The Last Decade of Music in Duluth (2000-2010)

The Last Decade of Local Music from the Artists Themselves

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

Trampled by Turtles, The Little Black Books, Charlie Parr, The Black Labels, The Alrights, Cloud Cult, Cars and Trucks and many other local bands defined the first decade of the new century in local music.

This past weekend while cleaning out my basement I came upon a box full of Readers from 2004 to 2006. The pictures from shows that I attended at The Tap Room, Red Lion, The Nor Shor, Beaner’s, Bev’s and many other venues reminded me of just how vibrant this area is and was. Articles discussing the difference between Knockout Jones playing Duluth set against Stargate dancers in Superior were funny, while others about a disappointing festival or the way I described a band reminded me of lessons learned.

To look back at the past decade I wanted to talk to the artists who were there and saw it from start to finish. People who know more than me and lived the scene as it took place. In order to properly discuss the music we would have to start with the artist who I think best personifies the rockin’ side of Duluth, Mark Lindquist.

Lindquist has written about the local scene, lived it, been a part of multiple bands (Lindquists, Little Black Books, etc), and is a fixture to the area. While he may not be known quite as well outside the area as a Trampled By Turtles or Charlie Parr, his music and skills are a part of what makes Duluth work musically. He is respected by everyone I have ever met while covering music and he told me about his memories of the past ten years up here.

“I have vivid memories of great shows that no one was at,” Lindquist said. “Kraig Johnson (of Golden Smog, Run Westy Run, and Iffy) played a show at Pizza Luce' on like a Wednesday night or something and literally, illustrator Chris Monroe, her boyfriend, a couple waitresses, and I were the only ones there. That was such an awesome show and sort of like my own private Idaho.”

Like many other people I talked to locally, Lindquist spoke of how great Charlie Parr is. One of his top moments came when making Parr’s debut album and how touched he was by the music.

”Recording Charlie Parr's first cd is a favorite memory,” Lindquist said. “About four or five songs into it I realized he was making something really amazing. That wasn't our intention at all. We actually started to get together in the studio to record his friend Lee Johnson. Lee couldn't make it for the first couple scheduled dates and Charlie started laying down his own stuff...and wow, I believe it is the only time I ever openly wept in the tape room at the old Ballyhouse studio.”

Other memories from Lindquist center around a venue that many people may remember locally, The Red Lion. Now replaced with a posh bar in the Zinema 2 building, it once was a rough-edged saloon with a plywood stage. Small, but with tons of character, the Lion was where I used to catch Boku Frequency, Prince Paul and once even watched The Alrights with a few other bands at Homegrown. One band owned the Lion though, it was rockabilly revivalists The Black Labels.

“Black Labels on Wednesdays at the Red Lion, obviously, were great times,” Lindquist said. “I remember telling my friend there one Wednesday that it was, at that moment, exactly the one place I wanted to be at in the whole world.”

Lindquist also talked about the local favorites Bone Appetit, who also were an integral part of the past decade.

”Oddly enough, I think Bone Appetit maybe defines a lot of that era (if you can call it an era). They brought a lot of people together that normally wouldn't be hanging out at the same parties and they made music fun when a lot of people started to take things too serious.”

One artist who re-emerged in 2000 after he had first appeared in the early 1970s folk scene was Bill Isles. After a heart attack and a 30 year hiatus from music he picked up the pen and later the guitar to express his inner self. His journey is one of a gentle artist finding the common denominator in us all. Isles talked about a different aspect of theDuluth music world, one that shows another side of the scene.

“February marks ten years since I started doing music again,” Isles said. “My first show was at Beaner’s on February 4th, 2000. We’re returning there on Friday, February 27th for a 10th anniversary show. I haven’t played there in about four years. For us, the ten years has been monumental. What started out as a monthly show inDuluth in 2000 has grown into a national touring itinerary with about 120 shows per year. It’s my full-time job now.”

Ten years ago people didn’t know what Facebook or Myspace was, and even five years ago many bands didn’t have email addresses. Today this still happens with a few local bands like Stel and Lefty, but most bands have found ways to use new technologies to their advantage. Bill Isles is living proof of the success that is in store for the next decade.

“The two most significant things that have changed in the past ten are the advent of the “Do-It-Yourself (DIY)” music industry and the explosion of the “House Concert” market,” Isles said. “DIY has opened the door for many bands that would not be able to accomplish as much if they had been saddled with the burdens of the traditional “music industry”. From web-presence to affordable studio options and social networking, artists can truly design their own careers. Oddly, you still see artists scrambling for a “record deal”. It’s like thinking you can only sell your vegetables at a supermarket.”

In the new “American Idol Millennium” many bands and artists have sought huge success only to find a slow, frustrating, mid level existence. While Isles has seen the success of the new DIY world he cautions that it is not for everyone.

“The House Concert circuit is the backbone of our touring success. But it’s not for everyone. These are very personal, intimate concerts where everyone is listening to every word. It’s not for loud bands, since many are unplugged concerts. It’s also not for artists who like to keep their distance from the fans. We often stay several days with the hosts and enjoy other social opportunities like hiking or visiting wineries. It’s a market built on friendships and no two are alike. There is no industry dictating how the music is presented. Only music-lovers who want to bring your music to their friends, in their home.”

A local artist from the harder side of Duluth’s music scene, Mat Milinkovich, provided the beat (and drumset for tons of bands at Homegrown) that made many bands survive this past decade. His latest incarnation, Cars and Trucks, is one band in a line of many that have defined Duluth’s sound. At one point he and I lit up his internet blog when blogging was fairly new and we had a feud that even included its own bumper sticker and Myspace page. He taught me more than anyone up here about another side of music and also about how someone’s writing effects others. I really like his music and was first indoctrinated at a Words To A Film Score show at the Tap Room. So what made the past decade for him?

“Every homegrown has been memorable,” Milinkovich said. “It still amazes me how everyone comes together to pull it off every year. Low and Trampled By Turtles have to be mentioned in any discussion of bands of the last ten years. They achieved the type of success most indie bands aim for and they've done it by busting their asses and getting out.”

What will the future bring for the areas indies bands?

“It’s hard to say,” Milinkovich said. “Hopefully original, interesting music will still be available in abundance. If there continues to be a lack of venues available to bands, however, I'm afraid Duluth will lose a lot of its musical talents to bigger cities.”

My mentor of the Duluth music scene and writing about it was the first editor of The Reader Weekly, Richard Thomas. He guided me and pushed me to be a better writer, but at the same time he saved me from being eaten alive. When he left I felt like a part of Duluth was silenced and things would never be the same. Today he still is an editor, but he doesn’t keep track of bands like he used to.

“I could say some snarky things about the scene back then, but it wouldn't be very constructive,” Thomas joked. “The best thing to say is that someone should circulate a petition calling for the Dukes of Hubbard to come back. I'm glad to see that Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank, Boku Frequency and Portraits for Judith are still plugging along.”

Seeing the Dukes play live again would be a great treat and make us remember how popular jam bands were in this past decade. I asked a few other locals about what the future will bring. Bill Isles sees some new possibilities with the underutilized facilities the city has to offer.

“What Duluth does in the next ten years, and what I think it should do, are likely two different things,” Isles said. “To me, Duluth could be the “ Music City of the North,” where it is a major summer music destination. It already has several incredible potential summer music venues in Bayfront, Leif Erickson, Fitgers, Wade Stadium, Chester Bowl, and the whole waterfront in general. But I don’t see that developing in a way that would bring a large audience to Duluth . We tend to do the same-old, same-old things.

What brings people to large music events is the overall experience of the event, not so much the particular lineup. People want to be part of something.”

Lindquist had a longer vision of where he sees things heading when I asked about the best national band of the last 10 years.

”I don't know what bands defined the decade nationally, but Pro Tools and the vocal auto-tuner certainly will be attached to the last ten years,” Lindquist said. “Funny how that technology sort of freed bands from the evil empire of the record labels and corporate studios---and at the same time destroyed authenticity and buried the importance of good songwriting into an over-compressed pile of crappy sound files.”

Like Bill Isles who uses new technology to benefit his own kind of music, Lindquist also sees some downfall to the new technologies out there. Especially with local bands and how they are approaching their songwriting today.

”Pro Tools and solid state equipment are just killing whatever good songwriters are out there,” Lindquist said. “I see too many younger bands playing too many covers and worrying too much about how many monitor mixes they're getting. You're in a rock band--write a rock song and stop trying to compose digital operas. Monitors are supposed to sound shitty. They're there to assist you, they're not there to be dependent on. Good bands can play without monitors or at least minimal monitoring. Why? Because they write good songs and are good performers. Younger bands don't understand that concept at all. Of the younger/newer bands I've heard and seen over the last year or so--I think the Two Beat Band and Manheat are really outstanding. They probably shouldn't be listed as "younger or newer bands." But I like them a lot. Manheat and the Two Beat Band should do a split 7" to appease me for saying that.”

Today it is a strip club, but for the past decade the Nor Shor was one of the coolest theaters to attend a live music show. It was where I first was taught was a “stringer” was and watched bands light up the Eyes and Hands Festival. The Nor Shor has a hard time being utilized correctly, but at least it is in Duluth and not being demolished in Superior.

”I wouldn't say there was one peak--more like a few different spikes,” Lindquist explained of the Duluth scene. “The old Norshor Theater when Rick Boo ran it was one of those peaks. Pizza Luce' and Beaner’s have brought in some great national acts and always made a point to have the local bands open for them. People don't realize how special that is. Other towns and other clubs don't always do that in good faith.”

Like many other artists, Lindquist talked about the importance to of Homegrown in getting local music out there.

“Maybe more important than Homegrown Music Festival was the pirate radio station that the festival's creator Scott Lunt had,” Lindquist said. “That seemed to get bands, sound guys, drinkers, rockers, collectors, hip hoppers, jazz assholes, dope smokers, writers, and artists all together and somewhat organized. It was like a daily Homegrown kickball game in a basement or shed.”

One event that Lindquist also thought summed up the era was a trip to the cities to share Duluth Does Dylan with a larger audience.

”The bus trip to Duluth Does Dylan at the Turf Club in St. Paul was insane,” Lindquist said. “Those two busses came back with more people than we brought down which I still find odd. That whole first Duluth Does Dylan album (which should be re-released on vinyl in my opinion) put our little groups on the map in a lot of ways. I mean the Dames were getting real air time on modern rock radio. I think the L.A. Times or Weekly gave that whole album a really nice review. And now everything has come full circle with R. T. Quinlans hosting all the cool kid bands again--that will always be the best place in town to play and see a show at.”

So what does Lindquist have in store for the next era?

“My dream is that Duluth starts to spawn a bunch of stand up comedians. I'm sick of bands. I want to start producing stand up comedy albums.”