Musings on music scenes and much more

Jill Fisher

L to R: David Slattery, Neil Badden, Tom Johnson, Barry Marciniak and Randy Felknor, all of whom played in bands at the Duluth Armory back in the 1960s.

One of the downsides of travel is that one misses so much happening on the Twin Ports music scene. Having been away on a three-week trip out East, I heard from numerous folks about the various concerts and gigs that were “not to be missed!” but which I did. (Example: missing the Squash Fest.)

On the other hand travel allows one to get a glimpse of what music scenes are like elsewhere and by this gauge how our local music scene stacks up.   The Curmudgeon and I drove out to Washington, D.C., at the end of August with the aim of visiting as many Smithsonian museums as possible in the week we were there, along with memorials on the National Mall.

Though live music wasn’t the primary focus of our explorations, we were exposed to a good amount of American music history, particularly at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Beyond the sordid background on slavery and the struggle for Civil Rights, exhibits here thoroughly documented the African American/Black contributions to the United States’ musical heritage. And what a display it was. Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Bootsy Collins, Lena Horn, et al were given their due, with earlier performers in different genres filling in many of my knowledge gaps. It even dealt with Black Face performances!

There was also a fabulous life-size projection of five young Black adults demonstrating “Step Dancing,” something I’ve never seen or been aware of. It took two days to adequately peruse this museum.  

The Museum of American History also had a major music exhibit with all sorts of American performers—including much overlap with what we saw at the African American museum. But this wasn’t the extent of what we caught in the way of musical education there.

As it happened, DC’s annual Jazz Fest was taking place in the Wharf District the weekend we were there and we enjoyed a “Meet The Artist“ interview of two jazz performers, Big Chief Donald “Duck” Harrison and Dave Holland. Each spoke of how they developed their own sound; Harrison noted that “jive talk” was the precursor of what we now call rap. It added to my ongoing education about jazz. We heard the live concert from a distance. However, the open-air seating for the stage at water’s edge was too much to take in the100-degree heat we were experiencing!  

Although I had done a fair amount of online research into where we could hear live music in DC, not all that much was happening during the workweek. One event we did find and decide to take in was a concert at the 9:30 club, a venue that was a near replica of First Avenue in Minneapolis, albeit on a slightly smaller scale: The Squirrel Nut Zippers (named after a candy bar!) opened for X. I hadn’t heard or heard of SNZ before but lots of folks I know subsequently told me they had. They were great fun playing hot jazz tunes from the '20s and '30s. Now that I have heard of this band I’ll keep an eye on their tour schedule in case they ever head this way (the nearest locations are Milwaukee and Stoughton WI). I hadn’t heard of X either, which I later learned is a well-known California post punk band. We left after just a few of their very loud songs--sorry, I’m just not a grunge or punk band fan.  

After our week-long stint in DC, we made our way north along the Jersey Shore, through Bruce Springsteen territory, where our timing was lucky and we got to attend a beach-side concert in Wildwood Crest. It was a Celtic-rock band: the Jamisons (sponsored by Jameson Irish Whiskey of course). They were quite the group, with the lead singer appropriately outfitted in a kilt and a killer female fiddler. It was just the kind of musical fusion that can get me dancing, and dance I did. It appears that this is a regional band, so it doesn’t look like I’ll see them again any time soon.  

I thought I might get a chance to hear some live music when I was back in my old stomping grounds of Woodstock, NY., but it was mid-week and not much was happening in this small town of 5000 souls. The Levon Helm Studio Barn didn’t have anything scheduled while we were there. So I turned my attention to the revitalized Bearsville complex, which was established by Albert Grossman during Woodstock’s heyday as a retreat for the community of artists he worked with, most notably Bob Dylan. The Bearsville Theater is a barn that was converted in 1989 to a space for rehearsals and live performances. I heard many great concerts there during my time in Woodstock.

The complex also includes the recording studio “Utopia” that Grossman built for  Todd Rundgren and where Rundgren produced many notable albums from 1969 to the late 80s. A new trail through the Catskill woods that surround the complex had been created since I left. It was studded with interpretive signs for the legendary musicians Rundgren produced albums with: Jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, Steely Dan, Tony Levin Band, Foghat, Meat Loaf, NRBQ, Joe Cocker and Patti Smith, among so many others. Like the museums in DC, this was something of a music history lesson. This little outing brought back memories of hearing the likes of Levon and Amy Helm, John Sebastian, Cindy Cashdollar, John Herald, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams.   Thus, when we returned to Duluth I was definitely in the mood for live music!  And this brings me to my conviction that the music scene here is particularly vibrant.

When one thinks of cities best known for their music scenes, Nashville, New Orleans, Memphis, Austin (and Woodstock!) come immediately to mind. I suppose Minneapolis and Chicago should be in that list as well as their midwestern counterparts. One of the criteria for this must be that there’s a possibility of hearing live music most nights of the week. By this measure the Twin Ports could be headed for such a distinction as well. Certainly the venues for such are proliferating!  

The two events that I was able to enjoy this past week were a balm for my music deficit: a benefit for the Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center held at Warrior Brewing Company in Lincoln Park was the first on Friday, Sept. 22. The “no name band” that entertained us was a reunion of musicians who actually played at the historic Duluth Armory back in the 1960s!

They represented the bands Soul Seekers, Yes it Is, Gems, New Addition, The Titans and The Chaparrels.   Superior resident Tom Johnson (drums), who was in the latter band, was instrumental in pulling this event and the band members together. Neil “Captain Shiny” Badden flew in from San Francisco to participate, and how wonderful it was that he did since he really strutted his stuff on electric guitar. His compatriots included Barry Marciniak (bass), Randy Felknor (guitar), and Steve Aldrich (guitar). David Slattery and George McLellan were special guests.  

Most of the folks in attendance were seniors (I include myself in this cohort) who could appreciate the covers of the oldies but goodies by Sam Cooke, Paul Anka, Bobby Vee, Eagles, Byrds, Outsiders, Grassroots, The Troggs, The Crystals, Roy Orbison (Tom’s rendition of “Crying” was pretty awesome) and Chuck Berry. Of course Bob Dylan had to be in the mix, so the guys ended the evening with “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” For a group who hadn’t played together for fifty years and who had no time for rehearsal, they sounded pretty damn good. I was glad I got out to hear them. It also made me anticipate the resurrection of the Armory as another live music venue in Duluth.  

Then, to make my week of music restoration complete, I attended Sacred Heart Music Center’s “Duluth Does The Trio” with songs recorded by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. One might have assumed all the performers would be female, but that was not the case—several men took their turns in interpreting the many worthy songs in the trio’s discography. They included Misisipi Mike, Bill Isles, Corwin Pederson, Marv Pomeroy as well as members of several bands on the roster: Israel Malachi, Crooked Miles, Born To Late, Fishheads. George Zissos, who played a mean electric guitar, sat in with a couple of bands.  

So many of our top local musicians participated in this concert that it’s almost impossible to single out any of the performers as particularly wonderful. But I must say I was quite impressed that Rokkyn Nelson-Kavajecz with Born Too Late pretty much nailed Parton’s challenging “I Will Always Love You.” And Breanne Marie never sounded better than with her rendition of Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time” with the Israel Malachi band. Janie & the Spokes really rocked with their version of  Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” (with some consummate jamming) while Laurie BoeDee was totally righteous on “Look Out For My Love,” another of Ronstadt’s hits.  

But it was #indianheadband covering “Blue Bayou” that delighted me the most with its individual yet recognizable take on that song. Kudos  to Eric Swanson, who is credited with organizing the musicians and covers for this event. It was a most satisfying evening of music enjoyed by a nearly full house. Can’t wait for SHMC’s next Duluth Does!