The town of Red Wing is known for a few things, including their boots, their bluffs, and their bakery (what’s up Hanisch?).
Now after its second year, Big Turn Fest can be added to that list as well.
The two-day festival, named after the “big turn” the Mississippi River takes through town, also guided visitors through Red Wing itself. Venues of all sizes were made within 21 different buildings scattered around the downtown, ranging from the recently renovated Sheldon Theatre and the YMCA, to Red’s Savoy Pizza and Rivertown Comics & Games. There were also two churches, a classic small-town book store, a bike shop, an engraving shop, a hair salon, an art gallery, and a printing shop. A singular event to say the least.
Akin to how larger festivals send listeners all around the grounds to find, explore and enjoy multitudes of musicians, founder and director Sam Brown succeeded in integrating his hometown into the very heart of the fest – despite a looming and vengeful blizzard.
Festivities kicked off Friday night. While there were already choices to make regarding who to see and who to miss, Lena Elizabeth was one of the first acts to play.
The Minneapolis songwriter’s show melded folk sensibilities with powerhouse blues vocals, and Christ Episcopal Church’s naturally open acoustics let that soul reverberate throughout the sanctuary.
Whether she was commanding eyes and ears to the stage with her three-piece backing band in “Loaded Gun” and “Get It Right,” or solo with her ukulele in hand while strumming “Always,” her songs flowed from sweet and welcoming to guttural and real.
As her time ended, listeners who had gotten there early for her set were lucky; Spots in the pews were filled up quickly and were at capacity for Chastity Brown, who was up next.
The full room got to hear her sound check due to a miscommunication on set times, but damn, did that prove the woman knows what she’s talking about musically.
Once she worked to set levels of her monitors and instruments to the nearest decibel of her liking, her set got started. It may have been chilly outside, but she brought the heat and emotion every minute indoors.
Only her keyboardist, DeVon, joined her onstage, but the combination of his shimmering keys with her stripped guitar, raspy vocals and pedal-formed harmonies filled the whole room as “Drive Slow” and “Colorado” were the first songs of the night. Her voice was as powerful and raw as on the radio or in the studio.
While in the intimate setting, she took time to speak candidly between a few songs: she discussed growing up in Nashville but finding a musical home in Minneapolis and The Current; she talked about her experiences of being half-white and audience reactions; she even touched on how while, in part as a queer woman, her experiences in churches haven’t always been the best, those in Minnesota are filled with “radical folks who actually love people.”
“Love is actually radical,” Brown said. “Thank you for whoever opened these doors to whomever would walk in. This is pretty rad.”
While those words and her lyrics were making connections, her voice was the real star of the performance. Transitioning from her lower register into a burst of falsetto with the ending lines of “you get carried away, then you fall,” in “Carried Away,” her range simply shined.
Seeing Chasity Brown live anywhere is like going to church. Actually seeing her in a church was a meta and memorable stand-out show of the festival.
Transitioning 180º musically from the church to Liberty’s Restaurant & Lounge, Carnage the Executioner’s rap expertise blew not only listeners ears, but the speaker system as well.
“That’s not the first time I’ve broken a speaker,” he said with a laugh, before starting over and re-creating his whole backing track again.
That’s his whole thing – beatboxing on a loop and rapping at insane speeds overtop it. It’s a spectacle to try to follow, but he helped the crowd out himself. Breaking down his verses in “human speed,” he would recite what he just said so everyone else had a chance at understanding.
While his speed and lyrical content were impressive, one of the main takeaways was his breadth of sounds he could create only using his own vocal cords and microphone. The Transformers t-shirt he wore seemingly confirmed the idea that only a machine or robot could do what he was doing.
“That a’int you!” he had the crowd yell out, responding delightfully with, “It’s me motherf*ckers!” This dude – along with his beyond emotive facial expressions – is a showman.
"It's me motherf*ckers!" Carnage The Executioner tearing it up at Red Wing's Big Turn Music Fest
Posted by Music In Minnesota on Saturday, February 23, 2019
Carnage was a great segue for listeners to continue the energy as the night started to get late, especially in a folk and rock-heavy festival, by interacting with the crowd, having fun and keeping all eyes on him.
Headlining the first night of Big Turn was Minnesota’s favorite stompers, the 4onthefloor. I (ahem, Erik) covered one of their early shows at some hipster zombie prom what seems like forever ago. That was back when they were just gaining momentum, and they still had the four kick drums on the floor. They’ve obviously come a long way.
Their set was high on fun and theatrics. Lead singer Gabriel Douglas even spent an uncomfortable amount of time singing from on the bar in the back, leaving the middle-aged waitresses and bartenders wondering exactly what to do. It was a wonderful spectacle. The real magic happened when they were all on stage, though, as their heavy blues rock was made for an event like this.
The Looming Blizzard and Millie Shira
There was definitely a “feel” during the day on Saturday before the music started. It was gray and eerie. Everyone knew that a dang blizzard was coming, but by 4:00 p.m. the snow hadn’t even started. There was an odd mix of hope, dread, and absurdity. The snow started almost exactly when the music did.
Millie Shira was a classic Big Turn participant. The 12-year-old played in the basement, lovingly titled Backwoods Framing and Engraving. Her voice was strong and her covers (Dolly Parton, John Denver) fit the intimacy of the event.
Like Chastity Brown, but in a very different way, Charlie Parr’s performances are like going to church. The gospel urgency of his vocals, and the Saturday night/Sunday morning flavor of his original material and well-chosen classic blues made Christ Episcopal Church a fitting venue for him as well.
Charlie Parr is the best folk musician in Minnesota. He might be the only one, actually. “Folk” is not boring acoustic music; it is tapping into a living, breathing tradition. Parr does this brilliantly, both with the covers he chooses, which bring to life the best music of America’s folk tradition, and with his own material. An important part of being a folk musician is both keeping the past alive and creating something new from it, and he does both equally well.
His set was typically intense, but in a good way. He stomped on the wooden sanctuary floor with a holy fury as he played his songs, transitioning from his classic resonator guitar (shades of Son House, there) to acoustic. The show-stopper – literally and figuratively, as it was the last song – was a triumphant acapella cover of the old spiritual “Ain’t No Grave.” The entire packed church was stomping and singing along, it was quite the experience.
by Kathleen Ambre
Dessa, Minneapolis artist and member of indie hip hop collective Doomtree, filled up Sheldon Theatre Saturday evening with a combination of rap, poetry, and spoken word. “Good Grief,” “Velodrome,” and “Fire Drills,” off her 2018 album Chime, were highlights. “Good Grief” touches on the idea of curative pain, while “Fire Drills” explores the idea that women are expected to survive in a world where they are taught to be afraid.
However, the strongest song was set-ending “5 out of 6.” Dessa rides a line that is rather contradictory, incinerated yet empowered by her pain. In her words, the lyrics attempt to “reconcile sensitivity with grit – they’re about being the sort of person who makes herself available to the world, and who sometimes gets hurt by it, but holds her position all the same.”
She gave a powerful spoken word performance just before the track, and the brief intermission from the music resembled a poetry slam – dramatic, defiant, and inquisitive. Anyone who is familiar with her work knows that she holds a dense portfolio of sad songs, slinging narratives of heartache with an intensely self-analytical tone, lush sensory details, and a cutting wit. For example, here’s a brief excerpt of her poetry:
There are two ways to take a bath
In the movies, the women step out of the tub and into a plush towel
Often reflected in a steamed mirror in deference to the censors
I prefer to pull the plug and let it drain around me
The organs settle heavy on each other
The breasts flatten down against the ribs
Hair clings to everything it can
The body is reyolked to itself
Dessa’s rapping style is raw and her experimental pop approach unconventional. String backdrops and trap beats roam freely behind an aggressive, hard-edged vocal delivery. Perhaps her brand of hip hop is not for everyone, but in a crowded Shelton Theatre her sharp lyrics and dramatic performance did not disappoint.
The last act we were able to see before we tapped out to the blizzard was local piano man Mark Mallman. He’s been a busy guy: he has a book coming out, releases a weekly podcast, and adds a lot of stuff weekly to his Patreon page.
While known for being a showman – his concerts are legendary – it’s the music that legitimizes it all. He’s one of the best songwriters of the last 20 years, and I’m not talking just locally.
Both pieces of the Mallman puzzle were on full display at his show at the Red Wing Elk’s Lodge. The setlist was expansive. Energetic readings of classics from his catalog like “True Love,” “Double Silhouette,” “Tell it to the Judge,” “Knockout on 22nd Street” (the “don’t you forget it/I’m one hell of a man” singalong at the end is always so good), and an especially affecting “We Only Have Each Other in the Night” were incredible, in addition to making for a sublime experience for hardcore fans. Amazingly, but not surprisingly, the new material he played (“Peace on Earth,” “Parasite Eyes,” “Monster Movies,” “The End is Not the End”) was as powerful as his best earlier material.
In the middle of the set, Mallman’s guitarist blew out his amp. He calmly played some solo piano as another amp was set up for him (that made the guitarist a lot louder, it was crazy). The song he played, “I Work Here, I Grew Up Here” – which also closes out his album Mr. Serious – was simply stunning. Having been a Mallman fan for a long time, his music brings me back to experiences I’ve had growing up, to certain times and places, much in the same way pop radio does for most people. As such, it was even more meaningful for me.
A Festival Unto Itself
There’s really nothing like Big Turn Music Fest. The entire town of Red Wing is integrated into a massive music listening experience and celebration, and the local talent brought together for it is astounding. It was the perfect Minnesota way to spend a weekend, blizzard and all. In fact, the blizzard gave it even more of a Minnesota angle.
In this case, though, I wouldn’t have minded it being just a little less Minnesotan.