The Hoochie Coochie Homegrown Hullabaloo

Jill Fisher

A Winter Downpour at Sacred Heart with light show (Photos by Jill Fisher)

My second Homegrown experience has come and gone and with it the thrill of the musical rollercoaster ride delivered as promised. This was the 25th anniversary of Homegrown Music Festival. The “field guide,” as it was termed, gave a detailed overview of its beginnings (“Incubation”) and how it has developed since 1998 (“Infestation”). As reported, there were about 170 acts appearing at 36 venues this year, down from last year’s 195 individual acts at 40 venues. I was able to take in 33 shows (at least in part) at 19 different locations, also slightly down from my first Homegrown in 2022. Talk about a whirlwind! It’s like a film festival, seeing scads of movies in a three-day time period, they all start to blend together if you don’t watch out.

And so it goes with me, though taking notes of and photographing each act helps immeasurably. (A special thank you goes out to the angel who found and returned my misplaced pink book on Tuesday evening at the DECC.) In any case, my intent was to see as many new acts as possible as well as those established ones I hadn’t yet seen. But I admit I succumbed to taking in several shows by favorite musicians seen many times previously and also admit to avoiding some I saw last year and didn’t much care for. (Jay Gabler in his Duluth Tribune article in Monday’s paper covered several of those!)

Adam Moe at Sir Benedict's

My only complaint about Homegrown is that I had terribly difficult choices to make between performances I especially wanted to see when they were scheduled concurrently. That being said, my overall sense of what I experienced was there is an abundance of what I have begun to think of as “holler bands.” Maybe they are part punk, part garage grunge, but what they have in common is a lead vocalist who tends to shout the lyrics, rather than sing them backed up by loud drums and electric guitars. Their selections, whether original or covers, seem to have less melodic content than what I term “regular” rock and roll bands, though the decibels are about the same. Some I liked quite a bit, others not so much.

Here are some I saw: Grand Holler (the name says it all; at Gopher Lounge on Wednesday evening) places it firmly in the holler category. Others include Sour Venom (Monday at Caddy Shack), Glitteratti (Wednesday at Kom-On-Inn), Blue Volta and Indecent Proposal (both on Thursday at Reef Bar), A Winter Downpour, Teague Alexy and the Common Thread (both on Friday night at Sacred Heart), and Damien (Blacklist Brewing Co.). I suspect the G’narwals (based on its write-up in the field guide) could be added to this list but I did not see them at Studio Four on Friday evening. A long line of young adults waited to hear them perform.

Mike Smišek, right (Slope City) with Isaac Valley at Studio Four

There’s a fine line between rock and roll bands, which are also generally loud, and the holler types. And of course trying to assign the acts and bands to precise categories is a fool’s errand since there is certainly musical overlap between them. The regular rock and roll and/or country rock bands I experienced this Homegrown include The Gemstones (sadly missing AfroGeode/Diona Johnson), Janie and the Spokes, Boxcar, Emily Haavik and the 35s, Father Hennepin, Shane Nelson’s trio, Born Too Late, Rich Mattson and the Northstars, NewBerrigan, The Adjustments, Boss Mama & the Jebberhooch, Big Wave Dave and the Ripples and A Band Called Truman.

One of the commonalities between these groups is how hard the drummers work. I couldn’t help but be impressed as they maintained incredibly high energy levels for their 45-minute sets. So a shout out to them: Rick Bruner (with Shane Nelson), Nate Fowler (Fenestra Funk), Amy Ugstad (Stardust Collective), Jake Willis (NewBerrigan), Jevin Joki (Indecent Proposal), Chris Petrack (Rich Mattson and the Northstars) and Shanna Willie (with Misisipi Mike). This is not to dismiss all the other drummers who lend their talents and provide the backbones to the many bands I love.

While I generally eschew shows that include flashing lights and fog effects, I was delighted by the ladies at R.T. Quinlan’s who celebrated the music of A Band Called Truman (which I saw for the first time) on Saturday, May 6, with several well-timed confetti showers.

Misisipi Mike at Zeitgeist

Homegrown also marked the season opener for the Earth Rider Festival Grounds on its “Soup Town night,” Thursday, May 4. With temperatures hovering in the mid-40s and a brisk wind off the Lake that produced even colder windchills, I witnessed Emily Haavik and the 35s and Boku Frequency practically freezing their fingers off before I myself sought a warmer venue. Boku’s Terry Gums provided Jimi Hendrix-style guitar licks while Thomas Harris’s high tenor vocals brought to mind Smokey Robinson. Hopefully the weather will warm up now that we have this added venue available for our springtime performances.

Some solo performances I was fortunate to enjoy were Mike Smišek, performing as Slope City, on Monday, May 1 at Studio Four in the Depot and Adam Moe at Sir Ben’s on Tuesday, May 2. Smišek is something of a balladeer with a fine Glen Campbell-type tenor voice. He played original romantic tunes with a subtle swing on both acoustic and electric guitars. I appreciated many of his well-crafted lyrics with lines like “say goodbye to the life you could have had.” He was joined by Isaac Valley playing the cello on several songs, which enhanced their emotive qualities.

NewBerrigan at Ursa Minor

Adam Moe also played all original tunes, in this instance with acoustic guitar. His “Limpin’ Home” was a catchy tune that enumerated some regrets, while his brand-new composition, “Can’t Always Find What You Need,” included some well-done skat. (He’s something like a Roger Miller redux! And I am a big Roger Miller fan.)

In addition to the many official Homegrown gigs, there were several spin-offs shows that provided the many musicians in town the opportunity to jam together. Jacob Mahon hosted several lunch-hour performances at Duluth Coffee on Superior Street with brother Owen and a rotating list of peers such as Russ Sackett, Clifton Nesseth, Colleen Myhre (Boss Mama), and Sonja and Lee Martin.

Another was the “Clancy Ward Collective” that provided sweet background entertainment to Aaron Reichow’s exhibit of his 2022 Homegrown photographs, shown at the DECC on Tuesday, May 2. Clancy was joined by Sarah Cagley, Adam Staub, Harrison Olk and the ever-present Jacob Mahon. Photographer Reichow has a great eye for color and composition and with his specialty being musicians in performance, he might be on his way to being the Elliot Landy of Duluth.

Rich Mattson and the Northstars at RT Quinlan's

So what stood out for me this year? My favorite “new” band (which was formed in 2018 but only plays once a year at Homegrown for cripes sake) was NewBerrigan playing at Ursa Minor Brewing on Monday, May 1. This is my idea of great rock and roll, the kind I just can’t resist dancing to. That performance was followed by Shane Nelson, with Rick Bruner on drums and Steve Netzel on bass. Shane has become a consummate performer, putting everything out there as he plays mostly original compositions. He ended by covering the Dire Strait’s hit, “Sultans of Swing,” nailing the riffs of one of the greatest rock and roll guitarists ever.

Other favorites I got to see were Fenestra Funk with Michael Schell wailing on sax on Tuesday evening at the DECC Arena and Misisipi Mike Wolf at Zeitgeist Teatro. MM played both solo and numbers with several friends on this Friday evening. And I must say he has blossomed into a confident and compelling performer with a full range of silly, stirring and profound compositions to his credit. And then there was Rich Mattson and the Northstars demonstrating just what a real rock and roll band performance is all about with its wall of sound and Rich’s signature kick.

I wish I had the time and space to fully flesh out the many other shows I attended and appreciated during this year’s festival but this will have to do. There were several performances I heard about and wish I would have seen, among them the “Mass” performed by Robot Rickshaw at Sacred Heart Music Center. By all accounts it was a real happening with a “communion” that was a sharing of sour dough starter! (The light show projected onto the apse was beautiful and, in this case, appropriate; it should be employed frequently for contemporary music events here.) Nor could I squeeze into the Jade Fountain long enough to take in the full sound installation that was Tim Kaiser’s offering. I heard that Fuzz Lung was not to be missed either, but I did.

I found it fitting that Father Hennepin, led by Scott “Starfire” Lunt, ended its show at Sacred Heart with the good ol’ jugband tune “I Like It In Duluth” thereby echoing the sentiments of most all the musicians that took part in this year’s Homegrown festival. Now onto Duluth Dylan Fest in just a couple weeks!

A Band Called Truman at RT Quinlan's