R.I.P. Burly Burlesque

Rest in peace Burly Burlesque, aka Ben Larson, one of Duluth’s best vocalists, lyricists and performers. According to the comments on the Facebook post which broke the news, he died in his sleep. He was newly a father, and a Go Fund Me has been set up to help support his family during this terrible time.

Burly and I weren’t friends but there was a time when we were friendly and familiar in the arts and music scene. I remember seeing him perform for the first time circa 2003. He comprised one-third of the band Crew Jones, and when they hopped up on stage at Pizza Lucé I was like, “Who are these weirdos?” But then they showed me and everybody. Their album Who’s Beach dropped around then; everyone I know from those days speaks of it in reverent tones as a work of genius. A firehose of creativity, the band (Burly, Ray the Wolf, and Mic Trout) all brought their A-game. Their live performances did no less. The album became a must-have and their shows were a must-see. No one could believe these white dudes rapping about life in northern Minnesota could be so legit but there you have it. Like all of the band’s lyrics, Burly’s writing was something great; he was also a master freestyler with an outsized stage presence.

Eventually Crew Jones winded down. Around the same time, Burly and Mic Trout (aka Sean Elmquist) formed Southwire with Jerree Small, one of Duluth’s other best vocalists. Southwire expanded Burly’s palette. He switched up rap styles, and sang, and created a revivalist preacher persona with improvisational testifying. His vocals had so much texture you could chew them. Alternately controlled and edgy, he rumbled and smoldered until he brought the fireworks.

I told him once I thought he was the best vocalist in town, and he immediately countered saying “Mimi Parker.” He knew off the top of his head who his favorite was. I used that anecdote on social media just over a year ago when Mimi died, and now in a cruel twist, I’m using it here for Burly.

I literally forgot his real name for a while because his stage name described him so perfectly. He was a large, sweaty performer, with an intensity that made you feel like he could eat you alive without so much as a belch. He seemed larger than his actual body, crackling with power and the mastery of his craft. As is said these days, Burly dripped with rizz.

He attended the smashmouth badminton parties I threw at my house back then. Once on the Lakewalk, he shouted to me that he loved what I was doing and I returned the compliment. Our camaraderie was such that I could just sit uninvited at his booth and we’d immediately start bantering about big ideas, the biggest we could find. Burly played at another level. When he dipped into theories I disagreed with, I would not engage because I knew I would lose. I was a little bit afraid of him. When he was feeling his inspiration, in conversation or on stage, that feral intensity would flare in his eyes like he could shoot heat vision. He was as formidable a conversationalist as I have ever encountered, and sometimes I would just have to get out of his way.

I haven’t seen him in years but I will always remember him. He was singular, a truly unique individual I can compare to no one, on or off the stage. Duluth is diminished for his absence.



about 2 months ago

First time I saw Crew Jones I was blown away by his stage presence. A few years later I chatted with him outside Luce and realized it wasn't just his "act." And then the Southwire stuff, which was a whole 'nother thing. True gem.

Chester Knob

about 2 months ago

This is what I have.

Ben lived below us in Scott L.'s duplex on Fifth Street for awhile back in the day. He was shy. Eventually, we'd hear him practicing songs, solo, on his acoustic guitar. I don't remember specific songs. Just the deep heavy sound of the notes rolling out of his throat. Low moans, gentle hums, sweat-songs on hot summer days.

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