Erikson amphitheater has been way underutilized. How lucky we are in Duluth to have such generous support for music. It would be great if the company would sponsor another such concert next year. For now ShipRock deserves a big “Thank you!”

Boxcar at Leif Erikson

As the week wound up the Curmudgeon and I made our way to Big Top Chautauqua this past Saturday for one of its last concerts of the season. I was comp’d tickets for the show with Corey Carlson and the Big City Band, of whom I knew nothing. Sometimes it really pays to take a chance and attend a concert with zero expectations. What a fun surprise to discover another band from our region that really rocks! Carlson grew up in the area and working on the Big Top grounds, exposing him early to a wide range of music, so the place was filled on this evening with family and friends.  

The six-piece Big City Band (with organ, pedal steel guitar and the usual guitars and drums) sizzled throughout the first set, while Carlson began the second set on a quieter note with a solo, followed by a duet with a young local woman who had a lovely voice and then another number accompanied by fiddler Randy Sabien. This variety made the concert particularly enjoyable, especially when the band members rejoined Carlson to end the concert with several high energy rock tunes. The sound was good for this approximately 500-seat venue.

My only amazement was that the audience stayed glued to their seats for the entire concert, except for a couple people who stood to dance during the last song. Without any space allotted for dancing, I’m not sure this would be a venue I’d frequent, at least not for blues or rock concerts.  

Upcoming: More music festivals are scheduled for the next six weeks or so. So long as the weather holds, I guess they will continue to attract those of us who can’t get enough of live outdoor music! Here’s one scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 9: Earth Rider Fest 2023 taking place from Noon to 10 pm. Several of our favorite musicians/bands are on the lineup. Check it out at