This is going to be a lot in a little time.
When I was packing my bags for an overnight in Red Wing, I came to a realization that I had never spent more than a couple hours in the medium-sized Minnesotan River town on the Mississippi. What could I tell you about Red Wing before this weekend? They do make pretty great shoes, and those bluffs near town are neat. Other than that, my mind was a blank slate and I was ready to see what the 1st edition of Big Turn music fest had in store.
For a little context, Big Turn is the brainchild Sam Brown, the organizer of Mid West Music Fest, which has been going strong in Winona since 2010. Big Turn is his first festival in his native Red Wing, a town that really hasn’t seen anything of this magnitude in the dead of winter. The goal was to have people “experience Red Wing through music” and to also bring people to town during a time of year that is usually exceedingly quiet for any Midwestern town.
From what I saw, the plan worked swimmingly. I was constantly getting big city vibes in a town of around 16,000 people. It reminded me of the White Night festivals in Europe, where art and music fill a town, but just for a single night. Luckily, Big Turn had two evenings of activity. No way I was going to be able to see all they had to offer in just one night.
My experience started right, at the Sheldon Theatre. I started by walking into what was an interior design store during the day to find the place filled to the brim with people, so full in fact that I had to wait for some people to leave in order to comply with the city fire code. When I finally got in, Sal Paradise was playing to the full crowd, and honestly, it worked. The interior design aesthetics actually worked incredibly well to set a cool, cozy vibe.
That venue set the vibe for the rest of the weekend. This wasn’t going to be just a bunch of restaurants and bars hosting musicians (though there were plenty of those), it was going to be a team effort when it came to hosting. Bars and restaurants took care of the majority of the artists that came to town. However, there were also frame shops, interior design studios, churches, bike shops, bookstores, theaters, hotels & other venues that hosted musicians big & small throughout the weekend. I tried to make it every single venue when I could, trying to enforce a “no repeats” policy on myself with a few notable exceptions.
One of those exceptions was the Sheldon Theater, which hosted the likes of Trapper Schoepp, Caroline Smith & Porcupine on night one. The venue itself is nearly as old as the town itself, with ornate artwork and architecture from a time long past. Like all the other venues, it was packed for every performance. Trapper Schoepp brought the folk, Caroline Smith killed it as usual with a more intimate acoustic set, and Porcupine (a mainstay of the Mid West Music Fest) did their usual 90s rock thang, with Greg Norton of Husker Du fame on bass. It was amazing to see all three, but after it was all over it was time to hit the street and check out the late shows.
I made a stop by my favorite Red Wing interior design shop, 17 Street, to catch the tail end of St. Paul band The Montes, and then jumped over the 223 Barrel House to get a grain belt and catch rock band from Minneapolis: Blood Banks.
These guys filled the 223 Barrel House with sound. I mean, really filled it. Wow, it was loud. Finally, we ended up at the Elks Lodge #845, which played host to General B & The Wiz and, after that, Heiruspecs. Both shows were amazing and full of energy, and really filled up the dance floor of the VFW-esque establishment, of which, apparently, there are at least 845 more of these I had no idea existed until that night. Heiruspecs show, in particular, went on even after the lights went up and the mics were cut. Rebellion like this is something I can always appreciate. However, with that ending, the night was done, and it was time for the lap of luxury at the local Super 8 Motel.
Day Two began with a question. What am I going to do for 6 hours? I failed to realize that this was a (mostly) nighttime event. So, after a lunch in downtown, I decided I was going to climb a bluff, and damn it I was getting up there no matter what.
What I thought was going to be a nice drive to the top, turned into a hike, which turned into cursing god after I tried to walk up a trail completely encased in ice with just my Adidas Top Tens. Needless to say, I am still in pain from trying to win a fight with the ice by dropping a flying elbow on it. After sledding to the bottom of the hill without a sled, I took the long way around eventually made it to an incredibly beautiful sunset view of the river and the city. Then I realized I had 45 minutes to get down from the bluff and take photos of Jeremy Messersmith.
If you’re not familiar, Jeremy Messersmith is an excellent singer-songwriter from the Twin Cities, who played a unique acoustic set in the Christ Episcopal Church of Red Wing. In the performance, there were two moments that really stood out. One was his performance of a song that a couple told him was “the first dance song at their wedding” which he did not understand. He played their request, “I Wanna Be Your One Night Stand” and I also became perplexed. Why is THAT song your first dance song? Histories Mysteries I guess.
After that lovably awkward moment, I set up in the center aisle of the church to get some shots from the front, and Jeremy proceeded to take ukulele and walk right towards me. Of course, I had positioned myself awkwardly and was trapped in the center aisle of the church. I was feet away from Jeremy. I hoped that if I didn’t move, if I stayed quiet, I wouldn’t be too obvious. Nope, I dropped my lens cap almost immediately. At least I got some good pics of the tail end of his set, which was comprised of two songs from his most recent 11 Obscenely Optimistic Songs For Ukulele: A Micro Folk Record For The 21st Century And Beyond. He noted it was a good contrast to all of the awful content floating around the news cycle. This was a theme that made itself apparent a multitude of times over the weekend.
After my awkward church moment, not my first (but my first since high school), I proceeded to blitz as many venues as I could. In all, I stopped by an art gallery, a wine bar, a normal bar, a fancy bar, a bookstore, another bar, a comic book store, a frame shop and probably a few I’m forgetting. This was another stellar aspect of the weekend. I loved seeing how each venue handled their music and the types of shows that stopped by. The wine bar had your typical restaurant set up, while the bookstore catered to a small acoustic set, while the comic book could fit a full band. There was even a full Celtic folk music show in a frame shop.
The night ended with 3 acts. The first was a beautiful acoustic set from Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles in the ballroom of the historic St. James hotel. Then I caught some of my high school friends and their band at Liberty’s restaurant. The final set at Marie’s Underground Bar featured Toki Wright.
Dave Simonett played to a capacity crowd (and then some) at the St. James. The line consistently poured out of the room throughout the night. He played many of his classics for the crowd, who had a special appreciation for it all. Dave is from Red Wing. Some of the audience seemed to be comfortable enough to constantly yell out song requests. While Dave appreciated it, eventually he seemed pretty over it, and called one particular offender out. I still don’t know why people yell requests at stage, it pretty much never works. Other than that, the crowd was absolutely captivated from start to finish.
Clams was up next, playing a surf rock set in the secretly packed back room of Liberty’s Restaurant. I say secretly, because the front of the restaurant, is just your typical quiet small town diner, but the back was packed the brim. They played a very fun and laid back set and had a substantial cheering section right in the front row. They could have kept playing the whole night as they still had plenty to go in their set when the sound guy told them “one minute.”
The night ended at Marie’s Underground, where Toki Wright played one of the last sets of the 100+ band festival. The crowd was still very much alive, and you could even see a few of the venue owners in the crowd winding down after they had finished their hosting for the night. It was good vibes for the remainder of the night, and a great way to wind down.
In the end, Big Turn was a unique experience. I have never covered anything quite like it. It was a locally focused, white night style festival that took place in the dead of winter. It was an absolute blast to photograph the different venues, bands, and the quirks associated with them. It was a excellent first showing for the Big Turn & Sam Brown. I hope to be back next year, maybe with a little bit more of a plan. It turns out it’s hard keep track of 100+ bands when you’ve never been to a city. Go figure. Also, now I know to bring snow boots and ice cleats for that bluff.