Portrait of one year ago: Wilco, communal nosh, the early days of elbow bumps

Looking back, the last large-scale events we attended last March sound other-worldly.

Matt McGrath (from left), Mare Winningham and Todd Almond perform a scene in “Girl from the North Country” which opened about a year ago on Broadway, but quickly closed down because of the pandemic. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

It was a band that holds the metaphorical key to the city that played one of the last large-scale events in this region before everything was locked down in mid-March 2020.

Wilco’s concert was at Symphony Hall and, according to reviewer Tony Bennett, opened with “Bright Leaves,” featured a solo by Nils Cline “at times playing speedy jazz-rock runs … and at other times letting loose with atonal smears of color and behind the bridge squalls,” and had a guest appearance from Low’s Alan Sparhawk, known friend of the band.

Jeff Tweedy didn’t say much that night, but he did remind the audience that he has the key to the city, a cute throwback to Duluth-scene history dating back to the Mayor Don Ness years.

“If anyone wants anything, like free Pizza Luce, we can get it,” he reportedly said to the audience of 1,100, a count 900 people shy of the tickets sold for the event, according to Jeff Stark, director of venue operations at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

Music review: Wilco fully arrives in adopted hometown Chicago band brings solid show to Duluth's Symphony Hall.
“Virtually no one asked for a refund; they just stayed away,” Stark recalled. “That was when I knew the world was going to change pretty quickly. That was March 10, 2020. Everything came unglued over the next few days.”


Wilco left. Subsequent shows at the venue were canceled or postponed. And soon after, Pizza Luce started offering just curbside service and has ever since.

An informal poll asking people about the last large-scale event or public place they attended before Minnesotans were asked by Gov. Tim Walz to shelter in place drew answers that, in retrospect, sound other-worldly: a multi-day robotics competition that drew 4,000 high school students, friends and fans to the DECC; the world premier of Rudy Perrault’s piece “We Three Kings,” commissioned by the Clayton Jackson McGhee Memorial Committee, played for a sold-out audience at Mitchell Auditorium and including, afterward, a large buffet of handmade desserts; a trip to the Mall of America.

Going out big

Claire Kirch flew to New York City to pick up her child from Vassar College. The night before taking the train to Poughkeepsie, Kirch went to The Iridium, a packed jazz club near Times Square, to hear King Solomon Hicks.

"My husband was not happy to hear I went out to a crowded club in New York City, no less when the pandemic was bearing down upon us, but I needed one last hurrah before the world turned upside down," she said.

Her husband, Joel Sipress, was clued in to how the upcoming pandemic could play out. His brother, a journalist, had covered bird flu. So, when Sipress went to a conference in Dallas the previous month, he was already taking precautions, he said.

"First time I avoided shaking hands, I got a weird look," he said. "So I decided I'd just have to shake hands and then immediately run to the bathroom to wash my hands. Did that so many times that my hands were cracking by the end of the conference."

Meanwhile back in New York, the only clue Kirch saw of what was to come: One woman at the jazz club wearing a mask.

Northland folks at 'North Country'

Jennifer Moore and her husband, Mark Nicklawske, were also in New York City for the Broadway premiere of "Girl From the North Country" at Belasco Theatre, which the latter wrote about for the News Tribune.


The play is set in a boarding house in Depression-era Duluth and includes the music of Bob Dylan, with Dylan's permission.

"Ore boats bring a desperate family heartache and scandal; the grand Spalding Hotel refuses two drifters a room; and a ruined father finds his only son drowned on the cold Lake Superior shoreline," Nicklawske wrote of the play written and directed by Conor McPherson.

Theater review: ‘Girl from the North Country’ makes Dylan music shine "Girl from the North Country" uses desperate characters and their dire circumstances in Depression-era Duluth to launch a collection of wonderfully simple, gospel-tinged Bob Dylan songs.
Nicklawske found the deep cuts refreshing, but wished there was room for a big applause.

Afterward, the couple went to an afterparty that was "packed with people," Moore recalled. "We'd call it a super-duper spreader event today."

They took a photograph with McPherson.

"Nicest guy," she said. "His big Broadway debut that was shut down days later."

As for Moore and Nicklawske, they had one more event in them. They were back in town for the Wilco concert.

Cult following

Last March, a collective of artists operating as a self-described cult, moved into what was (and is again) a Lincoln Park church. The Embassy, a mix of puppet artists, projectionists and robot wranglers, held a large-scale event to introduce the community to the space. The Church Bazaar was described on Facebook as being “art-infused church basement coffee” and “an immersive psychedelic pancake feed dance party freak fest … maybe.”


Lissa Maki said hundreds of people came through the door at 2701 W. Third St.

“There were so many different things happening,” she said. “There was food — tacos and Kool-Aid and music and vendors selling things. Artists and artisans set up in the basement. There was a ventriloquist — all sorts of goofy things going on — and in the main area, there was music and really cool projection and lighting and at some point an aerialist.”

There wasn’t much talk of the pandemic that day, as far as Maki remembers. In retrospect, she said, what she misses most from the past year is this style of event.

“I miss being around creative people doing interesting and weird things, who evoke a sense of joy and wonder about the world and what’s possible,” she said. “Being around people like that.”

While the artists moved out of the church space, they have continued to host Plaguestreams — concerts from an undisclosed location. Most recently: Superior Siren, Kyle Ollah and Nick Whelan.

Ledge Rock Grille won the judges' choice award during the Twin Ports Bloody Mary Battle at Clyde Iron Works a year ago. For some, it was the last large-scale event attended before the everything shut down. (2020 file / News Tribune)

Bloody battle

Ten restaurants and an Esko-based mix-maker competed against each other in a Bloody Mary Battle that drew hundreds to Clyde Iron Works in early March 2020. The fundraiser for Life House was among the last large-scale events for Margie Nelson, who was an organizer.

But have you tried a Bloody Mary with beet juice? Eleven Bloody Mary experts showed off secret recipes, weird garnishes — and how to incorporate Tater Tots into your breakfast drink.
Topside Bloody Mary Blend won the people’s choice award that day with its black pepper, dried pepper flakes, double hot sauce and horseradish mixer, and Ledge Rock Grill on the Judge’s Choice award using a secret recipe that had been buried 15 years.

“I miss people and I miss the friends that you would just see out and about — that you wouldn’t necessarily reach out to,” she said. “It’s a different layer of friendship. I miss those people.”

Nelson hits patios at Sir Benedict’s, Ursa Minor and Vikre Distillery, but said it’s not the same.

“I cannot wait for the day when I can be in a crowded bar in winter listening to live music,” she said.

Washington Perrault.jpg
Robin Washington and Rudy Perrault (Submitted photos)

‘I did a lot of elbow bumps’

Robin Washington’s last large-scale event was the premiere of Perrault’s music, commissioned by the Clayton Jackson McGhee Memorial Committee. The work was written for piano, cello and violin — and writing it took the composer to a dark place, the composer said, and used the image from a postcard showing the aftermath to consider the inhumanity, the rage and the gruesomeness of the acts, he told the News Tribune.

The concert was scheduled to mark 100 days from the 100th anniversary of the lynchings of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie. That event, with its intent to draw 10,000 people to the spot where the lynchings occurred a century ago, was postponed.

Now, Washington said, it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t wearing a mask for the event that was arranged by his wife, Julia Cheng.

“The only thing we did that was really acknowledging (COVID-19) — it was elbow bumps,” he said. “I did a lot of elbow bumps. I didn’t shake any hands, and we laughed about it.”

Within two months, the journalist who currently hosts Simply Superior on Wisconsin Public Radio lost someone to the virus: a source-turned-friend he had, at one point in his life, talked to almost daily, he said.

These days, he is missing his twin grandchildren, whom he hasn’t seen since January 2020.

“I thought I was coming back in the spring,” he said.

Kaylee Matuszak.jpeg
Kaylee Matuszak (Submitted photo)

Back to Duluth … for good

On March 7, 2020, Kaylee Matuszak and her boyfriend went to a live, sold-out recording of “The Dollop,” a comedy-history podcast starring Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds at Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis. It was the kickoff for spring break from school at Minnesota State Mankato, and included visiting breweries and antique stores.

“I was just starting to be aware of Covid,” she said in an email. “And I remember taking lots of time to wash my hands really well that weekend. The podcast hosts were also riffing a bit on ‘don’t touch your face’ since that was like all the info people had at the time.

“It’s so crazy to think about how many people were around.”

She came back to Duluth for the rest of spring break, she said, and never ended up going back to Mankato to finish the school year in-person.

Bring back the faces

Corwin Pederson is a paramedic for Mayo Clinic Ambulance Service, and last year around this time, he played in the annual Lake Superior Lawmen Hockey Tournament — which drew about 20 teams, including players from Canada and the Twin Cities — for the fundraiser benefiting the Northern Lights Foundation.

Pederson’s team won its division that weekend, and he recalled listening to protocol updates from the Mayo Clinic in the parking lot between his last game and the banquet.

But back inside, it was business as usual.

“Nobody was worried,” he said. “They were just starting to talk about, ‘Don’t touch your face, but there was no masking yet. That was nonexistent.”

Pederson, who is also a musician, said he misses seeing faces.

“I think people act weird,” he said. “Everybody is just … nobody says ‘hi’ to you. I kind of go out of my way to say ‘hi’ to people. Everyone is just head down, doing their own thing.”

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