Best Arts and Entertainment of 2021: Murals, 'Matilda' among Northlanders' top picks

In 2021, you liked Charlie Parr, "Duluth Does Fleetwood Mac" and everything visual artist Moira Villiard creates.

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Charlie Parr's "Last of the Better Days" was released in 2021. Contributed / Shelly Mosman

'Informed by the spirits'

Charlie Parr's album "Last of the Better Days Ahead." I swear this guy is informed by spirits. He's on the edge of the human experience as we cascade down the crapper, and yet keeps hope alive. I heard him do "817 Oakland Avenue" at the Grand Rapids Riverfest in my first live music since the pandemic. That song elevates humanity.

Otherwise, I've been listening to house music while scanning microfilm in my basement. If you haven't tried that combo, do.

AARON BROWN collaborated with Karl Jacob on “Power in the Wilderness,” a podcast about Victor Power, an intriguing figure from Hibbing’s history. Brown is in the late stages of writing a book about Power. Parr’s album was released in summer 2021.

Mural marker

(I) really would love to acknowledge the work by Moira Villiard on the Chief Buffalo mural near the lakewalk! This beautiful landmarker is a collaboration between several artists led by Ojibwe artist Moira Villiard. It demarks the land retained by Chief Buffalo in the 1854 treaty, which allowed the massive land cession upon which most of Northern Minnesotans now live. He retained a mile downtown Duluth. This historical and beautiful mural marks the spot!

SARAH AGATON HOWES of Heart Berry recently completed a new mural, “Grandma’s Lap,” at the Duluth Mount Royal Public Library. Villiard’s mural is at Gichi-Ode’ Akiing.


'Spamalot' sticks

Christina Stroup as Lady of the Lake performs "Find Your Grail" during a dress rehearsal for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Monty Python's Spamalot" at the NorShor Theater in Duluth. Clint Austin / 2021 file / Duluth News Tribune

I absolutely loved seeing “Spamalot” at the Norshor by the Duluth Playhouse. The show was originally scheduled to come out pre-pandemic and was delayed a long time. Finally getting to experience it with the community reminded me why this is all so important in the first place. This is one of the funniest plays I have ever seen. It was amazing to be laughing with a room full of people again. The musical numbers were hilarious and are stuck in my head months later.

LANCE KARASTI released the 45-minute film “Hel” earlier this year. “Spamalot” closed before it opened in March 2020 and launched the Duluth Playhouse’s 2021-22 season.

A tiny revolt

The Duluth Playhouse’s production of “Matilda” was a thrill, with Cadence Graber starring — a perfect match for the naughty-nice, big voice, full-cardio role. Local actor Evan Kelly will forever be the face in my head when I read about the punishing Miss Trunchbull. And the choreography: Imagine a dozen or so kids singing and scooting across the stage. Our entire row was one big grin.

The “Water is Life” festival was a gorgeous day spent at Bayfront Festival Park, starting with a prayer, smudging and shared sips of water, included an up-close Lissie, so raw and real, and closed with the site-perfect sounds of Bon Iver. In between, there were fish flags and bear costumes and a giant monarch butterfly puppet was carried over the crowd.

Daniel Durant, who grew up in Duluth, is among the stars of “CODA,” a truly gorgeous coming-of-age story about a child of deaf adults who has dreams beyond the family fishing biz — which relies on her as a translator. It’s been well-received by critics and Durant, a bold actor, is made for the big screen (and stage, actually, as he has performed on Broadway).

CHRISTA LAWLER has covered local arts and entertainment for more than a decade.


Go your own way

I don't prefer livestreams to live in-person art and entertainment experiences, but I do appreciate the connection I feel from them. During this prolonged pandemic of ups and downs in 2021, I have found the following highlights provided some much needed connection to my local music community.

Rich Mattson & The Northstars released a new album “Skylights” in February and then due to COVID-19 they had a “release show” via YouTube video (February 2021), which included homemade movie-style live performances, music videos and snippets from Sparta, Minnesota. It was such a treat to be connected to them and feel like as a fan I could celebrate the new album from miles away. The album is so good. It's one of my favorite local vinyl records.

Hannah Rey and Trash Cats weekly livestreams have been a highlight this past year for me. Hannah Rey's shows happen on Thursdays, which she calls “Baby Friday,” and Trash Cats have been on Tuesdays. The music is great and beyond that they both have engaging and often funny commentary. If I close my eyes I can pretend I'm at Ursa Minor or Sir Ben's sipping a drink and not on my couch surrounded by a gazillion kids' toys and gobs of dog hair.

"Duluth Does Fleetwood Mac" livestream, Sept. 25. Even though the concert allowed in-person attendance, it didn't work for me to get away from the house that night. I was thrilled that it was made available on livestream. There's no comparison to being inside that venue for one of the "Duluth Does" shows but it was pretty neat to be deep cleaning my bathroom while listening to Kim from the Fish Heads sing a Christine McVie song along with the rest of the usual "Duluth Does" group of artists.

BREANNE MARIE performs alongside her band, The Front Porch Sinners. They released the album “Juniper” in 2021.

The 'painful business of being alive'

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Jessica Lind Peterson, author of "Sound Like Trapped Thunder." Contributed / Amy Woodford

I really loved Jessica Lind Peterson's award-winning collection of lyrical essays, “Sound Like Trapped Thunder.” Each essay (a young girl sitting in a treehouse holding a dying hummingbird, a letter to a grizzly bear, voicemails from a wrong number) feel playful — almost magical — at first, but they soon reveal insights about the glorious, messy, painful business of being alive. Funny and poignant in equal measures. I couldn't put it down.


JUSTIN PECK, a local theater artist, was able to direct “Spamalot” at the NorShor Theatre after the show was postponed for a year and a half because of COVID-19. Lind Peterson’s collection was published in early 2021.

One-man fan

Musician Steven Solkela is Mike Scholt'sz favorite find of 2021. Contributed / Mike Scholtz

This is somewhat self-serving, since I did a documentary on this guy ("Iron Opera" on WDSE-TV, check your local listings), but Steve Solkela was my personal live music discovery of 2021.

I saw him twice at Kalevala Hall in Virginia, once at Kaleva Island in the middle of nowhere, once in the opera "La Cenerentola" at the Northern Lights Music Festival and once at Wussow’s Cafe for Octoberfest. (He is) my favorite one-man accordion band.

MIKE SCHOLTZ was one of the creators of “Iron Opera,” which played on WDSE-TV. Steve Solkela is a Palo, Minn., native and endlessly entertaining musician (who can skateboard while playing accordion).

Big art

"Madweyaashkaa: Waves Can Be Heard" by Duluth artist Moira Villiard was shown on the lock at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis in mid-February 2021. The project was produced by Northern, All My Relations Arts, Mississippi Park Connection and National Park Service with support from the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board. Villiard later brought the work back to Duluth. Contributed / Nedahness Greene


Moira Villiiard’s projections on the former Washington School studio apartments was outstanding and moving. Beautiful story-telling that was available to everyone. The way she integrated the human voice, Native stories, art and technology moved me, and all who were able to take it in. Bonus: watching the Chief Buffalo mural take shape at Gichi-ode’ Akiing this fall.

I was thankful to take in "Dances on the Lakewalk" this year on a beautiful summer evening. Inspired by the expressive movement of the dancers, and incredible choreography.

Another highlight: Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday party at his childhood home. One the first gatherings I attended coming out of COVID lockdown. Enthusiastic Dylan’s fans shared music, stories and cupcakes. Very Duluth!

And the new alley painting behind Dubh Linn is phenomenal. Transformed the space into a public art gallery. Duluth is better for it!

KAREN SUNDERMAN is a local A&E supporter. "Dances on the Lakewalk" is a showcase of local dancers and choreographers held annually at Gichi-Ode’ Akiing. Dylan fans gather every year on May 24 for music, cupcakes and Dylan chatter.

Artists make a splash

The collaboration of Duluth Arts organizations for the “Season Splash” at Wade Stadium in September was a beautiful evening of music and strength. The event featured performances from over nine organizations. Our own Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra Brass Ensemble performed several works they had been entertaining crowds at home Huskies games during summer 2021. The cast of the Duluth’s own Renegade Theatre performed a song from “Daddy Long Legs.”

There were opera scenes from Lyric Opera of the North and dancing from Minnesota Ballet. Stealing the show was Wise Fool Theatre and their tiny but mighty performance of Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The entire audience was in tears as at one point when the performers round the bases at Wade Stadium for a metaphorical but utterly comedic home-run. Ending the evening with a sing-along to “Climb Every Mountain,” this performance reminded the community that in-person arts performances are magical and have returned to Duluth.


BRANDON VANWAEYENBERGHE is the executive director of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, which continued on mostly uninterrupted in the past year and a half. The “Season Splash” was Sept. 9 at Wade Stadium.

Live theater!

Of the artistic experiences that I was really afraid of losing to the pandemic, I had the most anxiety about never seeing live music and theater again. As a multidisciplinary artist, theater especially is one of the few art forms I can just enjoy as a spectator. The performance of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at Teatro Zuccone was by far my favorite local performance in 2021. It was just a perfect storm of everything you could ever ask for in a rock musical: dark humor, bold makeup, wigs and outfits, a complex story, and the most brilliant cast of performers and musicians pulling it all together. I get butterflies in my stomach just thinking about how good that show was. I've got so much appreciation for our local theater community and the gifts they share.

I saw “Age of Aquarius” at the NorShor Theatre as well and it was also spectacular (big fan of local performer Quinn Lorez!).

I also started going to the drag shows that are part of programming at The Main Club in Superior, and just want to say that the talent and artistry that goes into those performances is absolutely brilliant and deserves a shoutout!

(I) was absolutely blown away by this piece titled “Living In Between-Future” by Maryam Khaleghi Yazdi. It was a surreal, animated projection that had a component of QR code fortune telling, which led viewers to a different immigrant experience that was illustrated by a quirky animation. One of the coolest, most interactive, thought-provoking pieces of art I've seen in Duluth in all my time.

MOIRA VILLIARD, a local artist, showed her projection project “Madweyaashkaa: Waves Can Be Heard” in Minneapolis and Duluth in 2021. She also continues to lead the Chief Buffalo Memorial Park Project, a community mural project at Gitchi-Ode’ Akiing that celebrates the leader.

Christa Lawler is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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