By Paul Lundgren
The 1990s: Incubation and Hatching
The moral of the Homegrown Music Festival story is that a great party can quickly grow into a bureaucracy, but still be a great party. At its start in 1999 Homegrown was a killer weekend bash at one location. Within a few years Homegrown became the key component of Duluth’s counterculture, but was still far from being a major attraction.
After nearly folding in 2005, the festival rebounded and redefined itself in 2006, quickly becoming a mainstream event that grew to include roughly 200 bands by 2014. The COVID-19 pandemic brought that to a screeching halt, however, and the 2020 and 2021 festivals were held online.
How Homegrown started is generally summarized in a single sentence: Scott Lunt had five bands play at his 30th birthday party in 1998, then decided to hold a festival in 1999 called Homegrown.
The full story, of course, is much more complicated. Lunt sums it up this way: “It’s the guitar, man.”
In the mid-1990s, Lunt spotted a green Guild Starfire guitar in a newspaper ad and bought it, setting off a chain of events that slowly changed Duluth’s music scene in ways few could have imagined.
At the time, most of the bands in Duluth were playing heavy-metal cover songs. There were a handful of acts playing original music at R.T. Quinlan’s Saloon and at an underage venue in an old Bell Telephone exchange building dubbed the RecyclaBell. Other venues, like Le Petit Espresso House in Superior and the Urban Ground Café, hosted periodic shows, but the makings of a viable music scene barely existed. Fitger’s Brewhouse and Amazing Grace Bakery & Café had just opened.
A new Duluth trio called Low was gaining an international audience, but in the band’s hometown it was a virtual unknown.
Lunt was fairly new to Duluth. An Austin, Minn., native, he arrived by way of Owatonna in 1992. Cloquet native Mark Lindquist graduated from Hamline University that spring and soon found himself in Duluth as well.
Lindquist had begun recording music on a 4-track in his apartment, and eventually met Patrick Nelson to form the beginnings of the band Giljunko. He remembers going to shows at R.T. Quinlan’s to see Minneapolis bands and quickly discovering a small crop of Duluth talent.
“It was a revelation,” he said. “Down in the Twin Cities we all just played really loud and never considered vocal monitors because no one was going to hear your vocals anyway. In Duluth, there were guys like Eric Swanson working the sound.”
Three bands from the era that stuck out for Lindquist were Puddle Wonderful, the Fromundas and Swivelhead.
“I saw Puddle Wonderful and they just sounded so good,” he said. “They walked that fine line of being raw and aggressive, but the guys could play. I did not expect to find that. I thought Duluth just had cover bands and blues bands — which there were a lot of back then.”
Over at J.D.’s Java, a little coffee shop at 15th Avenue East and Superior Street, the house music consisted of mix tapes, many of which were made by Lunt. When Lunt gave a mix tape to his friend John Hartley, Hartley sent Lunt a thank-you note referencing Lunt’s new green guitar and the disc-jockey skills displayed on the tape: “Thanks DJ Starfire.”
“He probably didn’t put too much thought into it, but the name really inspired me,” Lunt said. “And then one thing begat the next.”
In the summer of 1997, “DJ Starfire” took his mix-tape-making skills to the local airwaves, launching Random Radio, a pirate FM station broadcasting 80 to 90 watts of random music from his Central Hillside duplex. Dozens of friends volunteered to take shifts at the station, coming and going at all hours. Bands from around the region would stop by Lunt’s home to guest host Random broadcasts.
“Like the first night he was on I took my truck over there with the Giljunko boys and harassed him for a while,” Lindquist said. “I thought it was one of the coolest things I ever saw. No one had internet then, so you listened to the radio to get the music you wanted to hear. Starfire was playing stuff that was relevant to people who were really into music. And he took an interest in what other people were up to. In Minneapolis they used to make fun of you if you gave them your demo tapes. Starfire wanted people to give him their demo tapes.”
The “Starfire” moniker started to truly take hold when Lunt came home and found at the top of his stairway a cassette tape Alan Sparhawk of Low had left for him. It had the word “Starfire” written on it, and contained a demo of a song that bore Lunt’s nickname and later appeared on Low’s 1999 album Secret Name.
“I popped that into my stereo and I remember listening to it several times in a row,” Lunt said.
Around the same time, Lunt started regularly spinning music at Fitger’s Brewhouse on Thursday nights. Dubbed the “Starfire Lounge,” the gig lasted six years and gave the name “Starfire” everything it needed to stick.
As Lunt’s 30th birthday approached, his friend Mike Lowe happened to mention how “everybody should have a big 30th birthday party.” Having recently attended an event at Lafeyette Community Center, Lunt thought that would be a suitable venue for a rawk and/or roll bash.
“It’s funny how all these little things fell into place,” Lunt said.
Having assembled his first band, Father Hennepin, he decided to hold the group’s debut performance on his birthday. He also invited Jon Olson, Amy Abts, Mark Lindquist and Gild to perform.
“It was during finals,” Abts remembered. “I was in my second or third year studying theater at UMD. I showed up with my guitar and was like, whoa, it’s a big party for Scott! Lafayette Square was all festive — candles and Christmas lights (in May). Snow drifts were melting down on the sand near the lake.”
Lindquist remembers playing an acoustic set and joining in with other bands, including a song with Father Hennepin that also brought to the stage Lunt’s grandfather.
“I’ve never seen Starfire so happy in his whole life than playing with his grandpa on stage,” Lindquist said. “And Grandpa was good, too.”
The show would be Starfire’s first time playing in front of an audience.
“I had a lot of family there,” he remembered. “People had no idea if I could do it.”
He could do it. Starfire, Father Hennepin and the Duluth music scene were on their way up.
Then came a warning letter from the Federal Communications Commission. Lunt faced fines as high as $100,000 if he continued his Random Radio broadcasts. As it turned out, he was ready to stop anyway.
“I got sick of it being in my house,” he said. “It kind of got out of control.”
There was still the matter of producing a compact disc of live recordings from the Random Headquarters, however. Setting up the release party meant doing something that terrified Lunt: talking to Rick Boo.
Boo and two partners had taken over management of the NorShor Theatre, which had been an on-again off-again music venue for years. Boo and his partners were focused on showing independent films, with maybe a jazz trio performing here and there. To Lunt’s surprise, Boo was receptive to having the Random Acts of Radio CD release at the NorShor.
By then, Lunt already had designs on making his birthday party an annual music festival. He was sitting at his dining room table with his roommate, Bryan “Lefty” Johnson, drinking coffee and playing cribbage, when the name popped into his head — the Homegrown Music Festival.
“Once I had a good name I just couldn’t not do it,” Lunt said.
The South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, served as Lunt’s model, though the landscape of Duluth would bear a stark contrast. The capital city of Texas has 10 times the population of Duluth and promotes itself as the “live music capital of the world.” While SXSW would feature more than 700 bands in 1999, Lunt set his sights at 10.
Tim Nelson, a critical player in developing the first Homegrown, remembers using the Misery Sessions in Houghton, Mich., as a more scaled-down model of how a town with one-tenth the population of Duluth could pull off a music festival.
Meanwhile, Tim’s brother Brad Nelson had started a monthly newspaper with Cord Carbert (better known as ©rd R. Dada) called the Ripsaw, which featured a weekly column about local music titled “the Buzz.”
“I remember sitting down at Uncle Loui’s (a café in Duluth’s Central Hillside) and talking about what Duluth needed to make a cool scene,” Tim Nelson said. He felt Duluth could pull it together if it could get the bands, clubs and an alternative newspaper all working together. The paper was critical, because there were no blogs, no Facebook and no Twitter at the time.
“It was all very intentional,” Brad Nelson said. “We knew that if we were going to build a following for local music, that group would need to be somehow edified, because it’s hard to get interested enough in a band to go out and see a show if you don’t have any inroads to it. That’s what the Ripsaw was for.”
The Nelsons said Lunt was the perfect guy to rally the whole thing together.
“Starfire was the idea guy,” Brad said. “No one had better ideas.”
Brad’s partner in creating the Ripsaw played another critical role in developing Homegrown. Carbert drew the first chicken.
“I wasn’t given any direction,” Carbert said. “The concept was local musicians playing music. I was given the task to find something that was homegrowny.”
He found a sourcebook image of a chicken standing on top of a basket of eggs, and used that as his inspiration.
“It was a photograph and I turned it into an illustration,” he said. “We had a few things we were looking at. Starfire liked the chicken and thought we could use a different farm animal every year, but I got busy doing the Ripsaw and it’s been a chicken ever since.”
1999: Homegrown 1
The venue for the first Homegrown would be the NorShor Theatre, which at the time was unable to open its main theater due to fire code issues. That was fine with Lunt, who wanted to cram as many people as he could into the building’s mezzanine rather than have the crowd seem sparse in a large theater. The smaller space also allowed set designer Doug Odlevek to shine, decorating the room to create a festival atmosphere.
“I just remember the smell of the NorShor,” said Suzi Ludwig, who played with Father Hennepin on the festival’s first night. “It was an awesome place. A little bit of musty and cigarettes and it just smelled like history. Having a venue for this event was such a great thing, as far as building it to what it is today because it’s changed so much. Having those three components, the musicians, the venues and audience — all three of those things are so integral.”
Who was the very first act of Homegrown?
“Amy Abts opened,” Brad Nelson remembered. “People were crowding into the mezzanine, sitting on the stairs and on the floor by the stage. It was a great feeling to know that we were filling that room.”
Although there was some established camaraderie among the musicians, Abts felt she didn’t know many people.
“I tried to get my theater friends to come see my set at Homegrown,” she said, “but all they cared about was Crazy Betty,” a band that played the following night.
When she finished her set she went to the bar for a drink and met a guy from New Orleans who asked her to sign his Homegrown poster.
“I was like, ‘what?’ she said. “I laughed at him but I signed it. Then some other people followed. I was starting to enjoy myself. I felt part of a community and it was celebratory.”
Abts’ set was followed by a new band, the Black Labels, and a reggae artist who was somewhat new to town, Max Dakota. Then came Giljunko.
“We were used to playing at places like the Pacific Club (in Superior where Centerfold’s Cabaret is now), where the audience either just wanted to hear the next band or wanted us to stop playing completely,” Lindquist recalled. “Quinlan’s and the NorShor mezzanine — particularly Homegrown — were kind of my first experiences where people wanted to hear what we had to play.”
Starfire’s Father Hennepin closed out the first night.
“It wasn’t just another show,” Lunt said. “Bands picked it up a notch that night. Lots of genres were represented. There was an awesome vibe. Everyone was so happy. It was so affirming. The NorShor mezzanine was just so full of people.”
Melissa La Tour, who would go on to become Homegrown’s director in 2015, attended both nights in 1999.
“The mix of music was great and everybody kind of fed off each other,” she said. “It felt like a party instead of the full-on festival it is now. Everyone seemed like friends. It was all at one location, so the musicians and fans could hang out and talk instead of racing to get from one place to another to catch a show they want to see. These days they’re trying to catch as much as they can, so they see maybe 15 minutes of a set, whereas in the early years people were more likely to stay for the whole show.”
The lineup for day two consisted of the First Ladies, 2 Sleepy People, Ballyhoo, Crazy Betty and Gild.
“I was young and beautiful,” said Toby Thomas Churchill, who played with Crazy Betty. “We were all young and we were all beautiful. The drinks were beautiful. The girls were beautiful. The guys were beautiful. The music still had a ways to go, but nobody knew the difference.”
Leon Rohrbaugh, who played with Ballyhoo, said he remembers just being impressed there were finally enough bands in Duluth to have a two-day festival.
“For a while there were just like … four bands playing original music. … Then we got all the way up to 10. It felt like we were a real city.”
Still, Homegrown didn’t feel at the time like something that would go on year after year.
“It didn’t seem like it would ever repeat,” Rohrbaugh said. “None of us were really good at follow through back then. I think it was by the fourth year I played it when I was like, ‘oh, this is thing that’s probably going to keep going.’”
Although Greg Cougar Conley was heavily involved in the Duluth music scene before and after the first Homegrown, he was between bands in 1999 and didn’t perform. During the next 19 years he played the festival every year as a member of 11 different bands.
“That first Homegrown is the only one I haven’t played,” Conley said in 2019. “I had about a year and a half where I didn’t play anywhere. I remember going to Homegrown and thinking, wow, this is so cool. … At that point, obviously it was pretty small in comparison to now. People I share practice space with were like half of the people that were in it. I remember feeling regretful I wasn’t playing and thinking this is a really great event for our community. It’s funny, at the time you don’t realize what’s going to happen with it. You don’t realize that bands are going to proliferate like crazy and you end up with a whole week with hundreds of bands. If you had told me that back then I would have never believed it.”
Over two nights the first Homegrown drew an estimated 700 people. It might not have been apparent to most of them that an annual event was in the works, but Lunt did have plans to carry things into the future.
“There is something about that weekend that is perfect,” he said. “There’s an energy that first week of May, because summer is right around the corner. Duluth comes out of its hibernation for Homegrown. Everything is lighter. We have this jubilant week together.”
And whatever happened to Scott Lunt’s green Guild Starfire guitar that set the Homegrown Music Festival in motion?
“It was stolen a long time ago from our old practice space in the Corner of the Lake Building,” Lunt said. “I still kind of expect to see it again at Homegrown … some teenager playing it. I’m sure it’s changed hands a few times.”
2000 to 2005: Halcyon Days to Near Disaster
2000: Homegrown 2
A solid crop of new bands had emerged in Duluth by May 2000, including the Black-eyed Snakes, Both, Accidental Porn and Bone Appetit. Musicians who had left the area were starting to drift back, like Jerree Small, Jamie Ness and members of the Dames.
One month prior to the second Homegrown, the Ripsaw ramped up to weekly publishing and dedicated a special issue to previewing Duluth’s second-annual music showcase. The issue served as the predecessor to what later became the Homegrown Field Guide.
The new master brewer at Fitger’s Brewhouse, Dave Hoops, created a special batch of beer called Homegrown Hempen Ale, a recipe he revived year after year until he left the Brewhouse in 2015. In the early years musicians and fans would gather at the Brewhouse on the Thursday before Homegrown to taste the new beer while Scott Lunt spun local music during Starfire Lounge.
Another tradition that began in 2000 was the kickball game between the bands that play on Friday night and the bands that play on Saturday night. Saturday won by a score of 7-6.
Although there were a number of great Homegrown 2 performances — among them the Black-eyed Snakes playing with Alan Sparhawk’s father sitting in, Bone Appetit cock-rawking the NorShor’s main stage, the First Ladies saving Homegrown from the villain Hu Phlung Pu, and Father Hennepin playing with a 10-member choir — the show that stuck out was Giljunko’s set, which offered no theatrics, but brought the crowd to a frenzy.
“I think that never have so many people freaked out so hard for so long in the NorShor mezzanine,” Ripsaw contributor Barrett Chase wrote of the Giljunko set. “People were even crowded into the bar area to dance, and the wall of mirrors in the lobby actually fogged up like a bathhouse mirror. Everyone was completely soaked through their clothes.”
2001: Homegrown 3
The new crop of acts for the 2001 Homegrown included Mary Bue, Teague Alexy, If Thousands, Lookdown Moon (then known as Mayfly), No Room to Pogo, Charlie Parr and James Moors (then known as Sterling Waters). Two new venues were welcomed into the fold — Beaner’s Central and the Red Lion Bar. Beaner’s was the West Duluth coffee shop Jason Wussow opened the summer after the first Homegrown; its name was changed to Wussow’s Concert Café in 2019. The Red Lion was a dive bar located where the Zeitgeist Arts Café is today. It was where the Black Labels served as the resident band on Wednesday nights.
Bue, at the time 19 years old, played her first Homegrown set at Beaner’s. She remembers the festival being “small” and “manageable” back then. She also remembers hitting the bars after her show.
“I wasn’t 21 yet,” she said. “People thought I was 21, so I got special service … until the Ripsaw the next year reported I wasn’t 21. My birthday wasn’t until a week later, and it warned the bars not to serve me. But yeah, I remember feeling pretty cool that I was part of it, and excited and the collective buzz. It’s just snowballed from there.”
In all, 38 bands were featured at Homegrown 3, including the first Homegrown appearance by Low — though bassist Zak Sally did not perform with the band; he was in Louisville watching the Kentucky Derby.
Low had just returned from a successful European tour, and the band’s new album Things We Lost in the Fire had hit number one on the College Music Journal’s chart in February.
Lunt took time off from organizing Homegrown to serve as a nanny on Low’s tour, taking care of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s then-1-year-old daughter Hollis. To fill the void, Ripsaw arts page editor Tim Anderson handled the task of coordinating the festival.
“It was already well formed at that point,” Anderson said. “The structure was all there.”
One of the more significant things that happened in 2001, in terms of the ongoing history of the festival, is that it was the year cartoonist Chris Monroe drew the Homegrown chicken for the cover of the Ripsaw. Although a number of artists have illustrated the plucky cock over the years, Monroe’s rendering has served as the iconic logo of Homegrown ever since.
2002: Homegrown 4
In its fourth year, Homegrown had what could be considered the strongest batch of new bands in its history. Crew Jones, Dukes of Hubbard, Farewell Tour, the Keep Aways, Jackie & the Ripoffs, the State Champs, Stel & Lefty, Malec, the Undesirables and Haley Bonar all played the festival for the first time.
Starfire tapped Giljunko’s Mark Lindquist to create the schedule.
“People forget I booked that thing like a well-run fantasy football team for years.” Lindquist said. “Some of the bands started to get pissed when they weren’t booked at midnight at the NorShor. I always wanted to make sure there was a well-known band at each venue. It’s supposed to be about the bands you haven’t heard of. It’s not supposed to be about the four popular bands.”
The fourth annual Homegrown expanded to include 67 acts playing four nights at eight venues. A change in city law prior to the festival allowed Pizza Lucé to obtain an extended cabaret license, permitting dancing past 2 a.m. This allowed the new restaurant to host shows that didn’t start until the wee hours of the morning — such as Crew Jones on Friday and the Black-eyed Snakes on Saturday.
The capacity crowd for the ’Snakes performance flowed out into Superior Street and up Lake Avenue, with people watching through the windows. Inside the building, what many believe to be the first documented case of crowd surfing at a pizza restaurant occurred.
“I remember people on the bar taking their clothes off,” Bue said. “That was pretty exciting.”
The Black-eyed Snakes played Homegrown twice in 2002. The purpose was to give younger fans a chance to see the band at the all-ages venue, Beaner’s. The ’Snakes made that a memorable show as well, wearing horse-head masks for the majority of the set.
Those who thought the Black-eyed Snakes couldn’t be upstaged were wrong. The Dames followed with a set that frontman Tony Bennett wasn’t happy with, saying later that he and his band mates “weren’t feeling it that night.” So, how did he compensate for it? He ate a Limp Bizkit poster on stage.
“The bits that I couldn’t get in my mouth went down the back of my pants and marinated in my ass crack,” he told the Ripsaw a year later. “I then pulled those poster pieces out and threw them at people in the crowd, who scrambled with Matrix-like speed to duck out of the way.”
Future festival director Paul Connolly, attending his first Homegrown, cited the Limp Bizkit poster-eating incident as his introduction to the Duluth music scene.
“I also remember the Black Labels showing up in a limo at Beaner’s to watch the Dames,” Connolly said. “I was just a junior in college, damaging my brain cells.”
Lunt remembers Homegrown 4 as the year it started getting difficult to organize. He forgot to reserve Chester Bowl Park for kickball and had to quickly find an alternate location, and amps were blowing out at multiple venues.
“My phone was ringing off the hook,” he said. “I remember playing kickball at Observation Park, talking on the phone under an umbrella while running bases and drinking a beer.”
2003: Homegrown 5
There weren’t a lot of new bands in the 2003 Homegrown, but one of them would later become Homegrown’s biggest draw — Trampled by Turtles. The group was a four-piece at the time and hadn’t come up with its name, so the show was listed on the schedule as “Dave Simonette Band,” misspelling Simonett’s name.
Also new at Homegrown in 2003 were the DTs, Words to a Film Score and Boy Girl Boy Girl. The latter band, composed of Tim and Brad Nelson, Jen Jones and Nikki Moeller, was excited to play its first show during the festival. Unfortunately, the group blew the power out at the Red Lion and spent more time standing in the dark than playing music.
Greg Cougar Conley had the opportunity to play back-to-back sets on the NorShor’s main stage with the bands Both and the Virgin Marcus.
“The thing that really defines the festival for me is always playing to a bonkers crowd, which is not the rule the rest of the year,” Conley said. “Your normal gigs are not necessarily going to be packed. Maybe you’ll have one of those a year if you’re lucky. … unless you’re Low or somebody. So Homegrown is an opportunity to have that bonkers show where everybody’s just crazy and you have a huge crowd.”
Homegrown expanded to five days for its fifth year, and included 77 acts. Starfire was seemingly in high spirits, having shaved his hair into a chicken-like mohawk. It was also the year of Homegrown’s first “Chicken Shack.” Starfire rented a tiny storefront on the northeast corner of Superior Street and Lake Avenue to serve as Homegrown’s temporary headquarters. To mark the five years of the festival, five baby chicks occupied a cage by the window.
Capt. Dann Edholm created a giant replica of the Aerial Lift Bridge over the NorShor’s main stage, which was the last time any serious degree of decorating took place at the festival. As the festival expanded to numerous venues the notion of decorating diminished but was later revived with a new tradition of having artists paint the windows of the Chicken Shack.
2004: Homegrown 6
In the months leading up to the sixth Homegrown, real adversity began piling up for the first time. Rick Boo had closed the NorShor Theatre in October 2003 because of mounting debt. The Ripsaw was struggling, and at the end of the year switched to a monthly magazine format in an effort to make it profitable.
Then, in March 2004, Lunt sent an email to musicians, friends, venue owners and the media to inform them he would no longer organize Homegrown.
“I have been pondering ways to scale back the festival and I have come to the conclusion that I can no longer muster the enthusiasm needed to organize an event of this magnitude,” he wrote. “I want to thank everyone who has helped over the years and I hope that out of the ashes of Homegrown can grow something bigger and better. Duluth has so much talent and potential. I have no doubt that brighter days are in the future.”
Darker days would come before the brighter ones, but there would still be highlights along the way.
A conversation at the Brewhouse between Lunt, the Nelson brothers, Don Ness and Christopher Halverson led to an agreement in which Lunt would run the festival one more time, as a collaborative effort involving help from the Ripsaw and a new nonprofit all-ages venue Halverson and Ness were working to open on First Avenue West.
The Twin Ports Music and Arts Collective, commonly referred to as “the MAC,” was created as a performance and gallery space, funded by donations and the proceeds from benefit concerts featuring Duluth bands.
The first performances at the MAC were during the 2004 Homegrown, with 16 bands playing there over two nights. A memorable show by the Black-eyed Snakes included a crew of men dressed as Denfeld High School basketball players taking the stage to shake maracas and tambourines with the band.
Toby Thomas Churchill remembers performing with the Alrights at the now-defunct Red Lion Bar. “It was packed to the gills and a little rowdy,” he said. “That was pretty wild.”
The Alrights were one of three new bands playing the festival in 2004 that would go on to play the next eight years in a row. The other two were Boku Frequency and Sweetgrass. Boku Frequency missed the 2013 festival, but returned in 2014 and has remained a staple ever since.
The sixth annual Homegrown would be the last one organized by Lunt. It was also the first year the number of bands decreased, with a roster of 74 acts, down three from the previous year. Lunt lost about $3,000 on the festival, which was approximately the total cost of paying bands at the time.
“I obviously didn’t get into it to get rich,” Lunt said, “but I sure didn’t want to lose money.”
2005: Homegrown 7
Following the difficult 2004 Homegrown, a deal was reached where the Ripsaw would take ownership of the festival, buying out Starfire for the sum of $3,000 — roughly what he had lost the year before.
“The Ripsaw was in the tissue with Homegrown anyway, so it seemed natural,” Brad Nelson said. He owned the paper at the time with his brother Tim, who had bought the majority of Cord Carbert’s share in 2001.
“We just didn’t want Homegrown to die,” Tim said.
The Ripsaw’s experiment with publishing as a monthly magazine ended with its December 2004 issue, and four months passed without a new edition. The Nelsons were planning to bring it back in time to promote Homegrown, with issues occurring every other month thereafter.
Meanwhile, the NorShor transferred management again and the MAC closed its doors in January after failing to raise money or draw crowds.
The Nelsons headed to England during the tail end of the Homegrown planning process, where Brad was playing drums on tour with the Black-eyed Snakes. While overseas Brad got an email from Ripsaw music-section editor Brandy Hoffman indicating bands were upset and pulling out of the festival following the announcement that Homegrown would no longer offer paychecks to its musicians.
“A lot of people assumed we were going to make a lot of money on the festival,” Brad said. “Everything blew up.”
As it turns out, the Nelsons got the idea of not paying bands from a knowledgeable source.
“I suggested not paying bands,” Lunt said. “I could have maybe gotten away with that. It was my fault. The pressure of having to pay for everything just grew every year.”
Although the amount bands had been paid for playing the festival at that time had always been the same meager rate — $50 per band or $25 for solo artists — it was something that had come to be expected, though it also took a bigger toll on the budget as the number of bands continued to increase.
“It turned out to be a bad idea,” Brad Nelson said in retrospect. “We thought nobody cared about $50. For a lot of bands, that’s $10 per person. We thought, let’s just be honest and say the money isn’t there. We’ll put together packets for the bands with T-shirts and beer tickets and they’ll be happy. It didn’t work out that way.”
At first, the bitterness was mutual.
“We felt burned,” Tim Nelson remembered. “We thought we were part of a movement.”
But when the Nelsons returned from Europe and started talking to musicians, most of them understood, and the festival went on as planned. There were 84 acts at Homegrown 7, including new bands like the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank, the Little Black Books, Portrait of a Drowned Man, Sleepfarmer and Retribution Gospel Choir (a replacement for Low).
Still, it was Homegrown’s lowest moment. By the end of the year, the Ripsaw was out of business, the NorShor was closed yet again due to fire code violations, and the Nelsons were through with running Homegrown.
Fortunately, Don Ness was ready to roll up his sleeves and turn the festival into a nonprofit. Homegrown’s biggest years were still ahead.
“I do think it belongs in a community group,” Brad Nelson said. “In the long run it makes it sustainable.”
Despite the lumps, the Nelsons hold on to fond memories and big expectations for the future.
“Those days in the early 2000s of Homegrown and the Ripsaw defined our present culture and will be part of it for a long time,” Brad said. “We’re honored to have been part of that. Those will always be the wonder years.”
2006 to 2012: The Bridge Syndicate Years
2006: Homegrown 8
By the end of 2005, Homegrown had been passed off from private ownership into nonprofit hands — on paper fiscally managed by the Bridge Syndicate and organized by a steering committee comprised of artists, but in reality handed off to Don Ness, who would have to find those committee members and shepherd them.
Ness put together a large steering committee, chaired by Alan Sparhawk and Amy Abts, with a variety of subcommittees. By the time the festival was near, the steering committee was down to 10 people and the subcommittees were reduced to two.
“It was critical to start with a broad group,” Ness said. “They were committed to the health of Homegrown. They got a sense of what was going on, took that and went out and told their friends. That built credibility for what the festival was going to be. When it came time to do the work, the group got leaner, but we had to cast a wide net to find those people who were willing to work.”
Ness was bold with his vision, vastly expanding the festival. Under Ness, Homegrown would grow into an eight-day event, and for the first time include more than 100 bands. There would be poetry, videos and visual arts. The festival would return Superior to the fold, this time significantly. Themed shows like the New Band Showcase and Experimental Tuesday would emerge.
The first Homegrown Field Guide, a 36-page magazine promoting the festival, was also published to compensate for the loss of the Ripsaw’s coverage.
While the Homegrown off-season lacked the Ripsaw, the void in music-scene coverage was filled by numerous upstarts, including the Perfect Duluth Day blog (founded by Scott Lunt and Barrett Chase in 2003), the Transistor (published weekly by Adam Guggemos from 2004 to 2019), High Plains Drifter (published monthly from 2006 to 2008 by Jimi Sides) and …And the Heroin Screams Help! (randomly published by Paul Connolly and Mat Milinkovich from 2005 to 2007).
Digital photography exploded in 2006, and Homegrown was suddenly crawling with photographers who shared huge galleries of images on the photo-sharing website Flickr.
New bands performing in 2006 included Cars & Trucks, the Acceleratii, Batteries, Kritical Kontact and Mr. Kickass — all of which would become Homegrown mainstays in the following years.
The NorShor Theatre had been closed for eight months due to fire code violations, but Ness gambled the issues could be resolved in time for Low to play a show on the main stage during Homegrown. At 9:30 a.m. on the day of the concert Ness got the call from then-fire marshal Erik Simonson indicating the show could go on. More than 400 people showed up. Within a month, however, the mezzanine of the NorShor would be turned into a strip club.
Sacred Heart Music Center hosted its first Homegrown show, featuring Orley Francois, Charlie Parr, the Three Altos and Trampled by Turtles. It was the first time a space that large had been used for a weekday show during Homegrown.
At Bone Appetit’s “Farewell Reunion” set at R. T. Quinlan’s (one of the band’s many last shows ever) a character known as “Max Blast” introduced the band wearing a powder-blue suit and sporting a thin, black mustache that was drawn on with a Sharpie marker. That was the moment Chris Whittier had unleashed the first Homegrown Sharpie mustache on the world.
Further indication that Homegrown had entered a new era: Father Hennepin didn’t play the festival for the first time. Through 2005, Lunt’s band had been the last act to remain together and play every Homegrown.
“That year was a turning point,” Ness said. “We expanded to eight days, we put out the first Field Guide, we established nonprofit transparency. It was when we developed the expectation and understanding of what Homegrown was going to be. It was a good first year. People embraced the weeklong format. That was a big risk. I would say expanding the reach of the festival is the thing I’m most proud of.”
2007: Homegrown 9
The ninth Homegrown would go down in history for a number of things unrelated to music.
For the first time in Homegrown history, the Friday bands finally defeated the Saturday bands at kickball, winning 4-3. Bone Appetit’s Cory “Hotrod” Ahlm celebrated by simultaneously drinking Snow Storm Wintergreen Schnapps and Pennsylvania Dutch Egg Nog. The invention of said cocktail was proclaimed a “Homegrown miracle.”
This was also the final Homegrown before Minnesota’s ban on smoking in workplaces took effect, so it was the last time bar venues were filled with a nicotine haze during the festival — other than in Superior, where smoking was permitted until after the 2010 Homegrown.
Renegade Comedy Theater produced a live show called the Renegade Radio Hour, which was broadcast live on KUWS Radio. In addition to sketch comedy, it featured music by Jamie Ness and Charlie Parr.
Twins Bar (now a pool hall known as the Break Room) became a Homegrown venue for the first time, hosting a hip-hop showcase that filled it to capacity.
The Tap Room had moved out of Fitger’s Brewery Complex to a spot on Fourth Avenue West above the Duluth Athletic Club Bar & Grill, where Trampled by Turtles played to a packed house. It was the only year TBT didn’t play at Pizza Lucé during its first seven Homegrowns.
Ness relinquished his position as festival director following the 2007 festival, announcing he was planning a run for mayor. He was elected that fall and held office from 2008 to 2016.
“Local music has played a big part in my life,” Ness said looking back. “It kept me grounded in this community in a different way than school did. Without local music I might have moved to the Cities. Meeting those people meant a lot to me during that time in my life.”
The Homegrown steering committee appointed Paul Connolly, guitar player for Portrait of a Drowned Man, to be the next Homegrown director.
“I didn’t play in a popular band,” Connolly said, “but I was willing to do a lot of work for no money, so I was qualified.”
Under his direction, the first compact disc compilation of Homegrown bands was released at the end of the year. Homegrown Rawk and/or Roll: Starfire’s Mix included 15 tracks by bands that helped make the festival famous.
2008: Homegrown 10
“I pretty much took Don’s model and tried to expand it out,” Connolly said of his first year as director. “I didn’t want to make it bigger; I wanted more quality and to add an extra layer of communication with the bands. I didn’t have ambitions to take on extra stuff. It was a lot to take on.”
The tenth annual Homegrown featured 150 bands at 23 venues. Connolly managed to lead the organization of the festival while holding down a fulltime job as a graphic designer.
“I was running the festival on my lunch breaks and late at night,” he said. “It wasn’t a well-oiled machine by any means. The budget was tight, so when the festival started, the checkbook was pretty much at zero.”
A new tradition that started in 2008 was a Monday-night photo show featuring images from previous Homegrowns. The exhibit was coordinated by the Duluth Photographer’s Guild, which had formed one year earlier and thoroughly documented the 2007 Homegrown experience.
The first Homegrown shows in Duluth’s West End neighborhood occurred at the Blue Crab Bar (now the OMC Smokehouse) and the Venue at Mohaupt Block on Experimental Tuesday, featuring acts like Sammy Macon and Ronald Mr. Donald.
Bone Appetit reunited for a show on the NorShor’s main stage, and Giljunko returned to Homegrown after a four-year hiatus — six considering Mark Lindquist didn’t show up for his band’s gig in 2004 due to over indulgence in post-kickball revelry. The line to see the show at Pizza Lucé extended around the block for the back-to-back lineup of Giljunko and Trampled by Turtles.
The upstairs of the NorShor was a strip club at the time, but the main theater was a separate entity called the Orpheum Nightclub. Homegrown patrons who needed to use the lavatory had to pass through the crowded mezzanine, where numerous strippers were milling about. Apparently, one of them was injured and filed a workers’ compensation action against the NorShor Experience club. The manager of the NorShor threatened to pull Homegrown into it, but nothing ever came of it beyond giving Connolly something else to worry about instead of taking a lunch break.
Connolly credits his ability to make it through his first year as director to the help of steering-committee member Dave Mehling.
“That dude saved my ass,” Connolly said. “At festival time it was pretty much me and him. He knew I needed help, and he was the guy who would do the things that needed getting done, with no glory attached.”
A second Homegrown compilation CD was released late in 2008, Homegrown Rawk and/or Roll: Lindquist’s Mix.
2009: Homegrown 11
Highlights of Homegrown 2009 included the last shows at the Blue Crab Bar (featuring Shana David, Healthy Band Music Club and the Moon is Down), Mayor Don Ness sporting a “Marc Gartman tribute beard,” the first-ever Homegrown Pub Quiz, a reunion performance by surf rockers the Hadjis followed by Fred Tyson in all his glory at the Main Club, a logistical nightmare of an attempt to coordinate bus trips from the center of Duluth out to the Lakeview Castle (now the Clearwater Grille) for shows, and Retribution Gospel Choir performing an afternoon concert in an Endion-neighborhood living room.
It was also the first year Homegrown’s video showcase became the Homegrown Music Video Showcase, with a new format of having videographers produce music videos for songs randomly drawn from a hat.
Trampled by Turtles played the last in its series of Pizza Lucé shows at Homegrown. In future years, larger venues would be needed to contain the growing TBT audience. The band did, however, play an unannounced Homegrown show at Lucé in 2018.
After two successful years running Homegrown, Paul Connolly announced in the summer he would be stepping down.
“Paul was a critical person in the evolution of the festival,” Ness said, noting that Connolly had the perfect demeanor for the job. “He was quiet, unassuming and stayed above the fray, which was something that was needed at the time.”
Above all else, Connolly had brought stability to the festival.
“After Donny gave it up I wasn’t so sure about Homegrown’s future,” Lunt recalled. “I was skeptical it could keep going. After a year of Paul running it I felt reassured.”
In July, the steering committee convened to launch a search for a new director, and four months later, Shana David-Massett was chosen.
Ironically, David-Massett had been nearly cut from the list of performers for the 2009 Homegrown. She was new to town, no one had heard of her and she hadn’t performed much outside of guest vocal slots during Saturday Jazz at the Club Saratoga. On the strength of the mp3 she submitted, the committee chose her for the last available slot in the 2009 festival. By the end of the year, she was running the whole thing.
2010: Homegrown 12
In February 2010, Starfire posted Random Radio’s original Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables and his briefcase for sale on Craigslist. He described the briefcase on Perfect Duluth Day:
“Anvil Briefcase. This is the briefcase I used when organizing Homegrown, Geek Prom and whatever other silliness I could come up with. Now it just sits in the basement begging to be used.
“You can run this thing over with a truck and it will still function. Just ask Eric Swanson.”
Melissa La Tour, the longtime Homegrown volunteer who picked up garbage at the first festival, was quick to call dibs.
“I wanted that briefcase, and I got it,” La Tour said. “I have it. It’s been through a lot. There’s a sad and unfortunate story attached to it.”
But that story comes later.
In the meantime, David-Massett was hard at work organizing Homegrown for her first time.
“It was a really neat way to learn about Duluth,” she remembered. “To go from, ‘gosh, are they gonna let me play’ one year to ‘oh, you want me to help? Yeah, sure!’ That was good. It was a real turning point for me in Duluth. It was just a great introduction to some just fantastic people and of course some phenomenal music and a cool scene that is just so unique and special and perfect and wonderful and does not exist anywhere else I’ve ever been in my life. It knocks my socks off.”
Among the bands reuniting for Homegrown 12 were the Fromundas and Ballyhoo. Both bands helped transform the local music scene in the late 1990s. The Fromundas had not performed together in 13 years; Ballyhoo had been broken up for eight years.
Bone Appetit played what at that point was considered its final-final show, closing out the Rex Bar.
“There isn’t one fucking person who would deny that we fucking rocked that town over the years,” Cory Ahlm wrote on Perfect Duluth Day after the show. “In the end, I like to think we left a nice big skid mark on certain parts of that music scene that can’t be wiped off.”
The NorShor Theatre, still with a strip club on its mezzanine level, hosted a Saturday show that filled its main theater like never before. Retribution Gospel Choir opened up, expanding its audience from the previous year’s living room show by about 800. Frank Nichols took the stage to say a few words and blast on his harmonica, then Trampled by Turtles drove it home from there.
Laura Sellner, who four years later would make her first Homegrown appearance with Superior Siren, remembers using her sister’s I.D. to get into the TBT show at the NorShor.
“I heard about Homegrown after graduating high school,” she said. “That’s about the time I was introduced to this group of local musicians. I really wanted to be part of Homegrown and experience that.
“That’s when I was starting to write songs, too. The goal was to come up with an act and form a band so I could play in Homegrown. I wanted to make music, always, but that was the big festival in Duluth. To be part of that I couldn’t just be playing random songs, I had to form an act so I could perform as a band at Homegrown.”
One thing no one knew about the 2010 Homegrown is it would be the last time its founder, Scott Lunt, would be intoxicated at the festival. By February 2011 he attended his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Lunt has been sober since then. He said he was drunk at every Homegrown up until 2011, though in the early days he was more cautious because he had to handle money and run from venue to venue to solve problems.
“I was never a horrible alcoholic,” he said. “It’s just not good for me. Now I don’t remember what it’s like to be drunk. I just have a good time without it.”
2011: Homegrown 13
Just to add a little extra work on the pile, a new off-season event was created in 2011 — the Homegrown Winter Fiasco. The inaugural event was held in January at Teatro Zuccone, Carmody Irish Pub and Rex Bar, and featured performances by Southwire, Rachael Kilgour, Danecdote, the Alrights, the Moon is Down and Manheat. The Winter Fiasco grew out of a need to start recruiting volunteers three months in advance of the full-blown festival.
Highlights of the 2011 festival proper included Homegrown’s first shows at the new Clyde Iron Works, where Charlie Parr, Old Knifey & the Cutthroats and Trampled by Turtles filled the house.
Elton John was in town for a concert at the new Amsoil Arena, and his keyboard player Kim Bullard sat in with Jessica Myshack during her set at Fitger’s Brewhouse.
Leon Rohrbaugh had recently formed a new group — A Band Called Truman. He remembers well the band’s first Homegrown show at Lake Avenue Café, now known as Lake Avenue Restaurant and Bar.
“We did a Zeppelin cover and there were five or six girls who were really rowdy in the crowd,” Rohrbaugh said. “They jumped up and stole our microphones, finished the song for us … probably better than we were going to do it.
“They were obviously inebriated and didn’t want the fun to end, so they wouldn’t give the microphones back for the next song. We just played with them screaming into the microphones.”
Two legendary bands from before there was a Homegrown played the 13th annual festival. Low returned for the first time in five years and only the second time as a three-piece, closing out a show at Sacred Heart. Puddle Wonderful reunited at R. T. Quinlan’s for the band’s only show since 1998.
Greg Cougar Conley remembers his set with Puddle Wonderful standing out as “the sweatiest and most packed” of his Homegrown performances.
“That was kind of special because Quinlan’s is sort of where we cut our teeth — I mean we were like 18 or 19 when we started out, so we were very, very green. That’s where we learned to play, got to meet a lot of other bands and travel around and play in their towns with them. So that was, if not the best show, a really special show anyway.”
Walter Raschick, who was a Homegrown steering committee member at the time, said the Puddle Wonderful show was a personal highlight for him.
“The band had called it quits before I moved to the area, but after listening to a friend’s cassette for years, I was thrilled to see those songs played live,” Raschick said. “There’s so much history to this music scene that’s before my time, but it’s funny, I’ve experienced enough old stuff now that young guys ask me about it.”
Raschick grew up in rural Wisconsin and came to the Twin Ports to attend the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He started hosting a radio show at the college station in 2004, taking on the persona of Walt Dizzo. By 2007 he was providing volunteer help for Homegrown, then became a steering committee member in 2009.
When David-Massett decided after Homegrown 13 to return to Jacksonville, Fla. to open a movie theater with her husband, Raschick was the steering committee’s clear choice to be her successor.
Seven years later, David-Massett was still operating Sun-Ray Cinema. “It was a closed single-screen movie theater when we moved back to Jacksonville,” she said in 2018. “We’ve since added a second auditorium, making it an almost 21st Century business, kinda sorta. It’s doing really well.”
2012: Homegrown 14
Raschick estimated he was working 78 hours a week while putting together Homegrown 14, between his other four jobs. Homegrown continued to expand in 2012 with 167 bands performing. The new tradition of a large midweek show at Grandma’s Sports Garden was started that year featuring the Boomchucks and Big Wave Dave & the Ripples. Another new addition to the festival was a Sunday afternoon show at Club Saratoga.
At Clyde Iron Works, Trampled by Turtles returned with Father Hennepin and Equal Xchange opening, an event that produced a full day of online speculation about the line outside the building for tickets, which ultimately flowed smoothly.
Raschick is particularly proud that on Saturday night four venues were at capacity simultaneously — Tycoons, Rex Bar, Pizza Lucé and R.T. Quinlan’s.
“The hardest part of being director was not getting to see the shows I want to see,” he said, “but there were a few times I got to look around and see people having fun.”
Melissa La Tour took on the role of volunteer coordinator in 2012, and said it really opened her eyes to how much local talent was out there.
“I used to map my Homegrown route out like everybody else did in the beginning,” she said. “When you’re volunteer coordinating — I had to be on call so I might not catch the entire Surfactants set. I might be halfway across town. It introduced me to a lot of the musicians I’d never seen before. So now that’s one of my favorite things is stumbling into a venue and ‘oh my gosh, they’ve been around and I haven’t caught them yet.’ Or ‘who’s this new group that just started up?’”
La Tour said an eight-day festival with all local music is basically unheard of anywhere else.
“Other festivals bring in national acts or acts from a larger region,” she said. “In the case of Homegrown, a lot of the artists have performed with each other — they might be spinoffs of other bands that have been around or just friends — but there’s that sense of community. There’s a venue buy in and a community buy in and an artist buy in and sponsors buy into it because it’s something special for them, too. So everybody wants to be a part of it.”
2013 to 2019: Maxed Out
Don Ness was in the middle of his second term as mayor of Duluth in 2013, and nearly six years removed from directing Homegrown. As the 15th annual festival approached, he could sense there wasn’t a lot of room left for growth. The years of cramming Homegrown with more bands at more venues were soon to end.
“We’re beginning to see the limits to the structure,” he predicted in a 2013 interview in the mayor’s office. “I’m really looking forward to the NorShor reemerging as the focal point of the festival. Then you can have big shows downtown again.”
At the time, Ness was under the impression the NorShor would reopen in 2015. It would take another three years.
Before Ness became involved in Homegrown, he was a founder of the Bridge Syndicate, a sort of networking group for young professionals that strived to increase cultural and economic opportunities in the Twin Ports. The Bridge Syndicate was the nonprofit organization that took over Homegrown at the end of 2005 and kept it alive. Seven years later, Homegrown was ready to stand on its own.
Other young professionals groups had formed in the city while the Bridge Syndicate had slowly slipped away. By 2012 its sole purpose was serving as the fiscal agent for Homegrown. So, under the leadership of new festival director Walter Raschick, Homegrown subsumed the Bridge Syndicate and became an independent nonprofit with its own board of directors.
“We wanted to be able to plan ahead for potential grants for organizational assistance and didn’t want to be beholden to an entity that basically didn’t exist anymore,” said Raschick. He credits the first board chair, Jonathan Lee, with getting the necessary paperwork in place, establishing bylaws and pushing the mission forward.
“It was fun to be a part of those meetings and the political wonkiness of it,” Raschick said. “To see the formation of the board of directors and the developing of a structure that would be more organized, but still allow the spontaneity of Homegrown to exist.”
Around the same time, DJ Starfire returned to the airwaves. Scott Lunt had hosted two shows on KUMD in 2009, The Local and The Lounge, before taking an extended break. Upon returning he launched a new show, North Country Jukebox, which he continues to host every other week in rotation with his longtime band mate Ted Anderson.
2013: Homegrown 15
Homegrown’s 15th anniversary saw the festival grow to 184 acts — 173 bands, 10 DJs and one fire-spinning group. It was also the first year of what would later be called “Westside Wednesday,” a night of music exclusively in the West Duluth and West End neighborhoods. In the inaugural year, however, it was held on Tuesday.
Performers on the big stage at Clyde Iron Works were Jason Wussow & Friends, the Keep Aways and Trampled by Turtles. The following night at the Sports Garden, Sarah Krueger, Charlie Parr and Fred Tyson & His Tysonettes played the big room.
Homegrown 15 was the first time Mark Lindquist performed as a visitor from out of town. He left Duluth to raise a family 120 miles west in Baxter. He had been somewhat inactive as a musician for a few years, but by 2013 returned to form.
“I went back to recording on cassette 4-tracks in my basement,” he said. “It’s just me playing all the instruments — piano, drums, guitar.”
Another off-season event was added to Homegrown in 2013. The Twin Cities Takeover was held at the Amsterdam Bar in St. Paul with a lineup of Sarah Krueger, the Fontanelles, Cars & Trucks and Retribution Gospel Choir. The event would repeat in subsequent years with a new name, Twin Cities Invasion, and a different location, the Turf Club.
“Establishing events that expand the audience for Duluth music were important,” Raschick said. “It’s not like no one in the Twin Cities pays attention to Duluth music, but the publications tend to focus on the same five bands, so we wanted to expand that.”
2014: Homegrown 16
The last significant jump in the number of performers at Homegrown happened in 2014. The schedule featured 200 acts, although one canceled on short notice and brought the number down to 199. Up to that moment in the festival’s history, it had grown at an average pace of a dozen acts per year.
Toby Thomas Churchill was at a transition point in his musical career at the time. His stints in the bands Crazy Betty and the Alrights had concluded, and he began performing eponymously. From 2014 to ’17 he also had a solo side project called Starling of Athens. Having performed in the first 21 Homegrowns, he was there to witness the growth.
“One year it was just a couple of venues and then, boom, it’s all the venues and a hundred bands,” Churchill said. “It’s a little inexplicable. I’m not sure how that happened, but that it did is obviously amazing for a town this size. It seems to be something of an anomaly, which makes it obviously very special.
“By the way, when I see young bands now, I want to steal their organs — their livers and kidneys and lungs and such — and maybe drink their blood.”
Memorable moments in 2014 included the Black-eyed Snakes performing with Charlie Parr at Clyde Iron Works, a bat flying around ominously over the audience at Sacred Heart Music Center during a performance by Low, and Sarah Krueger turning her set at Rex Bar into a dance party.
Raschick said the Black-eyed Snakes and Charlie Parr getting together was a rare case of festival-director meddling. It was a show he wanted to see, so he popped the question.
“They both were like — ‘Sounds great! Let’s do it.’ I was happy to make that happen,” he said.
Laura Sellner, the young woman who stole her sister’s I.D. to get into Homegrown as a fan four years earlier, played the festival for the first time in 2014 when she formed the band Superior Siren.
“I got the group of guys that I first played with — Andy Olmstead, Alex Piazza and Kyle Keegan — so that I could perform as a band at Homegrown,” she said. “I had been playing open mics at Sir Ben’s and then me and the guys had maybe one show at the Brewhouse. So not a lot of people had heard the songs.”
One of Superior Siren’s tracks was selected to be included in the Homegrown Music Video Festival that year, screening the night before the band’s gig at Amazing Grace. Director Kate Harrison, who would later go by the name Killy Kay and eventually Illy Killy, produced a video for “Swamp Creature” that had everyone at the festival asking, “who is this Superior Siren?”
“That was very perfectly set up so people could see it on Monday and come to the show on Tuesday,” Sellner said of the fortuitous chain of events. “Killy Kay and I have created many videos together since then. It’s really cool to see how that collaboration has progressed and how her work has progressed.
“That show continues to be my favorite, I think because it was the debut of my original music, but also because it was very intimate. Everyone there was very attentive, and the guys that I was working with just had this really awesome set and included Radiohead covers and Fleetwood Mac covers. The versions of my songs that I did with them were different than now, but special in their own way.”
Sellner said one of the best parts of Homegrown is playing venues she might not normally play and partnering with musicians she might not normally reach out to.
“With my female band, we’ve played at Spurs on First and Lake Avenue Restaurant in a dark corner, and at Grandma’s. So it’s always a different experience. It’s an opportunity to immerse your art into a wider audience.”
Emily Larson, a city councilor at the time who would be elected mayor of Duluth in 2015, said the Blasphemists’ 2014 gig at the Gopher Lounge in West Duluth was one of her all-time favorite Homegrown moments. In particular, the surprise of seeing Adam Sundberg on stage.
“Oh my god, that’s my chiropractor wearing a helmet with horns on it,” she remembers saying to herself. “And they’re breaking glass; throwing glass in a garbage can.”
The band had an array of bottles and fine china available for audience members to smash.
“I loved it,” Larson said. “It was so cathartic and it was so bizarre and it was joyful and it was inviting. It was like we all got to be a part of something for 45 minutes. That’s what I think is really cool about Homegrown.”
2015: Homegrown 17
In the lead up to the 2015 Homegrown, a lost briefcase was returned, but the return brought tragedy with it.
Melissa La Tour, at the time Homegrown’s volunteer coordinator, left a training session at Homegrown’s Chicken Shack, located that year in the Temple Opera Building. A few people helped her load things out of the space.
“Someone set the briefcase next to my car and it never made it into the car,” she said. “It had all this stuff in it — organizational stuff and also memorabilia — all my Homegrown passes from over the years were in there.”
It was later found in the alley behind the NorShor. Since it contained nothing valuable to the average ransacker, the items that had been inside were scattered in the general area. Someone gathered it all up and tried to return it to the Chicken Shack, but no one was there and the door was locked.
Michael Mooney, an employee at the nearby Black Water Lounge, walked by and agreed to take the case and get it back to its owner. He called La Tour and made arrangements to meet her and return it before he went to work.
“I get down there and I’m waiting and waiting and no one showed up,” La Tour remembered. “It was the same day as the Empty Bowl fundraiser at the Depot. I was planning on going to that in the afternoon. I called and left a couple messages on (Mooney’s) voicemail and there was nothing. I walked outside to get some fresh air and I saw there was some commotion down the road. A DTA bus had been in an accident. I found out later Mike was killed on the bus.”
The driver of the bus had a medical emergency that morning, and Mooney jumped from his seat to aid him. The bus struck a stop sign and traffic-signal pole, slammed into concrete barriers around a construction site, then collided with another DTA bus.
“Two days went by and I was telling my friend at work about how the person who found my briefcase didn’t show up to return it and also there was an accident down the street,” La Tour said. “And the light bulb just went off. … Oh my God, it can’t be the same person.”
Mooney had locked the briefcase up at Black Water, and the regional manager found it a week later. Mooney’s sister, Maureen Talarico, found a note Michael wrote about meeting La Tour, and gave it to her.
“Whenever I take that case out I always think of him,” La Tour said. “He was trying to do good both on returning the briefcase and helping the person having a medical emergency on the bus. And then that happened to him.”
Homegrown added its second out-of-town event in 2015, holding the inaugural Iron Range Invasion in March at three venues in Virginia.
“I’ve never seen an audience that enjoys live music more than the Iron Range,” Raschick said. “They get into it up there.”
The main festival in May featured 200 acts in 2015, making it the largest year of Homegrown in terms of performers. The number of acts does not, however, include participants in the annual Homegrown Photography Show, Homegrown Music Video Showcase and Homegrown Poetry Showcase.
A sort of new element added to the festival in 2015 was the “Rawk ’n’ Run,” led by Alan Sparhawk. Unofficial running groups had gathered in previous years to incorporate some level of healthy living into a week associated with consumption and lack of sleep. The 2015 run was the first time such a run appeared on the official Homegrown schedule.
“I like those special sort of active things and opportunities for musicians and friends to bond in a different way,” said Mary Bue. “The festival started with music and snowballed into art and film and all of these other things, sporting events, so it really has expanded. It has its own evolution.”
Large-stage shows in 2015 included a first-time Homegrown performance by members of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra in the Clyde Iron Works event center. Also on that bill were Big Wave Dave & the Ripples and Trampled by Turtles.
Longtime Homegrown musician Leon Rohrbaugh recalls Emily Haavik’s performance at Teatro Zuccone as a highlight.
“I’d never heard of her,” he said. “I saw her at Teatro and was just amazed by her — the songwriting, the way her band could play like four-part harmonies … they were really earnest and honest, so that was really refreshing to see something that was just different.”
For Bue, performing with the Electric Witch was a 2015 highlight.
“Walking into the Flame, the disco ball going, and wearing giant go-go boots,” she remembered. “I feel like Homegrown is such a license to be super weird and over the top as far as performing goes. People pull out all the stops.”
2016: Homegrown 18
It could be said that Mary Bue brought her third term with Homegrown to an end in 2016. Over the years she has three strings of playing the festival, each broken up by a few years where she lived in other cities. From 2012 to ’16, she was deeply invested, serving on the Homegrown’s board of directors and steering committee, at times simultaneously.
“I love how grassrootsy and how small it started and how it became this beast,” Bue said. “It’s turned into almost a year-’round thing with the Winter Fiasco and doing all the outreach shows. I remember being on the board and committee and having meetings all year. That excitement, and that there are so many people volunteering and performers playing for the rate that they do, and all the talk about it and people who attend it … I just think it’s special.”
Before departing Duluth once again, Bue played the big stage at the Sports Garden in 2016.
“Playing at Grandma’s was super amazing,” she said. “There were like 600 people and I debuted my big sexual-assault song and it was extremely powerful for me to have the opportunity to have the huge crowd and just feel like, ‘damn, Duluth, this is so intense.’”
At Clyde Iron Works the “Westside Wednesday” show featured Teague Alexy & Friends, Low and Red Mountain.
The 2016 Homegrown was the last organized by Walter Raschick. He held the job for five years, spanning 2012 to ’16. In 2017 and ’18 he served as director emeritus, charged with establishing connections with other festivals and doing regional outreach.
“Walt raised Homegrown into its teenage years,” festival founder Scott Lunt said. “He was everywhere. He got around during all of those big nights where there are six or seven venues running at once. I’d see him everywhere I went.”
2017: Homegrown 19
Melissa La Tour took over as director following the 2016 festival. Similar to Raschick, she rose up in the ranks, volunteering for Homegrown in various capacities before taking on the chief leadership role.
“Walt was big shoes to fill,” she said. “He did a lot during his five years. But everyone is such a team player in this. Somebody might be labeled a director or a volunteer coordinator or a volunteer, but none of it could go if all of us weren’t here.”
La Tour said part of her mission was to continue that “feeling of Homegrown” throughout the year.
“Obviously it peaks with the festival,” she said. “But I hear bands and other people say Homegrown comes and then during the rest of the year a lot of times the shows are quiet. It would be nice to keep that excitement throughout the year versus resurgence in May and then quiet time.
“Another thing I would like to continue — because I think Walt was great with this, too — is keeping the female artist and the non-binary artist a focus. Making everyone feel included, and not like it’s a festival that you have to meet a certain criteria to perform for.”
The biggest change with Homegrown in 2017, however, was the explosion of the Children’s Music Showcase. The festival had experimented numerous times with holding a family event designed for kids, and the results were consistently tepid. The decision to hold the event on the opening day of the festival at the Duluth Children’s Museum, however, brought people out in masses.
Westside Wednesday was also particularly well received in 2017, from the Social Disaster’s scintillating performance at Clyde Iron Works to Al Sparhawk joining Low Forms for a set of Joy Division covers at the Gopher Lounge and Jimi Cooper tearing it up at Mr. D’s with Father Hennepin.
Cooper also took a fill-in role with Glitteratti on Saturday night at Pizza Lucé. That show turned into a Dukes of Hubbard reunion at the end when rhythm guitar player Ben Wizik was coaxed to step up from the audience to join in. The Dukes had last played Homegrown in 2004, and broke up in 2005.
2018: Homegrown 20
The headline of the 2018 festival was the return of the NorShor Theatre, and a mini-return to event coordinating by Scott Lunt. The Homegrown founder came out of retirement when he heard the 20th annual festival was not going to include music at its founding location.
The completion of the NorShor renovation was overlapping the planning for Homegrown and it wasn’t clear at the time if a music event could be pulled off there. Lunt wouldn’t take that for an answer.
“This cannot stand,” he said. “It had to happen.”
Lunt said if the NorShor had come back during Homegrown’s 19th year or 21st year it might not have been important to have an event there, but the timing was too perfect in 2018.
Harkening back to when his friend told him everyone should have a big 30th birthday party, Lunt curated a Homegrown jam for his 50th birthday that opened with him sharing the stage for a performance sketch with Bryan Johnson and Rick Boo, written by Jean Sramek and narrated by Christine Dean. Music was performed by Father Hennepin, Jerree Small, Ballyhoo, Toby Thomas Churchill, the Little Black Books and Amy Abts.
“What Mike Lowe said has always stood out in my mind,” Lunt said. “That’s what inspired me 20 years ago and now I would say everyone should have a big 50th birthday party.”
Lunt said putting together a two-hour show was nothing compared to running the entire festival.
“Back in those days I would get all nervous and sweaty and I’d start to chafe,” he said. “I started powdering up for Homegrown after a while. Once you’re chaffed that’s all you think about.”
He’s also amazed at how well run the festival is now, despite being three times larger than it was when he stepped down from running it in 2004.
“It’s just such a good machine,” he said. “Finding volunteers was always the hardest part when I was running it. I had trouble with that. It’s like Grandma’s Marathon now.”
A new Homegrown venue in 2018 was Blush, a collaboratively run art gallery, bar and music spot, which hosted weekend shows during the festival.
The 20th annual Homegrown was also the first year projection artist Daniel Benoit created an installation for Homegrown. He projected graphics on the exterior of Blacklist Brewing Company.
2019: Homegrown 21
The big change in 2019 was the realignment of Monday-night festivities. From the first time Homegrown became an eight-day affair in 2006, Monday night had been considered “Ancillary Arts Night,” with a focus on videos, photography and poetry. The new focus of Monday is bringing the festival to Duluth’s burgeoning Lincoln Park Craft District.
After a trial run in January during the Homegrown Winter Fiasco proved successful, the Homegrown scheduling committee agreed the new venues in Lincoln Park needed to be included in the festival. Businesses like the Caddy Shack, Duluth Cider and Dovetail Café hosted Homegrown shows for the first time, along with Bent Paddle Brewing and Lake Superior Brewing. Another new Lincoln Park establishment, Ursa Minor Brewing, hosted a Homegrown show on Tuesday that year.
The Children’s Music Showcase returned, at its third venue in three years. Lake Superior Zoo hosted six acts outside its main building.
Another new venue, Empire Coffee in Superior, was added to the Thursday lineup.
The overall schedule for Homegrown 21 included 193 acts at 41 venues. The future seemed bright in 2019. The biggest concern seemed to be how to manage the growth.
“I don’t want to say that we’ve maxed out, but I don’t know how much larger it could get,” La Tour said at the time. “With the talent available it could become larger. We already have more bands applying to play than we can fit in. Without adding additional days or venues it would get tricky with logistics.”
Things would get trickier sooner than expected and in grimmer ways than anyone imagined.
Rick Boo, the former NorShor Theatre proprietor who made the first Homegrown possible and served as a staunch supporter in all the years that followed, died in August at the age of 60. Homegrown director Melissa La Tour’s home was destroyed by fire in November. And at the end of 2019 a virus in China was on its way to the United States.
2020 to 2023: Chickenpox
Planning for Homegrown happens year-round, but is primarily a six-month effort that begins in November. By mid-January the first draft of the schedule is created and agreements with venues are set. Each year there are surprises that pop up and test the organizational skills of Homegrown staff and committee members. And those issues are always small in comparison to 2020.
It wasn’t just the pandemic that hijacked the process. On Nov. 7, 2019, Homegrown Director Melissa La Tour’s home burned down. There were no injuries, but the house was a total loss.
“It was devastating and emotionally draining,” La Tour said. “It happened in the midst of planning the festival, and you know, I’m not going to lie and say it was easy to keep things together when that was going on.”
As festival planning continued, La Tour was living with her parents and sorting through the debris. Homegrown Production Manager Scott Lillo led the charge to organize a benefit show at the Caddy Shack with a variety of bands.
“The community really came forward,” La Tour said. “Lillo has been so supportive; he still checks in emotionally with me when he sees me out. It was really, really something to be at that fundraiser and see all of the community support from the music scene and art scene.”
The annual Homegrown Winter Fiasco was held at four venues in Downtown Duluth in January. Planning for the full-on festival in May continued as usual, though concerns began to surface about a potential coronavirus outbreak. By February it had a name: COVID-19.
2020: Homegrown 22
At the start of March it was clear a pandemic could threaten plans for Homegrown. The first COVID case in Minnesota was reported on March 6. On the same day, the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas was canceled.
“SXSW Cancelled! Is HGMF next!?!?!?” read a Facebook post by Homegrown founder Scott Lunt that same day. La Tour saw the post and realized things were getting serious.
“I didn’t understand it until later that day because people kept interacting with that post and then I did a little research and went, ’oh my goodness, this is something that’s really happening,’” she said.
Homegrown steering committee member Joe Sauve started sharing information about COVID online around the same time.
“That’s when I really started to listen and see the concern,” La Tour said. “And then the conversation started opening up and that’s when we had to start thinking, geez, this could really affect us.”
Meanwhile, a group of artists began renting space in the former Trinity Lutheran Church in Duluth, forming what they called an “art cult” known as the Embassy. A “Church Bazaar” with performances by local bands and artists was held the day after the SXSW announcement, a sign that things hadn’t shut down just yet.
The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11. The next night the first of the annual series of Ides of March concerts was held in Duluth; the rest would be canceled. On March 13, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz declared a peacetime emergency.
It was March 15 when members of the Homegrown steering committee and board of directors met in the lower level of the Intrepid Building, a space that was supposed to serve as the festival’s Chicken Shack that year. In an atmosphere similar to a cabinet meeting during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a somber group made the difficult decision to cancel in-person Homegrown events.
“I had been weighing pros and cons and reaching out to a few different people in the festival industry to try to get their insights,” La Tour said. “I knew I was going to recommend canceling at that point. It was hard because we had just moved our stuff into that space maybe a week prior.”
Not only was Homegrown’s temporary headquarters freshly moved into, but the schedule had been finalized and the 108-page Homegrown Field Guide was finished and scheduled to be sent to the printer the next day.
“When I sat down I could feel the tension in the room,” La Tour said about the meeting. “I knew I was just teetering on tears. And when we all kind of decided that was the thing we were going to go forward with … that’s where I kind of lost it. It was super hard because everybody had put so much work into it. And I don’t think at that point I fully understood the emotional side yet and how it was going to really affect the venues and performers and the people in the service industry overall. It was hard.”
Although it felt like the festival was canceled in its entirety, it was specifically in-person events that were canceled. Hope remained that online events could be organized and perhaps concerts with physical distancing.
Because Homegrown involves so many venues and artists, it was too risky to delay canceling. With the festival six weeks away, Homegrown was one of the first major Duluth events to announce altered plans due to the uncertainty of the virus.
“That’s when some hate mail started,” La Tour said. “I got a lot of negative instant messages, text messages, emails that were shaking a stick at me for canceling the festival. The community was, I think, a little bit upset because a lot of other things hadn’t canceled yet. And right after we canceled you started seeing a lot of other cancellations.”
Minnesota’s first COVID death came on March 19. That was also the date of the Embassy’s first livestream concert — or “Plaguestream,” as the series was dubbed. The Slamming Doors was the first band to perform.
“We join the rising community of fellow artists, helping to keep us all alive and well — physically, intellectually, and ethereally — during this not-so-regular time,” the first Plaguestream Facebook event text read. “Staying connected, sharing our bandwidth, and providing a safe and clean dimension for artistic beings to transmit their gifts will ensure a thriving creative community until restrictions are lifted and we can join musicians, actors, and others in the theaters, bars and event venues once again.”
Gov. Walz issued a stay-at-home order on March 25. Though a mask mandate didn’t go into effect until July, facial fabric quickly became ubiquitous.
As the dates of Homegrown approached, the steering committee struggled to produce a cohesive plan for an alternative festival approach. With the carefully coordinated original plan destroyed by COVID, a sense of despair set in. Still, efforts were made to coordinate a handful of online events.
“Obviously Homegrown wasn’t entirely canceled,” La Tour said. “But it definitely was different.”
Names like “Virtual Homegrown” and “Fake Homegrown” were bandied about, but the one that seemed to catch on was “StayHomegrown.”
The three somewhat official events were the Homegrown Poetry Showcase, Music Video Showcase and Photography Showcase, all pre-recorded and released online during festival week.
Most of the events of “StayHomegrown” were wrangled together outside the purview of the festival’s organizational bodies, however.
Kala Moira of the band Winzige Hosen created the Unofficial Duluth Homegrown Music Festival Scavenger Hunt. Participants could declare a team on the Facebook event page, view a list of tasks and point values, then pursue victory by sharing videos and photos of the tasks being completed.
Public radio and television stations helped keep up the Homegrown spirit. Andrea Swensson from The Local Show and Brittany Lind from The Duluth Local Show teamed up for three straight hours of Duluth music on the Current on the festival’s opening night.
KUMD 103.3 FM, now known as WDSE “The North,” hosted Live from Studio A sessions throughout the week with Dance Attic, One Less Guest, Black River Revue and Dave Mehling. The segments were pre-recorded through the internet, except for the One Less Guest session, which included tracks from the band’s new album.
WDSE-TV, now branded as PBS North, broadcasted a block of Homegrown music on Friday night, pulling together relevant episodes of its shows Making it Up North and The PlayList.
Breanne Marie, Ann Kathryn and Theresa Williams were among the artists who performed concerts on Facebook during the week.
A livestream Dance Attic show opened with Jimi Cooper and Suzi Ludwig on their porch. They launched into a cover of the Neil Young song “Homegrown” as Scott “Starfire” Lunt strolled and strummed his way into the frame to sing on the first three songs. The three musicians are all members of Father Hennepin.
Though the Starfire walk-on seemed like the iconic moment of “StayHomegrown,” the trio wasn’t reaching an audience anywhere near the Homegrown crowds Father Hennepin would typically play for. Before launching into “I Like it in Duluth,” Starfire leaned into a monitor to see who was watching. “We got 10 eyeballs,” he said.
Duluth Coffee Company presented live music throughout the week via Instagram, with performances by Charlie Parr, Actual Wolf, Teague Alexy and Ingeborg von Agassiz. Parr also performed a concert live from Duluth Cider.
Longtime local music fan and photographer Rich Narum maintained his tradition of hosting performances in his living room on Thursday afternoon of Homegrown. His house is known as “2104” and the annual party carries the name “SoupB4Supe,” because soup is served and the event is held before Homegrown shows in Superior. This time, the party included just musicians and support people, all trying to stay safely spread out.
Narum had attended a Wilco concert at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on March 10. It was the band’s second-to-last show before its tour was canceled due to COVID. Narum was on the mezzanine of the DECC during intermission when he heard someone say, “I suppose Homegrown will be canceled.” His heart sunk. “Of, course it would,” he thought. That’s when he started ordering gear online and planning the production of online concerts.
With the help of Bryce Kastning as sound engineer and various other helpers, Narum launched his efforts during Homegrown week. In conjunction with the 10th annual SoupB4Supe were YouTube livestream performances by Rick McLean, Jerree Small and Canine Country.
Though numerous events occurred during the week to keep the spirit of Homegrown alive, La Tour still felt so much had been lost.
“There’s something about getting out there with our community,” she said. “It was just very hard because I kept reflecting on how much work everybody put into (the planned in-person festival). Not just the Homegrown committee but the bands and all the venues that had made their plans. … It was nice that something happened, but I’m super relieved that the festival has returned in person.”
La Tour had been planning to retire from directing Homegrown, and 11 days after the festival she made the announcement to the steering committee via email.
“I had lived through a house fire and lived through some pretty significant life happenings and thought it was a great time to complete my term,” she said. “And then the pandemic happens and kind of shifts the condition of the festival and I wanted to make sure when my footprint was left that the festival was in good hands and good financial stability.”
After talking with the board of directors over the summer, she eventually withdrew her resignation.
“The board asked me to stay on and guide the festival through the pandemic, which is basically what I ended up doing,” she said. “And I don’t regret that decision. I think that it was the right thing to do.”
In September, the music community had another heartbreak. Scott Nelson, one of the owners of Pizza Lucé, died after a difficult battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He had moved to Duluth in 2001 to open the third restaurant in the Twin Cities-based chain. The Duluth Pizza Lucé quickly became a hotbed for local music and touring bands, and Nelson himself was heavily steeped in it.
A year after Nelson’s death, Trampled by Turtles frontman Dave Simonett said in an interview for the Minneapolis ’zine Bandbox that Pizza Lucé and Nelson’s “funky energy” helped create the Duluth music scene.
“If that place hadn’t been there, I don’t know what path we’d have taken,” he said. “On our first tour outside the Midwest, we wanted to go to Colorado but didn’t have a booking agent or anything, so he helped us get shows out there. We drove up to say goodbye and he gave us $500 cash and a cooler of beer and food and sent us on our way!”
On October 30, 2021, Trampled by Turtles played Duluth Pizza Lucé’s 20th anniversary party on what would have been Nelson’s 50th birthday.
“It’s a huge loss,” La Tour said. “I think that when the Turtles came to play it was so awesome to hear stories and see (Nelson’s) family and, you know, just see that camaraderie that continues in support of all that he did.”
2021: Homegrown 23
Although the pandemic put an end, at least temporarily, to two of Homegrown’s annual outreach events — the Twin Cities Invasion and Iron Range Invasion — another survived: the Winter Fiasco. But in January 2021 there was no way to hold it in person. So Cory Jazierski took charge, producing four hour-long videos featuring performances, interviews and archival footage of more than 30 local artists.
Though live music had returned to some venues in the second half of 2020, it tended to be outdoors or with a limited attendance. By the end of the year it was unclear what would be possible in May 2021. Vaccines were just beginning to become available, but it was unknown how smoothly that process would go.
Ultimately, the committee again had to make the difficult decision to not hold in-person concerts. This time, however, its members would be better prepared to carry out an online festival.
Musicians were asked to submit pre-recorded material to be curated into daily releases on the festival’s YouTube channel. Joe Sauve, Homegrown’s assistant technology director, led up the task of compiling the video releases.
The decision was made to print a thinner-than-usual 60-page Homegrown Field Guide to promote the online events. Instead of the usual band profiles and festival logistics, it featured stories about the state of the music scene during the pandemic.
Various Homegrown traditions returned, though in video form. The Children’s Music Showcase opened the festival, followed by Mayor Emily Larson’s Mayoral Proclamation and the New Band Showcase. Also on opening day, Homegrown’s video stream featured three performances from the Minnesota Music Coalition’s 2021 State of Minnesota Music Summit. Performing live from Sacred Heart Music Center were Cory Coffman, Superior Siren and AfroGeode.
Programming during the week included the poetry, photo and music video showcases, along with a short film by Teague Alexy. There was a giant block of music from the Embassy art cult, with sets by a variety of local DJs. Rich Narum produced livestream events throughout the week, with Homegrown piggybacking on his Thursday night livestream of Aurora Baer, Alex Hecker and Ryann Daisy Swimmer.
The festival’s two big blocks of curated, pre-recorded music were released on Friday and Saturday. Also part of the Saturday offerings was a complete broadcast of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra’s season-ending program From Beethoven to Milhaud.
Kala Moria put on another Unofficial Homegrown Music Festival Scavenger Hunt, and local public radio again came through with local music efforts related to the festival.
“Joe did an amazing job with the programming piece and put in so many hours to get all of that lined up,” La Tour said. “A handful of us went to his house to watch over a little fire out on his deck.”
La Tour was particularly happy that the Homegrown team was able to work with other content creators and organizations to bring it all together.
“Working with them and just seeing the amount of support they were showing … seeing these partnerships and how things were working, it was super important,” she said. “Our community doesn’t go away because we had to cancel something or because we had to do it differently.”
Somewhat awkwardly, there actually was live music loosely affiliated with the festival that week. Although putting on a multi-venue indoor event like Homegrown at the time was considered unsafe, Earth Rider Brewery had outdoor festival grounds that were perfect for pulling off a smaller version.
Though not organized or promoted by Homegrown, the Starfire Unofficial Birthday Bash at Earth Rider will nonetheless be remembered as part of the festival. The four nights of performances included 23 acts, including Charlie Parr, Lanue, the Black-eyed Snakes, Father Hennepin, Superior Siren and New Salty Dog. It was a sign better days were ahead.
Live music crept back in 2021. Bayfront Park reopened for summer concerts, Wussow’s Concert Cafe brought back its annual Pete Fest and One Week Live, and by the fall most venues were operating very close to how had before the pandemic.
In October, the Homegrown steering committee broke its streak of 18 months without an in-person meeting. There had been a few informal gatherings around fire pits, but anything with an agenda had all been held online. In fall 2021, with most people vaccinated and something resembling normal life seeming near, the committee began to plan for a real festival 2022.
La Tour noted that some of the newer steering committee members at that point hadn’t attended an in-person Homegrown event during their term.
“They had done a bunch of planning and didn’t get to go through an in-person festival. Then they didn’t get to go through another in-person festival,” she said. “They were dedicated and passionate enough about the community, the arts and music scene and Homegrown. They stayed on not really knowing what the festival in person as a steering committee member was all about.”
Still, the pandemic continued to be unpredictable. Making decisions in October about events in May would be risky.
2022: Homegrown 24
Homegrown’s first step back into in-person events was the Winter Fiasco, with a lineup of 12 bands at four venues in West Duluth. A new variant of COVID-19 called omicron — generally milder but more contagious — was starting to spread in the community at the time. Duluth Mayor Emily Larson issued a mask mandate for indoor public gathering spaces, which took effect an hour and a half before the Winter Fiasco started.
If the added COVID risk and mask mandate weren’t enough to dampen the party, a snowstorm kicked in that day making driving conditions hazardous. Though the shows drew smaller audiences than anticipated, there were a number of great performances and a general sense that live music was moving forward, but would still have setbacks.
“My number-one fear was safety,” La Tour said about her feelings as the full festival approached. “How are we going to keep the crowds at a safe distance? Do we mask, don’t we mask? That kind of thing.”
After the mayor’s temporary mask mandate expired in February, most music venues were operating without much precaution. The “Stand with Ukraine” benefit concert at Duluth Cider in March, featuring Charlie Parr and the Black-eyed Snakes, resulted in numerous COVID cases.
Perhaps the most stringent venue was Sacred Heart Music Center, which had continued to require masking and proof of vaccination until the Duluth Does Bonnie Raitt concert. The show was originally scheduled for January but was postponed to late March. After it finally happened, numerous audience members got sick and Sacred Heart’s masking rule returned.
Most people were not getting severely ill, however, and were opting to show their faces again and take their chances.
The committee knew convincing more than 40 locations to require masks during the festival when they did not in general would have been a heavy undertaking. Ultimately, it was left up to each venue to decide.
Prior to the festival, La Tour reached out to Vikre Distillery to ask about acquiring free hand sanitizer. The gin, vodka and whiskey-making company had set up a hand-sanitizer production area at the start of the pandemic.
“Emily (Vikre) right away said, ’oh my gosh, we’ve got 100 gallons,” La Tour said. “Do you want it?’ Without a second of thought I said yes.”
But that level of precaution had also fallen out of favor by Homegrown time.
“What I noticed throughout the festival was you didn’t see people lining up to use hand sanitizer,” La Tour said. “You didn’t see a lot of people masking. In fact, I could probably count on one hand the amount of people I saw and masking. I think everybody was so excited to be together that even if they were going into the festival with a little hesitance, they were coming out of it with a sense of satisfaction.”
Sacred Heart would be the only masks-required venue during the festival. It dropped the measure shortly afterward.
Homegrown 2022 was a major success in terms of attendance and stellar performances. The festival got off to a great start with the introduction of a new Homegrown chalice at Hoops Brewing for the mayoral toast. Later that night, Keith Dust ripped the crowd into a frenzy at Carmody Irish Pub.
The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center hosted four bands in its Harborside Ballroom and added a bonus show in Symphony Hall featuring Cars & Trucks performing at the side of the stage with the audience also on the stage and no one in the seats. The band had been on hiatus, having not played in front of a crowd since 2015.
Westside Wednesday featured Ingeborg von Agassiz, Sadkin and the Latelys on the big stage at Clyde Iron Works. Thursday featured wild trolley performances by Jerree Small with various guest performers, and later New Salty Dog. The line to see Lyla Abukhodair on Friday night at Pizza Luce went out the door and stretched for a block like the days of Trampled by Turtles Homegrown shows there. And as much as the party raged on Friday, Saturday exceeded it.
But by the end of the week it was clear holding so many indoor events in crowded spaces would end up being a superspreader.
“When the festival was wrapping up there were so many COVID positives, myself included, popping up,” La Tour said.
After two years of receiving emails critical of the decision to cancel in-person Homegrown events, in 2022 La Tour saw the criticism continue from the opposite side.
“I got a whole other stream of emails and text messages,” La Tour said. “I believe by the amount of people who came out and supported — whether as an artist, a venue, a volunteer, a steering committee member, sponsor — I really feel like we did the right thing. We had to start somewhere, so if Homegrown had to be the first one in the area to cancel, maybe we had to be the first one to really take the ownership and step back in and take that risk and move forward.”
Among the many who got sick was none other than Duluth Mayor Emily Larson. Although she had various non-Homegrown events she also attended that week, she’s pretty sure a specific show at the festival was the source.
“I know I got it at the Actual Wolf concert, and it was worth it,” Larson said. “It turns out that moving every hour into rooms with different groups of people who are unmasked during a pandemic is a terrific way to get COVID.”
The feeling that it was “worth it” was not based on getting a mild case of the sniffles, however.
“Super sick,” is how Larson characterized it. “Like, awful. It was bad. I spent like six days feeling very clammy and sad and sick. And I also felt grateful that it was manageable enough to stay home. You know, I didn’t have to go to the hospital or anything but it was not a cold for me, that’s for sure.”
Balancing the public health concern with the desire to rock and roll remains an ongoing issue going into Homegrown 2023.
“The reality is, yeah, this is a variable we live with now,” Larson said. “Hopefully they’ll be opportunities for people to feel safe and comfortable.”
Larson said the heated opinions on the matter are maybe understandable after everything that has happened in the past three years.
“It really sounds to me like a sign of the times of last year, which was like ’we’re so excited, but we’re still so mad,’” she said. “We’re so excited that life is back to normal, but we’re so mad that it’s not — and also, it’s never going to be normal.”
A few weeks after Homegrown, the venue Blush closed. The business had struggled to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was a terminated lease that ended its run. Life House, a nonprofit that provides services to homeless youth, had purchased the building in October 2020 and needed it to expand services.
“Blush really did a lot for the community,” La Tour said. “They welcomed so many artists to come and perform and they really were a safe environment. You could go in there and feel safe and enjoy the music. It was a smaller size, but it always felt full of love.”
In August, having led Homegrown back from the pandemic, La Tour again announced her retirement as director, effective at the end of the year.
The return of live music in 2022 would end up being overshadowed by another crushing loss in the scene, however. Mimi Parker of Low died of ovarian cancer in November.
For three decades, Low was Duluth’s best-known band, with Parker’s vocals and drum work a central part of group’s “slowcore” sound.
“Another really tough, tough loss to the community,” La Tour said. She got to see Parker and Low’s final show at Honor the Earth’s Water is Life Festival at Bayfront Park.
“Being out front and watching that performance and how she got up on stage and she played with so much power and so much love. I feel grateful that I was able to be there for that performance and I can’t put into words the loss I feel for (Parker’s husband Alan Sparhawk) and the family and the community as a whole. It’s devastating.”
Duluthians gathered at three different events to honor Parker — a vigil at Sacred Heart, a memorial service at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a holiday party at Sacred Heart dubbed “A Very Mimi Christmas” in which Low’s 1999 EP Christmas was played and Parker’s love of baking was celebrated with a cookie potluck.
“At her memorial service, it was something being around everybody, people I hadn’t seen in years,” La Tour said. “At the end, when we left they handed out pieces of a wedding quilt that were separated into little squares, and everybody that attended got one. And I just thought, how unbelievable that somebody who gave so much to the community even in her death is sharing a piece of herself with each of us.”
2023: Homegrown 25
Homegrown’s board of directors tapped two steering committee members to serve as interim co-directors for the 2023 festival — Cory Jezierski and Dereck Murphy-Williams.
“Both are very strong in what they’ve done for Homegrown in the past, so I feel confident about that and have worked with them and the board to ensure a seamless transition,” La Tour said. “And I feel really good about where the festival is going. I think that going into the next quarter of a century of the festival is the perfect time to bring on a fresh set of eyes.”
Homegrown held its annual Winter Fiasco at five Lincoln Park Craft District locations in January. Spirits were noticeably high and the venues were packed for performances by 15 bands, including Fenestra Funk, All the Pretty Horses and Torment.
Free of directorial duties, La Tour attended the Winter Fiasco as a fan. After all she went through leading Homegrown through COVID, she found out a few days later that a different virus had got to her this time. Call it a parting gift from Homegrown’s mascot; La Tour had chickenpox.
“Of all the things for me to exit with,” La Tour said. “You know, let’s go out full on and get chickenpox at the age of 53!”
She didn’t get infected at the Winter Fiasco, however.
“My boyfriend’s dad had contracted shingles while we were in Chicago for Christmas,” she said. “Since I had never had chickenpox I didn’t get shingles from him, I got chickenpox. So, totally unrelated to Homegrown but kind of funny that I ended up with chickenpox.”