The joy of singer songwriters

Jill Fisher

Restless Vessel at the Caddy Shack. Photo by Jill Fisher.

After a snowy week when going out to hear music was pretty much put on hold, I was happy to finally get out to a couple of shows I had on my “Music To Do” list. As it happened, they were on the same evening, so I was particularly grateful the shows did not overlap.  

It was Friday evening, March 3 that Derecho played at Cedar Lounge in Superior to a full house. Alan Sparhawk (electric guitar) with his son Cyrus (bass guitar), Al Church (drums) and Lizzy Cruz (congas and shakers) kept the place jumping, playing both covers and original songs. Some were part grunge rock, a genre I generally eschew, but man, every song was danceable.  

Then it was on to Caddy Shack in  Lincoln Park to hear a new band, Restless Vessel, in its 10:30 set. The young men comprising this band, which was formed just this past August, are students and have all taken classes in UMD’s Music Department. Alec Zell (electric guitar) is the vocalist, while his brother, Jack Zell (acoustic and electric guitars), Jay Hantge (bass guitar), Will Bofenkamp (drums) and Ian McNicholes (saxophone) round out the group.

I swear these guys are reincarnated rockers from the 1970s. I haven’t heard much of this kind of driving rock and roll since then – I mean the kind that compels one to get up and dance. The really interesting thing is that all of the 10 songs they played were originals!

My favorite was “Swing Song” but they all were good. Thus the $5 cover was a worthwhile investment for a fabulous evening. And it was an appropriate forerunner to the next evening’s songwriter showcase.  

Danny Frank & Smokey Gold at Sacred Heart. Photo by Michael Anderson.

Danny Frank & the Smoky Gold hosted the Second Annual Duluth Songwriter Showcase at Sacred Heart Music Center on Saturday, March 4. Before the music began, Arno Kahn, President of the SHMC Board of Directors read a brief statement by Danny that recognized the indigenous people who were the previous occupants of the site on which the former cathedral stands and asked for them to be honored. I appreciated the respect shown by Danny in articulating these thoughts.  

The bar was set high with the opening number, “Jolene” by Dolly Parton, as an example of work by an iconic singer-songwriter which, as Danny Frank noted, she wrote on the same day as “I’ll Always Love You.” Danny Frank (acoustic guitar), Harrison Olk (banjo and a Nechville Comet electric banjo), Erin Aldridge (fiddle) and “Smokin’ Joe” Scarpellino (bass) are all incredible musicians, and that they each are songwriters is amazing.

Showcase is the operative word for this event–it ranged from young and still evolving talent to well-seasoned performers.   Lyla Abukhodair, who falls in the first category of young and evolving talent, was the first of the solo artists to perform. As she indicated, she was a bit nervous, which isn’t surprising given she is usually backed up by her band.

Having been in the punk music scene for a while now, it was interesting to hear her newer solo acoustic work and to hear that she first sang at SMHC with her high school choir several years ago. Lyla explained her approach to songwriting – which she said began at age 12 – as being centered around “feelings” and trying to capture them in a melody with just three or four simple chord progressions.  

One of the characteristics of her compositions I’ve noted from previous times I’ve seen her is alternating tempos, from quick to slow and back again. The originals she sang were “A Song For Us,” “Briefs,” “Putting You Out With Them” and “Night Girl.” The title of this latter song is due to Lyla meaning “night” in Arabic.

All of these tunes are a bit self-obsessive and confessional, which make sense since they are inspired by her personal feelings. She has a lovely natural voice; hopefully it will mature into a fuller and more consistent sound over time (her high notes lacked the quality of those in her lower range).

One aspect of her performance I and some others took exception to was the lacing of her lyrics with obscenities. While that is par for the course in punk music and not a problem when performing in bars, it was not appropriate to this audience that included young families.  

Next up was Misisipi Mike Wolf, who received a very warm welcome by the audience. He said five years ago he didn’t know that Zenith City existed and was so grateful to be here and a part of Duluth’s vibrant music scene. Here was a truly professional performer and accomplished musician with a commanding stage presence.

His first song “Old Used Car” had such a memorable melody that by the end he had the audience singing along on the chorus. His second offering, “Voice of Johnny Cash,” sung with Cash-like cadences, contained wisdom that threw a lifeline to those feeling down and out. Illustrating his versatility, “I’ll Be Your Road” was a love song with some wonderfully romantic lines (…”I’ll float up and I’ll be your sky, a place for your star to shine”).

MM admitted that he writes far more songs about drinking and bars than sentimental ballads and with that he ended his set with “Thunderbird Wine,” which was a hoot and put me in mind of a 1960s favorite, Roger Miller.  

Sonja Martin

Songwriter Sonja Martin was third up. She is well known in these parts as a member of the band, Feeding Leroy. On this evening she had her husband, Lee Martin, backing her on pedal steel guitar. Sonja has a beautiful voice that is very nuanced – clear and powerful on key lyrics and approaching a near whisper when conveying touching emotions.

A real pro, she knows exactly how to use the microphone to moderate her volume while maintaining powerful projection. Her original songs included, “Down the Line,” “The Last Goodbye” (a tender lament about a friend who died too young), “Single Moment in Time” and “Folk Music Singer” dedicated to a friend and fellow musician, Sara Spinner.  

After an intermission, Danny Frank & the Smoky Gold came back together to showcase original songs by each of its members. Danny performed “Lonesome Road” on which Erin was particularly energetic with her fiddling, resulting in shredding bow strings. Another of his excellent tunes was “Dead and Gone.”

Known for her virtuoso instrumental work, Erin is new to songwriting. She told of how she dreamed of a certain chord progression that was subsequently crafted into the tune, “What’s the Use?” in collaboration with Danny. Not to be overlooked is her beautiful singing voice that enriches the band’s harmonies.  

Harrison Olk’s “Precious Time” was a poignant tune written with the late Max Gram in mind. “Smokin’ Joe” has been writing songs for a long time. He performed a song about leaving Iowa City for the Twin Cities without regrets or apologies. His moniker is apt judging by his smoking bass guitar riffs throughout the band‘s entire performance.  

Toward the end of the show the Martins were called on to join Smoky Gold in performing “It Ain’t Easy” acapella, which blew everyone away with its exhilarating harmonies. Then, for the grand finale, all the performers took the stage to sing Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ No Where.” Many of us in the audience couldn’t resist singing along.

All in all, it was a great show and a testament to the incredible music scene that drew Misisipi Mike to settle here. (For those who missed it, the concert is available for viewing on SHMC’s YouTube channel.) We’ll look forward to enjoying the Third Annual Duluth Songwriter Showcase next year.  

An Upcoming Event: Local talents will be performing at KTWH’s 8th Cabin Fever Reliever this Sunday, March 12 at the Two Harbors High School. Featured artists are Erin Aldridge, New Salty Dog, Babie Eyes, Michael Anderson and Skarlett Woods, among others. Leslie Black and Steve Solkela will emcee the variety show, which can also be heard live online at by clicking the “Listen Now” link. You can also listen to some local musicians on the station’s archived Beat Farm program at Check it out!  

Condolences: I just learned that Dave E. Hill died in late February. He is undoubtedly known by numerous musicians who availed themselves of his recording services at his Inland Sea Recording studio in Superior, Wis. I met him back in the late 1990s when he recorded de Elliot Brothers jugband’s first CD. He was a patient and gentle soul who will surely be missed by his family and many friends. A celebration of his life will be held this spring.