Revealing and reveling in the Rathskelller
The Hot Club of Duluth. Photo by Jill Fisher.
Checking out the various venues where one can hear live music has become something of an obsession with me and I am probably just getting started on investigating them.
To continue my quest, I thought I would spend some time at the Rathskeller, in the basement of the 1889 City Hall on Superior St. in downtown Duluth to see just how good a venue it provides.
Entering from the Michigan Street level, steps lead you down into the “Rathskeller”– a German word that simply means a cellar in a “council house” (town hall). One can also get there from the main entrance at 132 East Superior St., taking the elevator or stairs down to the sub-basement “Speakeasy.”
Once in the bowels of this impressive building, one discovers its tall blue-stone foundation, arcaded interior load-bearing walls and a cobblestone floor. Furnished with an array of upholstered sofas and chairs in dimly lit and intimate niches, an atmosphere is created where one’s imagination can get carried away (see sidebar).
This is not necessarily a bad thing for a venue that is developing as a principle place to hear jazz, whether it be early hot Dixieland or the later cool intellectual variety.
Hence, on Tuesday, Jan. 17, I headed down there to hear The Hot Club of Duluth. Veikko Lepisto (stand-up bass) Eli Bissonett (violin) and Jimmi Cooper (electric guitar; recently replacing retired Billy Barnard) comprise this trio. If these names seem surprisingly familiar, it may be because all three are members of the ska band Woodblind!
In the first set, The Hot Club played familiar tunes, all instrumentals, such as “Ain’t Misbehaving,” Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves” and “Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington. There was lots of swing and energy in this band’s performance as the group alternated between up-tempo and mellower offerings.
The second set continued the 1920s and '30s theme with “Charleston” (the dance made in South Carolina), “Dark Eyes,” and the even earlier 1917 “Dark Town Strutter’s Ball” by Sheldon Brooks.
Cooper got to strut his guitar stuff on the 1938 composition “Undecided.” Bissonett was interesting to watch and hear how he strummed rather than bowed his violin strings on several tunes. Lepisto kept the rhythm going with his energetic bass playing while adding commentary and humor between numbers.
A fine rendition of “Minor Swing” by Django Reinhardt ended the evening’s performance.
On this evening, there were a fair number of folks in attendance, some clearly wishing to listen, others at the bar evidently there only to socialize, so the ability to hear and fully appreciate the music was limited. This is my perennial gripe and it always makes me wonder how the performing musicians feel about such audio competition.
Those who are into traditional jazz will want to get down to the Rathskeller to hear The Hot Club of Duluth. The group is scheduled to play each Tuesday from 7:30-9:30 pm for the next couple of months. And you might want to mark your calendar for Tuesday, Feb. 14, when the place will host a Roaring '20s Valentine’s Party from 4:30–11 pm. There’ll be a $10 cover and partiers are requested to dress up like it’s 1923.
My return to the Rathskeller on Wednesday, Jan. 18, was to see more of the jazz ensemble Landscapes. I had attended a performance by this group on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when the bar was crowded and loud, such that I couldn’t really listen and enjoy it. Landscapes members are Carl Olson and Joshua Tesch (both on guitar, alternating as lead), Jordan Curtis (bass guitar) and Garth Anderson (drums). Saxophonist, Joseph Anderson joined the quartet for a portion of this gig, providing some extra nuance to its individual sound.
Landscapes’ jazz was entirely different from that of the previous evening, probably because it was all original music.
I asked the members afterwards where these compositions came from and the answer was from their jamming with each other. The modus operandi was for one instrumental to blend into another with only a brief transition between several of the numbers and creating an enticing flow to the music. This also made it somewhat difficult to know when to applaud, except for outstanding “solos.”
The sound varied wonderfully between whisper soft to ecstatic crescendos, analogous to the rolling geography suggested by the name, Landscapes. The music was almost intoxicating (even without an alcoholic drink!) and, with a smaller crowd that dwindled down to just me and one other patron during the last half hour, it was a wonderful chance to really hear the dreamy, magical sounds produced.
Like The Hot Club of Duluth, Landscapes will play at the Rathskeller weekly, in this case on Wednesdays beginning at 8 pm, throughout February and into March, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to enjoy their very personal and distinctive jazz. Also, another jazz group, the Thomas Woytko Trio, which I have yet to hear, plays on Thursday nights starting at 9 pm.
One last note: I asked Carl Olson about the background bar noise and conversational chatter that cannot be totally escaped in this venue. Playing a recording of the band that had exactly the kind of background noise I find so annoying, he stated he had no complaints about it. Indeed, he felt it added to the ambiance of their performances. Who am I to argue with that?
Correcting false history
I was initially amused to see this space marketed as a former speakeasy, with décor to carry out the chosen theme. Of course this story is pure hokum, as the building was in the hands of the City government and official agencies throughout the Prohibition (1920-1933). Indeed it was the seat of anti-bootlegging programs in that period.
Unfortunately, due to the unseemly alliance between commercial marketing interests and social media, a false history of this building has been spread by the building’s owner via the Rathskeller’s website, Yelp, etc.
For more about the documented history of this place see zenithcity.com/archive/historic-architecture/duluth-city-hall-1889.