A Tale of two music cities

Jill Fisher

cThe Cheektones playing in Prescott, Ariz. Photos by Jill Fisher.

Some music fans will travel great distances to see repeat performances by their favorite bands (Dylanophiles are the ones I know best), and perhaps I will too someday (if I win the lottery!).

In the meantime, I’ve found that travel for other reasons provides the opportunity to find out what is happening musically in other parts of the world. Most recently I visited family in Prescott, Arizona, which allowed me to explore the music scene there. Such explorations help me understand just how well the Twin Ports’s scene stacks up to others and visa versa. Prescott’s population is just a bit more than half of Duluth’s.

If you Google it, you’ll be apprised that one of the city’s attractions is Whiskey Row. As the name suggests, this two-block section of downtown contains a number of bars, several of which serve as live music venues. Indeed, three of them provide music nearly every evening year-round, with others booking acts during community events such as its Arizona’s Christmas City celebration in November (like Duluth’s Christmas City of the North event, parade and all).

It was Day of the Dead season, AKA Halloween, while I was there, so I expected that a lot of music would be happening. Late in the evening on Thursday, Oct. 26, I took a quick tour of what Whiskey Row had to offer and found that the Bird Cage Saloon had an open mic session in progress. As typical with open mic sessions, the performers can be great or not so good. In this case I didn’t hang around long after hearing a female vocalist attempt to cover Roberta Flack’s hit, “Killing Me Softly.” She was killing me, but loudly not softly.

When singers are flat, it hurts my ears. So I moved on to the nearby Whiskey River Tavern, which had an outdoor stage and courtyard behind the regular bar room. There I saw the four-member group Palomino. They were something – two played acoustic guitars, one a standup bass and another with a self-made banjo without a headstock (named “Antoinette” HA!).

I was told they were missing their lead singer on this evening, but you could have fooled me. Palomino covered a number of songs including “The Devil Wears a Suit and Tie,” “Dueling Banjos,” “Louisiana Saturday Night” and “Can’t You See What That Woman Is Doing To Me?” And though the temperature was dropping into the high 40s, folks were hanging out till the bitter end ‘cause these guys were good! Dancing helped keep me warm, as did the outdoor heaters.

At the recommendation of the banjo player, Gordy Acri, I returned to the Bird Cage to hear a number of tunes by a decent pick-up band. It was led by the man who has MCed the open mic sessions here for 17 years, Don Cheek. It seemed serendipitous to hear them sing Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ No Where” and “The Shape I’m In” by The Band. Music went to a later hour in Prescott than in Duluth! It turns out that the locally popular band, The Cheektones (led by Don Cheek himself), was scheduled to play the next night, Friday, as well as for the official Halloween party on Saturday.

Likewise, the Whiskey River Tavern was fully booked for the weekend, as was a third place on Whiskey Row, The Back Alley Wine Bar. You can guess where I was found on Friday, right back at the Bird Cage arriving in time to hear four songs before the band took its first break. Among them were the Talking Heads song, “Burning Down The House” and “Sixteen Tons.”

I was impressed by the Cheektones’s rendition, especially after having just heard Old Crow Medicine Show’s exciting version of the latter song the week before. Then there was “Right Place Wrong Time” by Doctor John. Nice! This two-guitars, bass, drums and fiddle band was really hot; sitting in with them was a sax player who upped the musical ante. They were cookin’ all evening, so I just had to stay to hear their final number at midnight. Woo Hoo!

Since I spent all my time the previous night at the Bird Cage, my first stop on Saturday was at the Back Alley Wine Bar. I was immediately drawn in as I heard Arizona Blues Hall of Famer Chuck Hall on electric guitar and Sean Markey on acoustic guitar lay down some classic blues covers such as “Ready For Me” by Muddy Waters. They also covered George Jones (“It’s Hard To Be An Outlaw”), Eric Clapton and Chris Stapleton. It was hard to leave, but when the duet took a break I decided to check out the “Hit Squad with Lucy Hill” at Whiskey River Tavern.

Chuck Hall

Well, all I can say is that Lucy Hill was a wild one (and on-key) with a back-up band that had the place jumpin’. They covered a variety of hits such as Miley Cyrus “I Can Love Me Better,” Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark.” I must say there were also a fair number of country-western tunes performed by this group and others, reflecting regional taste.

Before the evening was out, I heard about another popular venue known for blues music: the Windsock Lounge. Windsock is not located on Whiskey Row and I didn’t get to visit it until Monday, unfortunately missing the regular Sunday afternoon blues jam, which is curated by an MC and having a backup band for individual musicians for a tune or two (similar to the Blues and Dance Jam at the Blues Saloon in St. Paul). Windsock was inducted into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame in the venue category this past August for its ongoing support and development of the blues.

Instead I chatted with a musician from Long Island, New York, who has played there and watched the Texas Rangers beat the Arizona Diamondbacks in game three of the World Series. Although I missed the blues jam at Windsock that Sunday afternoon, I got to hear another band – the Cadillac Angels at The Spirit Room in the town of Jerome located about 35 miles northeast of Prescott. This small town, which hangs on a cliff’s edge, contained only 444 souls in 2020 but was once home to a population of 10,000 during its heyday of copper mining. Now it’s primarily a tourist destination with great views to the north of red rock country and the San Francisco Peaks west of Flagstaff. The Cadillac Angels were a trio of older musicians (a female on electric bass, and males on electric guitar and drums) who showed their stuff covering primarily rock-and-roll numbers. It was a Sunday afternoon treat.

The last excursion into this local music scene brought me back to the Bird Cage for the Monday evening Grateful Dead jam held there weekly. The dance floor was jammed with Dead Heads doing their thing. Although I typically can dance to anything, I didn’t find these long numbers (at least 10 minutes each) to be attractive for dancing. After a few tunes I headed back to my Airbnb feeling like I had experienced enough of the area’s music scene on this trip. I do look  forward to my next time out that way and you should too if you happen to be snowbirds headed to Arizona for the winter! I arrived back in Duluth too late on Tuesday to catch any of the fun music events scheduled on Halloween but got to see Paul Metsa at Blackwater Lounge on Wednesday, Nov. 1.

Sonny Earl and Paul Metsa

A sizable crowd was on hand to help celebrate Metsa’s 68th birthday that evening, including Sonny Earl (AKA Robert Wilson, Esq.) with his outstanding blues harp and vocals. Not only was it Metsa’s birthday, but it was the 25th anniversary of when the two of them began playing together. Metsa played both original songs, including “Virginia Virginia” and a Dylan-like “Jack Ruby.”  The covers  were good too – “I’m A Man,” “White Boy Lost in the Blues” and “She Belongs to Me.” Someone in the crowd requested a Jerry Jeff Walker tune, to which the two responded with a nice rendition of “Tennessee Whiskey.”

After a break, during which an outrageously delicious chocolate cake was served to everyone in attendance, Taylor Shykes on bass (of Born Too Late) and Alan Sparhawk on electric guitar sat in with the duo, making for an even more memorable evening that ended with them playing Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”

Metsa dedicated it to all the musicians who died recently. All and all a good evening of music. T

he next night it was over to Wussow’s for “Funky Thursday” that happens on the first Thursday of each month. It started off with the regulars, a five-piece ensemble consisting of Marshall Dillon (electric guitar), Manny Eisele (electric guitar), Ian Hopp (drums) and Alex Bengtson (saxophone), joined by Boss Mama (acoustic guitar), Sam Deters (electric guitar), Calvin “Calzone” Lund (bass) and Jacob Mahon (keyboards). They were jammin’ and groovin’ and having a good time. Boss Mama demonstrated how to lead a jam band. She performed a new original (title unknown) and an older one, “Slip Away” on which Deters sounded really fine with his slide guitar licks. Then, just when I thought I had enough of Grateful Dead jams (after my Prescott jaunt), this amalgamation of musicians played a very enjoyable rendition of “Shake Down Street.”

More songs, instrumentals and 20-minute jams ensued, with Boss Mama’s “Gotta Get To Memphis” rounding out the last set. Note – the next Funky Thursday at Wussow’s is on Dec. 7. Let’s hope there’s no snowstorm that day to keep folks away! Great music and fun extended to the next evening as well with Feeding Leroy and Father Hennepin entertaining a full house at Bent Paddle Brewing. So much good music to be had here in Duluth-Superior. Evidently this place, along with Prescott, where live music is thriving. May it always be so!