What's that you say?

Jill Fisher

Martin Zellar and the Hardways at Sacred Heart. Photos by Jill Fisher.

The postponement of Friday’s Three Dog Night concert meant my big musical outing for this past week was the Martin Zellar concert at Sacred Heart Music Center on Saturday, Oct. 7.

Close on the heels of the Duluth Does the Trio concert by a panoply of local musicians, I was anticipating another great show. This is when expectations can be a detriment to absolute enjoyment of a show.

But all was not lost. Singer-songwriter Shane Nelson opened for Martin Zellar as a solo. Shane is well-known around these parts for intense, emotional explorations in his music and this evening was no exception. He performed on acoustic guitar all original material, most of which he is in the process of recording for his next album.

It was clear he was excited to share his newest songs with the audience. The first was “Memories,” a heartfelt tune that one hopes has eased the pain of losing his long-time friend Zach Ross to a car accident in 2022. “Love You From A Distance” was a litany of why a particular relationship was to be avoided, including “beautiful things” that aren’t good for you. This one included percussive work with his guitar that emphasized Shane’s phasing and lyrical content.

Third up was the title track from the in-process album, “The Music Saved My Life” another heart-wrenching song that clearly came from Shane’s own experiences. Then he played the song “Monsters” that he said he rarely plays in public. That number began with him moaning, groaning and making chanting-like sounds that culminated in a dramatic story about healing and growth that is available to everyone despite haunting “monsters.”

Shane’s final number was his more upbeat composition “Mason Lowe,” with which he won the 2021 Duluth Dylan Fest Song from the North Country songwriting contest. As usual, Shane performed beautifully, fully in command of the Sacred Heart stage.

Shane Nelson

After a short break Scott Lunt, AKA Starfire, introduced Martin Zellar and his band, The Hardways. Zellar, who hails from Austin, Minnesota, plays acoustic guitar (a Martin D28, road model) and blues harp. His band includes his son, Wilson (electric guitar), Nick Ciola (bass guitar), Randy Broughten (pedal steel and acoustic guitars) and Scott Wenum (drums). All are competent musicians who looked like they were having a good time doing their thing.

Zellar commented how special the Sacred Heart venue is, being one of the “nicest” places they’ve ever played and at one point wondering whether they could get away with singing the cuss words in some of their tunes (the audience responded in the affirmative).

Zellar’s compositions could be categorized as Americana, I suppose, since there are some definite folky and country sounds among them. The pedal steel guitar accompaniment by Broughten accounted for much of the country western flavor and saved the songs from all sounding alike.

Also, the band’s repertoire includes a fair amount of what I would call soft rock – ballads that are inviting to slow dance to. Zellar has a pleasant voice, with a fair amount of nuance. Still, I sensed a little something lacking overall, despite not being able to put my finger on why.

Online research revealed that Zellar has been cited as one of the most underrated singer-songwriters of the past decade (which decade wasn’t clear) and praised for being “one of this country’s finest songwriters...” And so my expectations were quite high. Based on what I experienced on Saturday, I wouldn’t be able to concur with this appraisal since the lyrics were unintelligible to me for the most part.

I’ve written before that SHMC is not an ideal venue for loud, amplified rock bands due to its acoustics with all the reverberations off the hard surfaces that muddy vocals. This was also evident in the commentary by Zellar between songs. This meant I couldn’t catch any of the titles to the original material nor pick up the names of his band members when he introduced them.

Many in the rather small audience seemed to know their songs; for them the performance was probably just fine. Zellar and The Hardways wrapped up their show with a cover of Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” which demonstrated they could really rock.

I purchased a CD of Zellar’s latest album, Head West, have listened to it several times and  found it to be quite good, especially since the lyrics can be distinguished and the recorded songs are enhanced by female harmonies. 

My take-away is that the band’s performance was enjoyable but not outstanding; I couldn’t help but compare it to recent ones by several local bands I have raved about. Would I attend another concert by Zellar? Sure, at a different venue. And as we Minnesotans sometimes say, “it wasn’t half bad!”

Upcoming: I am excited to see that the movie of the Talking Heads concert Stop Making Sense is coming to Duluth. I became an instant David Byrne and Talking Heads fan when I viewed it several years back in New York. Zinema on Superior Street has multiple showings scheduled Oct. 13-18, so my advice is don’t miss it!

Times and tickets are found at Zinema | Zeitgeist (zeitgeistarts.com)

The Tom Cawcutt Trio, with Jane Aleckson and Todd James, will perform two shows on Saturday, Oct. 14, at the Encore Performing Arts Center in Cloquet: one at 2 pm, the second at 7 pm. See countyseattheater.com for further information.

One Week Live at Wussow’s begins Monday, Oct. 16, with six evenings of jam-packed performances, mostly by local groups, some I’ve not yet heard. Check out wussows.com/events/ for the latest details.

A bit further out is the Annual Harvest Moon Gala in Two Harbors – a benefit for Community Radio KTWH-LP, 99.5 FM – which takes place on Saturday, Oct. 21. Fans of New Salty Dog and Breanne Marie may want to make the trek up the shore to enjoy a dinner and/or the concert to follow. Get all the details at: KTWH 99.5 FM – Two Harbors Community Radio – Harvest Moon Gala – dinner and entertainment!