Joyful and profound performances abound

Jill Fisher

Russ Sackett's May 31 CD release. Photos by Jill Fisher.

Friday, May 31, was a lovely Duluth evening full of great fun and music at Blacklist Brewing Company. The occasion was a party for the release of Russell Sackett’s debut CD Time Is Short.

To up the ante two other acts were scheduled for the celebratory event. Woodblind was billed as the opener, though in this instance two band members were unavailable to play (guitarist Jimi Cooper and drummer Tyler Dubla). No worries though,  Jason Wussow and Veikko Lepisto, were joined by Jacob Mahon playing keys to round out the ska sound Woodblind is all about. As usual, the selections were upbeat and supremely danceable (even without Dubla’s steady drumbeat).

Since it was warm and sunny on this last day of May, Blacklist had opened the two oversized overhead garage doors that double as its storefront window wall most of the year. Also, the adjacent outdoor seating area was set up allowing the festivities to spill out onto the sidewalk and bringing lots of music and life to downtown Duluth’s East Superior Street.

Woodblind with Jacob Mahon

Inside the sound was better than when I last heard Black River Revue here during Homegrown. The headliner for this evening’s celebration came on at 9:10 pm with Sackett backed by Brian Wells on bass guitar, Jacob Mahon on keys and Wally Wedan on drums. These three musicians did not play on the newly released CD, so it was doubly impressive as they deftly accompanied Sackett on his original songs that comprise Time Is Short.

By way of background, Russ Sackett, despite his youthful appearance, has been playing around the Twin Ports for more than 20 years. He was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and was active in music, beginning with the piano, picking up the guitar at age 14 and then the trombone to play in his high school band. He also sang in his high school choir and smaller choral groups. A

After graduation Sackett attended Bemidji State University, where he was exposed to a variety of musical genres including jazz and even learned to conduct. At the same time he took to playing in bars with local cover bands, where he built up his vast repertoire of classic rock tunes. One of these was the second iteration of The Dukes of Hubbard, which included Tim Saxhaug (currently bass player with Trampled by Turtles) and Eric Pollard (Actual Wolf) on drums. Guitarist Jimi Cooper also joined that band and was ultimately instrumental in luring Sackett to Duluth in 2003.

It wasn’t long after Sackett arrived in Duluth that The Dukes of Hubbard broke up. So he joined the band Lo’fi, which played every Wednesday evening at the Reef Bar 2004 -2009. Sackett describes that as a crazy and wild gig. (Sorry I missed it!).

Then, when Blackwater Lounge opened, Steve Netzel asked Sackett to join the Maxi Child Trio to play jazz regularly there. That group continues to play there as the regular house band on Tuesday and Thursdays. Sackett played keys with them for four years. Even then he played solo gigs with his acoustic guitar, many of them private events, as well as subbing with various bands who relied on him to play any number of instruments in diverse styles.

Russ Sackett and Jacob Mahon

In 2022 Sackett formed the band Sidestreet Detour with Steph Jago and Bart Porter. Together they began writing and arranging original tunes in the country rock and Americana vein. That same year Sackett began serious songwriting on his own to explore more personal storylines.

Sackett’s debut CD with his own songs came about when he crossed paths with an old friend, Mike Bernier, at Mark Anderson’s Memorial Service at R.T. Quinlan’s in the spring of 2022. As the number of his original compositions started piling up, the idea of Russ recording them was aided and abetted by Bernier, who played guitar on “My Appreciation.”

The nine-track Time Is Short contains a few very personal songs, one being titled “Glenna’s Song,” a sweet ballad for his sweetie. Others express that love is something of a two-edged sword in Sackett’s world view, with some having rather harsh lyrics about retribution, such as “Getting Burned” and the bitter perspective of “Behind My Back.” “Fear” explores paranoia while the CD’s title track takes mortality head-on with the opening line, “You get lost inside your head, better buck up soon you’ll be dead.”

Overall, it’s a thought-provoking and revealing listen.

On this Friday evening Sackett’s improvised band brought a buoyant rockin’ groove to the new songs. However, despite the improved audio, it was difficult to discern all the lyrics as the vocals were somewhat overpowered.

Whatever, the vibe was joyous and upbeat and kept the crowd engaged, ready to hear the next set by a third group that had Sackett playing keys, Jacob Mahon taking over lead guitar, Brian Wells on bass guitar and Owen Mahon on drums. This was another treat for the crowd with some interesting covers, the first being Warren Zevon’s “Johnny Strikes Up the Band.” Another was Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone” which treated the crowd to some wonderful three-part harmonies. What a great evening of fine music all around.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share my experience at Sacred Heart Music Center on Thursday, May 30, when Humbird returned to the venue.

Opening for her was ISMAY (Avery Hellman) a Bay Area, California, native whose work is rooted in county western genre but termed “alt-country.”  


Avery has a background in ranching that is expressed in the lyrics of original compositions which nonetheless have an old-timey feel. Accompanying Avery was Andrew Allen-Fahlander, Avery's spouse and fellow musician, who also played acoustic and electric guitars on ISMAY's Desert Pavement album. Both played acoustic guitar.

Chatty interludes gave interesting background to the songs performed as with “The Shearer and the Darby Ram” and “The Lonely Stallion.” They also sang a good old classic cowboy song “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” The sounds they produced were really nice and resonant in SHMC’s acoustic environment.

Humbird (Siri Undlin), who played electric guitar was backed by Pat Keen on standup bass and Nate LeBrun on drums and synthesizer. I appreciated her recognition of SHMC’s acoustics ,which she considered a fourth member of the group and thus chose to modify her typical loud rock and roll sound. The lovely soft rock ballad “May” she opened with demonstrated this approach.

Siri explained that her family background is steeped in the Christian religion with several ministers and how references to Bible stories seem to surreptitiously creep into her songs. A case in point was “Seven Veils” which alludes to “Dance of the Seven Veils,” about Salome's performance before King Herod that ended in the beheading of John the Baptist. However, she had a different take on the idea of seven veils, each of which needs to be removed in the process of self-discovery.

Political issues were also represented in Humbird’s work. One example was the tune “Charlotte,” named for her young daughter who focused on learning to ride her tricycle oblivious to the surrounding chaos of helicopters and teargas resulting from George Floyd’s murder in their neighborhood. Local musician Clif Nesseth joined the group to play violin on this number.

Humbird with Clif Nesseth on violin.

Another song was dedicated to the families trapped in Gaza. I loved her song “North Country Girl,” a musical response to Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” which explored what the character may have thought of that song: “…he remembers the ice and snow, now he sings of us when we are old.” Humbird’s versatility was displayed with a cover of Sinead O’Connor’s recording of a 1,000-year-old Irish ballad, “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” that she felt was appropriate to perform “in this sacred space.” (Perhaps Sacred Heart IS still a sacred space with its dedication to music, despite being “desanctified” by the Catholic Church.) The audience response was very enthusiastic with a standing ovation.

The encore was “On The Day We Are Together Again,” with an a capella beginning in the style of an Irish ballad and finishing with spare accompaniment. Nesseth joined in on this final song, which sounded amazingly beautiful in the Sacred Heart space.

My week of music wrapped up on Saturday evening with a jaunt out to the Powerhouse in Proctor to hear and dance to Virgil Caine, a righteous blues/rock band that plays both classic covers (Rolling Stones especially) as well as originals by Mark Howley. The Curmudgeon particularly enjoyed their bluesy cover of Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door.” I couldn’t wish for a better finale to a great week of music!

Upcoming: The Duluth-stämman Nordic Music & Dance Festival (organized by Clifton Nesseth) returns to town this weekend for us Scandinavian types who want to reconnect with our roots. It includes a Friday night concert beginning at 6:30 pm with multiple performers at Weber Hall on the UMD campus and a “Welcome Dance” to follow. Even though the gathering is based on a Swedish tradition, those with Norwegian blood are welcome too! Check out all the related events.