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Maxi Childs Trio: the house band without a home

Maxi Childs (center) of the Maxi Childs Trio performs with Steve Netzel on guitar and Jeff Peabody on drums Thursday in Duluth. The group has been a mainstay at Black Water Lounge for the past decade, an era that ends on Dec. 29. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Tom Cawcutt sings while playing the piano with Maxi Childs Trio. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Steve Netzel plays guitar with the Maxi Childs Trio in Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 3

The Black Water Lounge isn't technically Maxi Childs' living room, but it sure feels like it. She's quick to slide off her stool and away from the microphone to greet and mingle. When guests leave, the singer and sometimes stand-in percussionist — she can play the cymbal with her watch band — waves and grasps their hands between hers.

It wouldn't be off-brand to see her performing host duties: passing a tray, fetching a coat from a back bedroom, telling a crowd-pleasing tale about that one time.

During a recent night at the lounge, Childs leaned over a ledge separating the bar from the stage alcove and took a song request:

"Can you ask Steve to do 'Bring it on Home to Me'?" a woman asked.

Jeff Peabody plays the drums with the Maxi Childs Trio. Clint Austin /"You ask, we do," the singer said, back at the microphone, then added with her signature charm: "Sometimes we apologize ahead of time."

Maxi Childs Trio is, at its core, the singer and her longtime partner Steve Netzel on guitar. They've had a rotating cast of top local players, and that night they were joined by Tom Cawcutt on piano and Jeff Peabody on drums. The group has been a mainstay at Black Water Lounge for the past decade, an era that ends with their usual gig on Dec. 29.

Black Water Lounge is closing indefinitely on New Year's Day before construction begins in the summer of 2019 on Superior Street between Lake Avenue and Fourth Avenue East.

At least temporarily, lounge's house band will be without a home.

"Max and I are going to stay together — unless she kicks me out of the house," said Netzel. And when other gigs pop up, they can call on the other musicians who have shared the stage.

A band is born

Owner Bryan Flaherty wanted a downtown place where people could have a conversation and listen to music, he said. He had gone to Cathedral High School with Netzel and gave him first shot at making music to match the mood.

Maxi Childs Trio was literally born for Black Water Lounge.

The trio — which then included Russ Sackett on piano — tested a setlist of light pop and jazz standards for a month in Superior while waiting for Black Water to open. And when it did, in February 2009, they were a quick fit.

Maxi Childs of the Maxi Childs Trio performs with Steve Netzel on guitar. Clint Austin /"There was no doubt when we opened with what went on that we hit a home run," Flaherty said.

"We just kept showing up," Childs said. "You keep showing up, and you keep your head down, they can't fire you. We kept quiet and did our jobs."

The restaurant-lounge has low lights, a baby grand piano, martini-glass decor. There are nooks for canoodling and the large-scale paintings are Rat Pack friendly.

The menu leans toward small plates and shareables, specifically sushi, and the drink menu has fresh takes on classic cocktails. At one point in its history, Pop Rocks were used in place of sugar on the rim of a martini glass.

In response, the group's setlist included Frank Sinatra, Patsy Cline.

"We were playing to the feel of the room," Netzel said. "It's got a certain ambiance to it." "We were part of the ambiance," Childs added. "Just like everything in there. The core of it."

First they played Tuesdays, then they added Wednesdays. Then they dropped Tuesdays for Thursdays. At their apex, Maxi Childs Trio played Wednesdays through Saturdays at Black Water.

"Without a doubt, it's the best gig in town," Netzel said. "We play from 6-10 p.m. We don't move any equipment, it stays there all year. You walk in, you start playing."

At the Lounge

Black Water Lounge was standing-room-only during a recent Thursday happy hour. It was opening night for the Duluth Playhouse's production of "Beauty and the Beast," just a few doors down. The bar was full. Groups of young people crowded a staircase near the bar waiting for a free table while older guests packed in near the piano.

That night's setlist included Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "It Had to Be You."

Netzel sang Sam Cooke's "Bring it on Home to Me" while Childs harmonized and added watch band-accompaniment. The woman who requested it sang along at her table.

Childs' "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was pretty and thoughtful. She sang with her eyes closed, and fiddled with the mic like it was a flute. When Cawcutt sand "What a Wonderful Word," he did it in a very Louis Armstrong way.

Childs was mid-song when a woman dropped a bill into the martini glass-tip jar, and she took advantage of an instrumental to wave and call out: "Have a good night! Nice to see you!"

The band members said they weren't surprised when Flaherty told them about the closure a few weeks ago. They know the toll construction can take on a business, Childs said.

"We were just grateful," she said. "How do you complain about 10 years as a musician (having) a stable thing?"

She said they've been spoiled and that this experience has taught them that, continuing in the future, they should only do things they really enjoy.

Flaherty said he doesn't know how long Black Water will be closed, but the Maxi Childs Trio is welcome back when they reopen.

"We've talked to them," he said. "They feel good about it. They love their tenure here, and I love their tenure. It would be great to get them back."


Maxi Childs Trio upcoming shows

All shows 6-10 p.m. at Black Water Lounge,

Dec. 6, 13 and 20: with John Heino

Dec. 7, 13 and 21: with Peter Knutson

Dec. 15 and 22: with Darin Bergsven

Dec. 27-29: with Tomo Cawcutt

Maxi Childs Trio plays 6:15-7:45 p.m. on Dec. 31 at Greysolon Ballroom as part of New Year's By the Lake, a dinner-music party at Greysolon Ballroom, Black Water Lounge, NorShor Theatre and the Moorish Room. Other musicians include Todd Eckart, Laura Velvet & The Bookhouse Boys, Whiskey Trail and DJ Cory Bonneville. Tickets start at $25 at