A collection of Duluth-related stuff from City Pages’ Best of the Twin Cities issues over the years.
Best Blues Artist
Charlie Parr is the real deal. A Duluthian through and through, he’s about as unpretentious as they come. Climbing up on stage dressed in a flannel shirt, carpenter’s pants, and work boots, he wields his steel-stringed guitar like it’s an extension of his body, effortlessly gliding over the frets with a slide and letting it reverberate before trading it for a banjo or a 12-string. Sometimes when he plays he’s accompanied by an unassuming young lad who looks like he’s been plucked straight from the ore mines on the Iron Range, who clangs on train spikes and steel bars while Parr sings and strums. And while Parr’s guitar playing is technically complex and seemlingly effortless, it’s his voice—a blues howl with a soft side, which can climb up from a sweet moan into a loud bellow at a moment’s notice—that accentuates the stark, sad nature of his songs, painting vivid portraits through lyrics about loneliness, the devil, and making things right with the Lord.
Best Weekend Getaway
Summer or winter, no part of Minnesota compares to the breathtaking scenery of the North Shore of Lake Superior. Start your day in Duluth with a drive all the way to the tip of Lake Avenue, a long, thin strip stretching into the vast great lake. Winter brings glimpses of hardy folk engaged in sports you’ve never considered; in summer, you’ll feel as though you’re driving straight into the sea. Continue up the coast and stop at the Superior Hiking Trail shop in Two Harbors for trail info. Then head north to Gooseberry Falls and the Split Rock Lighthouse. If it’s warm or you’re winter-hardy, there’s no better way to relax than backpacking the Superior Trail—the stretch between Bean and Bear lakes near Silver Bay is one of the more challenging and lovely. As an alternative, lodges and rental homes abound near Tofte and Lutsen. At the tip of the state in Grand Marais, build a birch-bark canoe or make your own moccasins at the North House Folk School.
[Sven Sundgaard has been away from Duluth for a while, but once a Duluthian always a Duluthian.]
Best TV Weatherperson
Sven Sundgaard, KARE 11
Okay. We admit it. Every time KARE 11′s weather stud Sven Sundgaard appears on camera with his spiky blond locks standing at attention in Norse-god glory, we want to reach through the TV screen in a moment of virtual ecstasy and just muss the heck out them. It’s distracting, really, and it leaves us consumed with guilt. Shouldn’t we be admiring his acumen with all those dancing icons and animations on the weather map? Shouldn’t we be tuning in to see him brave real Minnesota weather? Yes, we should. And we tune in for another reason, too: Sven is so utterly and completely the embodiment of those myths we keep telling ourselves about who Minnesotans are supposed to be. He grew up in St. Paul and the suburbs. He went to college in St. Cloud. He got his first job in Duluth. He vacations in Scandinavia. He speaks Norwegian. When he warns us about a twister or impending Snowmageddon, the guy practically oozes lutefisk.
Louis Jenkins would have written this paragraph better than we did. He would have written it more musically, but also somehow more bluntly. The sentences would have fit together with stronger, yet subtler, transitions. In the past 30 years, Jenkins has mastered — tackled, subdued, harnessed — the prose poem. He’s got more than 10 books to his name — most recently this winter’s limited-edition run of European Shoes — and his poems have been widely anthologized, from Milkweed’s Minnesota Writes to Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems to The Best American Poetry. Mostly they look just like this blurb: brief and rectangular. But often his words tease out from this familiar paragraph form an unlikely chaos, his acute observations and mini-epiphanies casting readers’ brains and emotions into turmoil. Though Jenkins is a Duluth native, the metropolis throws a distinct shadow over his world (as implied by the title of his 2007 collection North of the Cities), and the poet often dips down to Minneapolis and St. Paul to read, to lecture, and, one imagines, to absorb more urban ephemera that he’ll dissect when he’s back at his desk in Duluth, writing his next paragraph, which will no doubt be better than this one.
Best Local Music Compilation
Duluth Does Dylan Revisited
Good local music compilations always say something about the scene. Last year’s The Best of Smoke-Free Saturday Nights Volume 3 said there were a bunch of good, unreleased female-fronted punk bands around here. DUNation.com — Volume Won said local rappers, even well-known ones, had started writing about how broke they were. Last year’s Duluth Does Dylan Revisited told us to get ready for a year of Minnesota Dylanmania — but to keep a sense of humor about it, and take it as an excuse to get to know the state. Whether Dylan is our Homer or our Picasso, or neither, his vision has enough creative force to come through like a bell on these 15 tunes rendered by the diverse likes of Cloud Cult and the Retribution Gospel Choir. (The former transforms “Mr. Tambourine Man” into tender and tasteful space pop, while the latter recycles “All the Tired Horses” as PiL-style dub noise.) The less tangible connecting thread here is Duluth, of course: Dylan’s birthplace. Drive down Superior Street with this on, and you can’t help hearing something northern and smart and sad in Jerree Small’s aching “To Ramona” and Ol’ Yeller’s warm “When the Ship Comes In.” Behind these performances, there’s the faintest hope that if Dylan had grown up in Duluth instead of Hibbing, he might have stayed. In fact, he never quite left: The man himself snatched up T-shirts of the first Duluth Does Dylan compilation from a local shop.
[Although technically Dance Band is a Twin Cities group, we include it because drummer Hans Johnson is from Duluth.]
Best Live Artist
Good funk bands don’t need to remind their audiences to dance. Then again, most don’t have to deal with stiff Twin Cities crowds either, so we’ll cut Dance Band some slack for its dumb name and constant imploring. “We are Dance Band, and that’s what you’re gonna do!” commands the group’s spastic and hirsute singer, Captain Octagon. “Shake your baby maker!” The thing is, the crack rhythm section behind Octagon is so good, and their quirky electro-funk is so catchy, that every butt in the house is bouncing. Begging for something that’s already happening — it’s like pillow talk as stage banter. Which is appropriate, since Dance Band — like any indecent interstellar funk band — isn’t really about dancing at all, except as a pretext to more explicit night moves. All this makes Captain Octagon something of a Ron Jeremy for the local hipster set. Like any indecent interstellar bandleader, he begins every show dressed to the gills in a spangly jumpsuit, and finishes wearing little more than his own chest hair. The best part: From the sound of the critical mass anthem “Pedal Power,” there’s even a political bone in their sweaty bodies. That’ll give you something to talk about in the morning.
A warm front moved into our high-pressure regions when St. Paul-born Sven Sundgaard left KBJR in Duluth in March 2006 to become the weekend meteorologist on KARE 11. Sven’s the kind of meteorologist you want to take home to explain global warming to your mother: a sweet, young charmer who also happens to know his hygrometer from his wiresonde. When he’s not enchanting us with a highly speculative long-range forecast, Sven can be found swimming with sharks in Hawaii, kayaking shirtless on Cedar Lake, and training for marathons, photos of which are proudly displayed on his KARE 11 blog. (Sundgaard’s off-duty outfits reveal that he has a healthy esteem for his biceps.) His online diary breaks down that whole local-TV-personality-as-celebrity contrivance with family photos and regular updates on the Baroness Abigail von Goat, who rules over the Sundgaard hobby farm in Cottage Grove. Does Dave Dahl have a goat with implied royal lineage? We didn’t think so.
Best Weekend Getaway
There are quaint American cities without Duluth’s windblown bohemia, lakeside burghs without Duluth’s severe beauty, and party towns without Duluth’s excessiveness. But combine these fascinations into one place, located less than three hours north of the Twin Cities, and you have an almost obligatory road trip for anyone interested in culture as well as nature. For the latter, by the way, Duluth is cooler than down here even on a hot summer day — like the feeling of going down into your basement. The historic port city on the mouth of Lake Superior is so under-run with tourists in the off season that you can virtually count on seclusion along the beach at Park Point, a six-mile-long spit of sand and wispy grass that looks straight out of a French New Wave film. Cross back over the Aerial Lift Bridge toward Superior St., and stop by Hepzibah’s candy store for a truffle (394 Lake Ave. S.). Then explore the Central Hillside neighborhood, home of most of the city’s great bands (including Low and its brother band, the Black-Eyed Snakes), plus enough antique, magazine, and coffee shops to keep geeks geeked. (Speaking of which, Duluth is home to the nation’s only Geek Prom.) But don’t miss the sights that sink into the mind’s eye: the old Glensheen Mansion, the Superior Hiking Trail, Leif Erickson Park’s rose garden. And once you’ve cushioned your stomach for a night’s hard living (at any of a dozen good, cheap restaurants), check out the half-dozen great live-music clubs: among them, Beaner’s (324 N. Central Ave., 218.624.5957), Pizza Lucé (11 E. Superior St., 218.727.7400), Fitger’s Brewhouse (600 E. Superior St., 218.722.8826), and the sporadically reopening NorShor Theatre (211 E. Superior St., 218.727.7585). Pick up copies of the Reader Weekly and Ripsaw News for full details and events, and check out the web log listed above for a better taste of their flavor, which is often wry, ready for fun, a little on the desperate side.
Best Album of the Past 12 Months
Things We Lost in the Fire, Low
There’s nothing like a healthy dose of musical Valium, conveniently packaged in the form of a brand-new Low record, to get you through the long Minnesota winter. Somehow, listening to Low’s ethereal slowcore has the ability to make even the bleakest December on the frozen plains seem like June on the West Coast. The band’s latest record, Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky), is even more beautiful to the ear than the sound of your engine mercifully starting on a frigid, subzero morning. From the fragile latticework of “Closer” to the uncharacteristically rocked out “Dinosaur Act,” the record is classic Low executed to near perfection. There is also a newfound sentimentality present on some tracks, presumably owing to the recent birth of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s daughter Hollis. It may be true that Low’s sound has changed little since the band’s inception in 1993, but you won’t hear many complaints from the band’s zealous listeners. For better or worse, the difference between each new Low record and the one that preceded it is akin to the change from one Minnesota winter to the next: more of the same icy beauty we’ve come to expect, with just enough unpredictability to make us wonder if it isn’t time to put on the snow tires again.
Best New Band
The contrast isn’t exactly “librarian by day, stripper by night,” but the difference between Alan Sparhawk of Low and Alan Sparhawk of the Black-eyed Snakes is nonetheless comic. In his notoriously slow and achingly lovely pop trio Low, the Duluth singer-guitarist evokes spiritual struggle without preaching or screaming in tongues. In his beat-thwacking, voice-distorting, primal blooze threesome Black-eyed Snakes, he has something to tell us, and it goes a little something like this: “People, have you heard of a better day?” (He sounds a bit like Robert Duvall in The Apostle.) “I say again, have you ever heard of a better day? That’s called hope.” Then he’ll fire into a Muddy Waters rocker or a Moby number, mercilessly slashing his guitar and stomping his feet from that traditional bluesman throne, the folding chair. Few in the audience will be sitting down, though: Black-eyed Snakes fans seem caught up in that old Minnesota yearning for a Southern blur of intemperance and contrition, Saturday night and Sunday morning rolled into one. At a recent Duluth benefit for the newsweekly the Ripsaw, the frontman rose to incite an already ecstatic throng in the NorShor Theatre mezzanine, climbing the drum kit to do a full forward flip flat onto his back. “I don’t want people to start to wonder about me,” he remarked later while packing up his gear. “Like, ‘Will the real Alan Sparhawk please stand up?’” Yet even casual listeners, unaware of the Peter Parker/Spider-Man transformation, might respond to his heroic sense of release. That and a huge, bastardized beat that makes Jon Spencer sound like … Low.
(OK, Rich Mattson is an Iron Ranger, and lived in the Twin Cities when the award below was issued, but he’s long been an honorary Duluthian.)
The late Glenrustles piled great line atop great line like coats on a bed at a party, but frontman Rich Mattson always seemed ready to flop down on them anyway. It wasn’t that his songwriting lacked wit or passion, just that his spiritual weariness ran so deep that for 12 years he seemed perilously close to becoming a mellower, crustier Paul Westerberg — and we have plenty of those already. Perhaps what makes him a gentle rocker, though, also makes him a gifted talker. The self-titled debut of his new band Ol’ Yeller (on SMA Records) hardly sounds resigned or pat: Mattson is writing his purest and prettiest pop yet, and the singer-guitarists’ “To Thine Own Self” feels like sunshine and a knock-knock joke before breakfast. “I once had a woman who’d never be my wife,” he croons. “I couldn’t live without her/But here I am alive.” The sound is so open, simple, and rich, it recalls Tom Petty in his freefalling years. Just keep Jeff Lynne away from the premises.
Bob Dylan’s Mother
A lot of folks think we at City Pages are a hard-bitten, jaded lot of cranks. Well, yeah, so we are a hard-bitten, jaded lot of cranks, but we do have a soft spot, and the Star Tribune‘s January 27 obituary for 84-year-old Beatrice Rutman hit it dead-on. The piece included what was purported to be Robert Zimmerman’s first-ever poem: “My dear mother, I hope that you/Will never grow old and gray/So that all the people in the world will say/Hello, young lady, Happy Mother’s Day.” In other words, “May you stay forever young.”
Best Weekend Getaway
As the birthplace of Bob Dylan, Duluth is destined to go down in literary history like Joyce’s Dublin. The Twin Cities, residents of which rarely deign to even notice their neighbor 150 miles to the north, will meantime be remembered as some hick burg from a 1960s sitcom. Plan on spending several hours sifting though the Babel of vinyl at Young at Heart Records (22 W. First St.; (218) 722-2365), where owner Richard Wozniak will sell you an original Stax/Volt recording of Otis Redding for a buck just because you care enough to sing for him both Otis and Carla Thomas’s parts on “Tramp.” And by all means take a tour of stately Glensheen, one of the grandest of the Duluth mansions, built long ago by the port city’s version of St. Paul’s pig-dog robber barons. Besides being a nifty crib, Glensheen is where 83-year-old Elisabeth Congdon was murdered by her son-in-law in 1978. Roger Caldwell, who smothered the invalid heiress with a pillow, conked the maid on the head with a candlestick, killing her, too. (Authorities suspected, but weren’t able to prove, that Roger’s wife Marjorie was a party to the deed.) Understandably, the other Congdon heirs saw fit to turn over the house to the city. Reservations are strongly recommended for the tour; call (888) 454-4536. At night head over to Wade Stadium, a beautiful all-brick baseball edifice constructed during the Depression by the WPA. Not one brick seems to have been moved since — or one pothole filled in in the outfield — though the stadium underwent a renovation in 1992 when the Dukes joined the Northern League. By calling the team in advance, at (218) 727-4525, one can also find out when Ila Borders — the only woman to hurl (and win) in a men’s professional league — will be pitching. Here you’ll also see the new riot grrrls: eight- and nine-year-olds with baseball gloves, wearing their ponytails Ila-style and begging their hero to come say hi. She always does. (Warning: Do not say hi to Ila on game day. She won’t see you. Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes did it last year and barely lived to tell about it. “She looked at me,” Wallace later recalled, “like I was a hair in her soup.”) Romance, in summertime Duluth, demands reservations made well in advance. It’s especially worth the hassle to get in at the Canal Park Inn (250 Canal Park Drive; (218) 727-8821 or (800) 777-8560). The Inn sits right on the Duluth Harbor leading into Lake Superior, and is within crawling distance of the heart of Canal Park, two sights that will make you believe in God again. Finally, to jump-start with beautiful vistas the discombobulated feeling of new love, begin the evening with champagne at the spinning restaurant atop Duluth’s downtown Radisson.
Best Local Cartoonist
Although Chris Monroe’s work is made in Duluth, its greatest audience is here in the Cities: Her regular comic strip is currently one of the best reasons to read the local news weekly Pulse. Each issue, Monroe’s scratchy, winsome “Violet Days” meanders through everyday topics: the merits of various candies, the habits of squirrels, the shoplifting rituals of young girls. And each quick meditation is delivered with a deadpan tone that indicates a sharp wit honed against life’s frailties and absurdities. Within Monroe’s nuanced acceptance of every ambivalence and bittersweet occurrence, there’s a whispered hope for all of us. Sure, squirrels are absurd, and little girls sometimes steal — but how could we love them any other way?