Front Row Seat: Run Westy Run brings irrepressible rock to West Theatre
The Scarlet Goodbye opened for the Minnesota music legends at a Nov. 3 show. Nearly four decades since its founding, Run Westy Run proved as rambunctious as ever.
DULUTH — Thirty years ago, I saw my first rock show. My cousin Sara brought me to an all-ages concert at 7th St Entry in Minneapolis, where I fell hard for grungy but tuneful openers Zuzu's Petals. The teenage me was a little overwhelmed, though, by the wall of sound created by the night's headliners. It was a band named Run Westy Run.
On Nov. 3 of this year, now in Duluth, I saw Run Westy Run perform for the second time in my life. Backstage at the West Theatre, guitarist Terry Fisher put me on the spot.
"Do you know any of the songs?" he asked. "Can you name one right now?"
"Nope," I admitted. "No, I can't."
"Nice," said Fisher with a grin. "I like that."
It was a chance for the band to win a new fan, in a crowd that included a lot of people who certainly could name a lot of Run Westy Run songs. The band attracted a solid crowd to the West, a venue with a capacity comparable to Minneapolis' iconic First Avenue side room where I saw them back in the early 1990s.
"It's very different now," said vocalist Kirk Johnson. "When you're that age, you want to go out with the band and go everywhere and just kill every show." In rock parlance, that's a good thing.
"Now," Johnson continued, "it's more about, 'Can I craft something really beautiful?'"
While "the Westies" may have added some refinement over the decades, they haven't lost their edge. The twin guitar attack from Fisher and Kraig Johnson still stings, and Kirk Johnson still works the stage like a rock star.
These days, Kirk Johnson brings a laid-back Bill Murray confidence to his role as frontman, knowing he's got the crowd in the palm of his hands and having fun deciding what he wants to do with it. He sat, he stood, he lay down. He played peek-a-boo with the audience from behind the enclosed rail to an onstage staircase.
"'Why are these guys still getting together and jumping around? Where is this energy coming from?'" said Kraig Johnson, imagining questions audience members might be asking. "It's because we're enjoying ourselves, and it's a good thing."
Formed in 1984, Run Westy Run initially included brothers Kraig and Kirk Johnson along with another brother, Kyle, who stepped away from the band in 1994 and died in 2014. Fisher was a founding member, along with drummer Bob Joslyn. Today's lineup has Peter Anderson on drums, and Paul McFarland on bass.
"I was a huge Run Westy Run fan back in the day," said Anderson. "They were peers, but I was also a big fan. I'd be at their shows all the time."
Run Westy Run has a star on the wall of First Avenue, alongside other peers you might also have heard of: the Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum.
"That was kind of like a community," said Kraig Johnson. "We did tours with Soul Asylum. Dan (Murphy, formerly of Soul Asylum) is here with me tonight. Grant Hart (of Husker Du), rest in peace, he produced our first records, put out our first single."
Murphy was at the West with his new band, the Scarlet Goodbye, which opened that night. Relaxing during soundcheck, Murphy mentioned his own history growing up in Duluth and chatted about the music video "racket" back in Soul Asylum's hitmaking heyday, when bands would pay exorbitant amounts for videos they often had little creative control over.
The Johnson brothers grew up in St. Louis Park, but Kirk Johnson said he later spent time living in Duluth. A fourth brother, Kevin, "went to school at UMD because of the ceramics program ... he said, 'You should come up here and we can just cut firewood and make money.'"
As a teenager, I was astounded by the experience of seeing a show at the Entry. I'd imagined concerts looking like the Bruce Springsteen blowouts I saw on TV, with a vast ocean of arms waving in the air. The rock club experience was very different; I was astounded when members of the opening band just strolled out after their set and mingled with the crowd like ordinary fans.
The vibe was also intimate at The West Theatre, and quite a bit more relaxed. Most audience members remained seated in the venue's comfy loungers for the duration of the performance. A few people went to dance up front, and some of the audience members toward the back stood up to boogie.
Late in the set, Run Westy Run was joined on guitar by Rich Mattson, who runs the studio Sparta Sound — located between Eveleth and Gilbert in the St. Louis County former mining town of Sparta. He's another Duluth connection for a band with more such ties than I'd realized.
"Super happy to come back here and play," said Fisher, who lived in Duluth from 2003 to 2015. "I did not play, other than in a Johnny Cash cover band, at the time. I was a hermit in my room." Now, Fisher said, he wishes he'd been "more extroverted" during his time on the Twin Ports scene.
Run Westy Run is in a good place, and it's about to get better: The band is poised to release its first proper album in well over 20 years.
"When it happens, it happens. When it doesn't, it doesn't," said Kraig Johnson about the group's songwriting process. "When we book a show, it's like, 'Oh, we're going to rehearse for this gig,' but a lot of times, we end up writing new songs, too."
The forthcoming album was recorded at Flowers Studio, the Minneapolis studio founded by the late Ed Ackerson. Anderson played drums in Polara, Ackerson's best known group, and still works at the studio. Anderson also has a Duluth history: He attended the University of Minnesota Duluth for a couple years in the mid-1980s.
"I dabbled with college," said Anderson. "I was in the music program, and that happened to be the two years this really great percussion instructor was up there, Dave Hagedorn. He was amazing."
Anderson had a college band named Chester Creek, and remembers gigs at UMD's Kirby Student Center Lounge. As a jazz musician, he also played Mr. Pete's and (possibly, he's not sure) the Club Saratoga. "I spent all my time up in the music building," said Anderson, "and didn't really excel academically, but my calling was elsewhere."
It seems I need to build out my Run Westy Run record collection, or maybe try to score some tapes. The band's '90s output isn't on Spotify, though they have a few newer tracks out on Bandcamp. I still can't rattle off a list of their songs, but at least I had the chance to hear their live show with fresh ears, 30 years later.
My review: Run Westy Run, a tight garage rock unit that can stretch and snap with Kirk Johnson's rubber-band vocals, sounded awesome.
"I have no expectations, ever," said Fisher before the show. "I just kind of step into things and see what it's like. I'm getting goosebumps! It's good to be here."
Gathering behind the West to pose for a band photo, Run Westy Run faced a conundrum: Use the brick wall for a classic back-alley rock pic, or highlight the hills of Duluth? In the end, they decided, they wanted both.
One show postponement, and one show recommendation. The recommendation is for Nachito Herrera at Sacred Heart Music Center on Saturday. A world-class jazz pianist based in Minnesota since 2001, Herrera survived a harrowing bout with COVID-19 in 2020. You won't soon forget seeing him in the cozy confines of Sacred Heart. (For details and tickets, see sacredheartmusic.org.)
The postponement: Bacon, Bloodies & Bands. Originally scheduled for Nov. 19 with a three-band lineup at the DECC's Harbor Side Ballroom ("We're greasing your way to Thanksgiving," said DECC director Dan Hartman), the show has been postponed until warmer weather due to disappointing ticket sales.
Before the postponement decision, the DECC invited media to sample the hors d'oeuvres, wrapped in the Northland's own Stokke's bacon, so I can tell you that when the event does happen, the food will be extremely legit.
In other Minnesota music news, the satirical "Weird Al" Yankovic biopic "Weird," now streaming for free (with ads) on the Roku Channel, scored huge points with me for a Whoopee John Wilfahrt shout-out. At a teen polka party where a young Yankovic wows with his accordion prowess, a girl is overheard saying, "I'm all about that Minnesota sound, man!"