Boogying with The Dead

Jill Fisher

Armchair Boogie at the West Theatre, with Lee Martin on pedal steel and Harrison Olk  on banjo. Photo by Jill Fisher.

I guess some music never really goes out of style, at least that’s the take-away from seeing Lazy Lightning 420 – Marc Gartman and Erik Berry – recreate a Grateful Dead concert. The two of them currently have a residency at the Cedar Lounge on Wednesdays in March. These “Cedar Sessions” will showcase Marc (twelve-string guitar) and Erik (mandolin) re-enacting a series of shows by the Grateful Dead held at the Berkeley Community Theater in San Francisco in late October, early November 1984.

On this particular Wednesday, March 8, it was the Oct. 28 show.  I never really followed the Dead, but evidently we have some “Dead Heads” in the Twin Ports, since a gaggle of them showed up to hoot and holler and sing along with songs I didn’t recognize. One of the folks in the audience turned me onto a website, Internet Archive, that tracks concert setlists, so I was able to see what the titles to the songs performed were.

I only recognized two—"See See Rider Blues” and Dylan’s “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Despite this lack of familiarity, I must say I enjoyed the music, which I found quite danceable.   The best part was getting to hear more of Berry’s mandolin playing – I had seen him  with New Salty Dog the previous Monday at Bent Paddle Brewing Co. I don’t recall him singing at all there, so it was good to hear his harmonizing with Gartman.

The two played some tunes as a “filler” between parts of the recreated concert (my favorite part of their performance). In looking up background on the Grateful Dead I found these descriptions of its music: Classic Rock, Country Rock, Folk Rock, Jam Band, Psychedelic, Psychedelic Rock, Rock, Roots Rock, Double Drumming, Jam, and Cosmic American. What more could one ask for?

Those who are interested have a few more chances this month to experience Gartman and Berry as they further explore the multi-faceted music of the legendary Grateful Dead.  

Lazy Lightning 420

The next evening, Thursday, March 9, I got to hear Armchair Boogie for the first time when they played the West Theater. This band is based in Madison, Wis., and is familiar to many here in the Twin Ports as it tours regularly around the upper Midwest as well as nationally. The four members of this band are Augie Dougherty (banjo, harmonica), Ben Majeska (acoustic guitar), Eli Frieders (electric bass) and Denzel Connor (drums). Both Dougherty and Majeska sang lead  but all contributed vocals.  

Armchair Boogie’s music is categorized as “NewGrass.” Another term I’ve heard applied is “Fast Grass.” And fast it was. Several tunes gradually upped the tempo to the point you’d think their hands and fingers would cramp.

The substantial crowd that turned out for this concert included many of our local musicians along with plenty of folks who like to dance. The band certainly got folks out of their seats and on the dance floor for virtually the entire concert.

The group played several original tunes from it’s 2019 album, What does time care?, including “Time Flies’ (written by Majeska) and “Garden” (written by Dougherty). Other originals performed are from their new album, Hard Times and Deadlines, that will be released sometime this spring.  

Augie claimed he had a cold that would limit his vocals on this evening. But as far as I could tell it didn’t limit him to any noticeable extent. I was impressed that the band not only performed songs in the now popular fast tempo Bluegrass style, but ventured into some funk and even some jazzy riffs, including skat! (Augie’s moniker is “Skatman.”)

The fun was furthered by the band inviting Lee Martin and Harrison Olk to join them onstage during the second set. Martin on pedal steel guitar and banjo playing Olk fit right in. These two have known Armchair Boogie members for several years now, first getting together at the Blue Ox Festival in Eau Claire, Wis. It was a great evening of energizing music that I will want to experience again.  

Babie Eyes

On Friday, March 10, I made it over to Duluth Cider to hear the band, Babie Eyes, which was celebrating its one-year anniversary. The band members are Heidi Feroe (bass guitar), Ian Alexy (electric guitar), Jacob Mahon (keyboards, electric guitar), Curtis Bellows (drums) and Kenny Bressler (1975 Micromoog synthesizer). A musician in the audience noted that Ian and Heidi had switched instruments for this show.

It took me a little while to get into their mellow, laid-back sound but once I did, I realized the band has significantly improved since I first heard it last summer at Bent Paddle’s outdoor stage. The songs played were originals; several with extended instrumentals.

Some folks thought the band has been influenced by Low, but I heard something like a 1960s San Francisco groove. I was there for just one set but didn’t hear any rocking numbers and no one got up to dance, suggesting that their métier is listening music. Socializing and conversations accompanied the music, so I will want to hear this group again when I am better able to tune out the audio competition.  

Before calling it a night on Friday, I popped into Carmody Irish Pub on a tip that a new band was playing there: Desire Store. There’s a story behind this band’s name, which I will leave to the curious to find out for themselves.

Desire Store

The group is a trio consisting of Laura Burke (fiddle and bass guitar), her husband Eddy Burke (acoustic guitar and harmonica) and Jason Keppe (saxophone, electric bass and box drum). They play virtually all originals composed by Eddy, with just a couple exceptions. Although I only heard one set, it was enough to make me want to hear more by them.  

Formed in 2021, they played at Fitger’s Brewhouse Barrel Room last year. The Burkes are maintaining bases in both Duluth and Minneapolis. Laura is a nursing student at Lake Superior College. She has a clear velvety voice that held the audience spellbound when she sang “What I Owe To Iowa.”

In some female singers, a high range like Laura’s can sound like a young child’s. Not so with her. Her tone was slightly sultry and fully adult. The group sang “Milk in My Coffee Sugar in My Tea” ending it with a round. Then followed up with a rousing song, “The Accident” with loads of “come ons!”

But the most moving song of the evening was a sad one written by a late friend of theirs, Mike Renee, called “Watchin’ the Roof Cave In” which brought tears to my eyes. All in all, this trio is a welcome addition to the Duluth music scene.

The big snowstorm on Saturday denied us the opportunity to attend the Caravan Du Nord show at Sacred Heart Music Center, with Dred I Dread, The Orange Goodness and AfroGeode & the Gemstones. I look forward to seeing them when the gig is rescheduled.