Above & Below

From a Twin Cities perspective, Duluth’s alternative music and arts scene briefly flashed across our consciousness for a while around the turn of the century. Seemingly all at once, there was a great compilation CD (Duluth Does Dylan), a breakout band (Low), and a feisty, well-written alterna-rag (the Ripsaw). There were big stories in Twin Cities papers about glimmers of hipness somehow flickering to life in that cold and rocky land. The whole idea was just so appealing—the thought of a thriving mini-scene in beautiful-but-depressed Duluth somehow made you believe that there was hope for us all.

At least that’s how I, a one-time resident of Duluth, felt about it. But in the last few years, things seemed to sour. The glowing stories dried up; the NorShor Theater, which was at the epicenter of the movement, closed for what seemed like the twelfth time; and the Ripsaw, locked in a circulation battle with another alternative weekly, was showing signs of exhaustion. It was easy to come to the conclusion that the “Duluth scene” was too good to be true, and that, like so many other attempts to break the city’s long losing streak, it had come apart at the seams.

Lately, I’ve been getting up to Duluth again a lot, thanks to a new job that prompts me to visit there every month, and from what I’ve seen, the city’s homegrown arts and music scene seems to be not just alive, but in fact poised to move beyond its first flowering. Thanks to a much-needed shift in the city’s political winds, it’s now getting the kind of respect at home that previously came only from outsiders. The election of Mayor Herb Bergson and a majority of arts-friendly city councilors in February has drastically changed the equation, and the local scenesters, long used to being completely on their own, are running with it.

When I first went to live in Duluth in the late 1980s, I had expectations that I now know are typical of Twin Cities folk who pull up stakes and head north. Basically, I expected nothing in the way of art and music, except for a few rawkin’ blues honkytonks and discos in Superior and the American Legion hall in Morgan Park, where supposedly there was a killer polka band. Big-city aesthete that I was, I dreaded being separated from the then-thriving Minneapolis alt-rock scene. I knew the Replacements sometimes played Duluth, but they certainly didn’t live there—and that scared me.

After I unpacked and took a couple of months to look around Duluth, I discovered my music fears were pretty well-founded. Also, my timing was not good: The four years I spent in northeastern Minnesota as a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune probably represented the region’s low point in terms of its economic collapse. In general, people who lived there weren’t in much of a partying mood. It was hard for the young folks to give a damn about Trip Shakespeare making a rare appearance at a tiny bar when they had just got the news that Dad was going to be replaced at the paper mill by a computerized mechanical arm.

But worse yet in my mind was Duluth’s near-complete paucity of any kind of arts and music counterculture. Of course, there were a respectable number of established arts venues like UMD’s Tweed Museum of Art, a fine institution then and now. There was also the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Ballet, and the absolutely essential comedy troupe Colder By the Lake. The last year I lived there, in 1989, they started up the Bayfront Blues Festival, which is now a big cultural plus for the city but then was tiny.

Still, I missed living in the kind of place where someone with very little money and an anti-establishment attitude could find solace in a thriving community of artistic expression. I went from rubbing shoulders with the Hüskers at First Avenue to treasuring open-mike Monday nights at Grandma’s as the highlight of my week. That’s when I decided I’d better move back to “the Cities” before it was too late. Turns out I was about a decade too early.

Even though I had trouble accepting what to my mind were its cultural inadequacies, I always loved the physical beauty of Duluth and the Big Lake. I also had a strong suspicion that despite the collapse of the natural resources-based economy upon which it was built, the town had untapped potential to develop a really vibrant alternative culture. What convinced me was that even in the midst of its most recent post-industrial bust, Duluth was attracting noticeable numbers of liberal, ecologically-minded people from around the country who came for its unique combination of adequate urban amenities with real wilderness right out the back door—and this was even before the Internet and telecommuting allegedly made that kind of lifestyle possible.

As for the kids in the local music scene… well, I felt sorry for them. At the time, anyone with a thimbleful of talent loaded up the van as soon as they had the gas money and headed down I-35 to Minneapolis. Why stay in Duluth, where there were no decent venues, no community support, no one with enough spending money to go out and see a band? The city’s cycle of self-fulfilling doom was in full flower.

A decade later, by 1999, it seemed all that had been vanquished. Rick Boo, the son of former Duluth Mayor Ben Boo, had established the NorShor as the first real venue for a burgeoning roster of local bands playing original material. An eclectic coffeehouse opened in West Duluth, Beaners Central, run by Jason Wussow, frontman for the band No Room To Pogo. Ripsaw, published and edited by another musician, Brad Nelson of the Black-Eyed Snakes, was taking on City Hall’s ill-considered development deals and giving a voice to the emerging counterculture.

Up until very recently, it troubled me to think it was all was sliding downhill again.

Part of the problem with the sustainability of Duluth’s scene was its very strength—its grassroots nature. The bands and their fans were young and inexperienced in the ways of community-building. They found out the hard way that you can’t just put on a show in the barn and expect the city’s power brokers to come a-calling, eager to help out.

The city’s mayor from 1991 until last February was Gary Doty, who won the office in part because of his reputation as a moralist in the wake of the 1980s expansion and gentrification of city attractions like Canal Park. Whereas his predecessor, John Fedo, attracted controversy, Doty was a churchgoing family man among whose goals it was to encourage a no-nonsense honesty in City Hall. Doty came over to the mayor’s office from the St. Louis County Board, where Northeastern Minnesota’s DFL politics are at their most hidebound. They’re very different from what I was used to in Minneapolis. Characterized by strong support for organized labor but espousing conservative social values, this brand of DFL thinking makes it possible to blast the GOP for its anti-union ways, yet support calls to keep the Ten Commandments displayed on public property. It’s a unique type of institutionalized leftism, born in an industrialized past in which workers were mercilessly exploited, and combined with a socially repressive streak common in rural areas everywhere in America.

Not surprisingly, Doty clashed with progressives who disagreed with some of his social stands, such as his refusal to recognize the city’s gay and lesbian pride movement, as well as his approaches to developing the city. Doty favored big developers and the big projects they proposed, such as the Tech Center on Superior Street in downtown Duluth, and a golf course surrounded by upscale housing at one of the city’s gems, the Spirit Mountain recreation area.

Earlier this year, perhaps as a backlash against the retiring Doty’s brand of traditional Northeastern Minnesota leadership, Duluth voters sided with the progressives. Herb Bergson, the former mayor of Superior who campaigned hard against the golf course and in favor of green and social justice issues, was resoundingly elected mayor. The City Council’s most liberal members were all re-elected, giving them a solid majority.

In his day, Doty was no supporter of rock music or alternative culture. This extended to the Homegrown Music Festival, an annual event started in 1998 that probably did more than anything else to forge what cohesiveness the Duluth scene was able to muster. When this year’s event kicked off on May 6 at Fitger’s Brewhouse, there was an unmistakable optimism bubbling along with the freely flowing pints of Fitger’s Hempen Ale.

Scott Lunt, of the band Father Hennepin and founder of the Homegrown, led the cheers from his DJ perch as he declared the festival officially open. It was a stark turnaround from his announcement a few months earlier that he was canceling the event after years of single-handedly managing it. He was burned out, he said. But then a new group—supported by the city—stepped in to take over Lunt’s administrative chores and, in fact, expanded the roster of bands to seventy.

“The city actually gave some money to Homegrown this year,” Lunt said. “I sort of let it go a little bit, and a bigger group, the Twin Ports Music and Arts Collective, picked up the slack. It’s a nonprofit organization, so the city was able to give a little bit of money.

“As far as support for the music scene goes, it’s ten times better now. Our mayor’s into this. I mean, our old mayor would never, ever come to a bar. When Mayor Bergson was campaigning, he was saying, ‘Yeah, let’s get more music festivals.’”

The arts collective, also known as MAC, could end up being a key piece of the sustainability puzzle. It’s made up of a group of Duluth artists whose goal is to raise money for projects that can support the scene. The group has set up shop in a spacious storefront space on West First Avenue in downtown Duluth, upgrading its original plans to locate in the basement of the Electric Fetus record store. In addition to a music stage, MAC is providing gallery space for young visual artists, who are also trying to establish Duluth as an outpost for hipsters.

Eric Dubnicka, a twenty-nine-year-old expressionist painter, runs MAC’s gallery operations and says it’s his goal to “make Duluth known for more than paintings about aerial lift bridges and deer,” and to do that, the city was in dire need of a nonprofit gallery that accepted edgy work.

“There’s an ever-growing base of people up here who can support this kind of thing,” he said, “but there were no nontraditional venues besides the universities. It’s becoming more possible to make it as an artist and still live in Duluth. Look at me. I live here in a renovated artist’s studio with high ceilings for seven hundred bucks a month. I want to show in New York, but I love the base here. More and more people are seeing that, and with technology as it is you can live anywhere.”

A key supporter of MAC is Duluth City Councilor Donny Ness, who at age thirty is young enough to understand why the city needs a thriving grassroots music scene. He’s on MAC’s board and is also a big supporter of the other major alternative music and culture event in town, the Green Man Festival. Ness says he and the new mayor are determined to nurture the scene.

“Certainly the mayor and several councilors understand the value of these things,” he said. “It brings people to our town. Money and revenues flow in. And it’s a positive way to showcase what Duluth has to offer. There is significant support for it, and the real question now is not ‘should we?’ but ‘how should we?’ In other words, what is the appropriate role for the city to play in getting these events off the ground?”

Ness said Green Man, Homegrown, and other neighborhood and grassroots cultural events are going to get bigger play among city leaders from now on. “What I hope to do is move away from ongoing support for some of our events and help the newer events step up to the next level and assist them in becoming the next Bayfront Blues Festival and Grandma’s Marathon. There are some great ideas that die on the vine because of the lack of initial support—events that have been very local in nature but are creative and wonderful ideas that could be brought to a larger stage.”

Bergson, in his inaugural speech this winter, ran through a list of goals for his administration that sounded as if it were quoted verbatim from the official handbook on how to attract the creative professional class: blanketing downtown and Canal Park with wi-fi hotspots in an effort to create an “E-City of the North”; spending marketing bucks to promote eco-tourism; establishing an “eco-industry” hub in the city; building more downtown housing and staging more festivals.

In doing this, he’s turning Duluth from a city that officially discouraged nontraditional development into one that’s joining a trend of smaller cities trying to pitch their quirks and unique attributes to young creative types. One Midwestern example is Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s Cool Cities Initiative, a controversial program that’s funneling state grants to cities and programs designed to keep—and attract—these desirable residents.

Duluth, however has an advantage in that it’s not starting from scratch. Northeastern Minnesota has always had a niche as an outdoor athlete’s paradise: The whitewater kayaking on the St. Louis River is among the best in the nation. Then there’s the North Shore Trail for hikers, and the legendary cross-country skiing. And let’s not forget Grandma’s Marathon. Throw in prime venues for latter-day extreme sports like mountain biking and rock climbing, and it’s a powerful, easy sell for any young person with a taste for outdoors adventure.

A few prominent businesses in Duluth are already capitalizing on the trend. TrueRide is receiving orders from around the country for its brand of outdoor skateboard parks—some built from hemp. And Vertical Endeavors, with its 14,000-square-foot facility on Canal Park, bills itself as one the “largest and best indoor rock climbing facilities” in the country.

I always took it as a sign that the Twin Cities were a cool place to live because for many years we had two alternative weeklies—no other market our size could boast that. Now imagine a much smaller city of 90,000 with two such weeklies. Up until early this year, that’s what Duluth had. The Ripsaw was one of them, until the announcement came down from editor-publisher Brad Nelson that it was going monthly.

The Ripsaw differentiated itself from the Reader Weekly by giving the full force of its coverage to the local music scene, not too surprising given Nelson’s membership in one of the city’s great rock bands, the Black-Eyed Snakes. When he said the week-to-week competition was taxing his sanity and threatening the quality of the product, it sounded a lot like Scott Lunt’s exhaustion at trying to run the Homegrown Festival all by himself: another cornerstone of the nascent music scene crumbling as it struggled to reach the next level.

But what the cutback has really done is given the entrepreneurial Nelson the chance not only to redesign the Ripsaw as a glossy monthly, but also to concentrate more fully on building his outdoor Green Man Festival into something more than just another local-band showcase. Getting ready for its third year at Spirit Mountain later this month, Nelson has for the first time lined up two national acts to headline the fest, Willie Nelson and Cracker (though Nelson later had to cancel due to carpal tunnel syndrome). Throw in local heroes Low and the Black-Eyed Snakes, some extreme mountain biking competition, and an alternative energy technology exhibition, and Green Man seems poised to emerge as a major happening on the summertime alternative calendar.

And for the first time, Duluth’s city fathers have seen the opportunity that the Green Man Festival presents and are backing it one hundred percent. Plus, Spirit Mountain is no longer threatened by a golf course. “I’m relieved about that,” Nelson said. “We’ve never done this as a political event, and it’s not like we’re solving all the problems or replacing the annual income of a golf course. No, we’re not going to support a whole town like former Mayor Doty wanted.”

But, he said, Green Man is showing what can be done on one weekend when creativity is applied, “rather than falling back on traditional means of development that are going to appeal to retirees, perhaps.

“Does Duluth want to become a bedroom retirement community?” Nelson asked. “Or do we want to develop the region for the next generation so that we can lure some young professionals here to keep the city alive in the long term? Adventure-recreation, eco-tourism, adventure tourism—these things are huge.”

Down at the Duluth Visitors and Convention Bureau’s office on the Downtown Lakewalk, support for the Green Man, and acceptance of the city’s alternative culture in general, is enthusiastic. The bureau is actually co-sponsoring the event. Terry Mattson, the executive director, is a true believer.

“Brad and his people have a ton of energy behind this,” he said. “None of this would have happened without that enthusiasm—it’s a labor of love and a huge undertaking. The Willie Nelson thing raises the bar so much higher in terms of what needs to happen and there’s an element of risk. But it’s a magnet that attracts an audience that probably wouldn’t otherwise be as interested in coming here.”

To me, the thought of staid, traditional Duluth opening its arms to geeks, alt-rockers, cultural misfits, skate punks, and extreme mountain bikers is so ironic that I have to wonder if I’m still connected to reality. In a town where there’s significant public support for keeping the Ten Commandments displayed on the City Hall lawn and where gays and lesbians couldn’t get a hearing from the longtime former mayor, helping out a rabble-rouser like Brad Nelson represents real change.

Jason Wussow, of Beaners Central, says that up until very recently, “there was no support for what was happening here. Most of the city leaders would have the attitude of, ‘Oh, the music scene, those rowdy musicians.’ It was not seen as an asset in any way. Now it seems people are looking at the music and arts scene as an asset.”

The lull of the last couple of years that many in the Twin Cities perceived as backsliding, he said, was real but in no way fatal. “We had some venues close, and everyone was bummed out,” Wussow said. “But in my mind, that was just a reflection of what was going on in the whole country. There was 9/11, a smoking ban was instituted in Duluth, the recession hurt the tourism industry, big layoffs were announced, and there were so many things at once.
“The passion just got tired—but only for a bit.”