The Hook and Ladder’s Roots, Rock and Deep Blues Festival each summer is a personal favorite. I’m not alone. It’s been voted best music festival by Twin Cities’ music fans. This year The Hook presented its 11th rendition. They pulled it off again. One of those shows that literally turns it up to 11. With stuff you really like.
This year felt decidedly different from previous years. A smaller Saturday night line up. A bit more intimate. Two top flight stages as opposed to previous years where as many as four performance spaces were utilized. That made for an easier flow and pace for fans. From under the canopy outside, then into the Hook’s main room and back again on the hour. High end beer; a food truck outside. Priced for friends.
The typical age of RRDB attendees trends toward something like mine. Generic grey and a bit shaggy. People who take their esoteric band shirts seriously. Not the one that is our favorite or fits best. Instead, the one that connects us to a specific theme or lineage. For us, done are the days of packed bodies, unfiltered summer sun beating down, long lines and watching our favorite bands on a big screen. Or from a quarter mile away. We appreciate a bit of creature comforts: a little civilization and manners to our punk.
This year’s crowd was not at capacity. Surprising because RRDB usually sells out. It may have been that this year’s model moved some festival acts to major in house shows the two prior nights. Perhaps that diluted the audience. Maybe it’s still a bit of Covid concern. Folks being a bit more circumspect about piling into a crowded space. In any case, a lot of local music fans missed a doozy on Saturday.
I’m not going to dive into what was cool about each and every band. The day was wonderfully paced and curated. The Hook delivered exactly what the name says. Roots. Rock. And a deep dive into the Blues. Because these overlapping genres, done in their purest forms, are drinking from the same kind of primal source. If you get it, you get. It’s that wild night out by some country bonfire when somebody cranks up the PA. Or that rural back porch swatting mosquitoes as the strings get tuned and bottles passed. Where raw blues get thrown down on the planks. Music as a shared resource. As a community.
The secret is it isn’t necessarily the best packaged, well oiled delivery of a professional set. It’s about booking bands that tap into that same deep spring. That connect at the root. Everybody can flat play and tonight there are no rules. Mix and match players. Just cut it loose. Let that vibe take the band where it will. And then laugh and marvel at what a good time you’re having. Smack dab in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis! That’s what people missed this year; another great conception of a perfect day of music.
You know those kind of gatherings where you keep bumping into people you know? People from so many overlapping social circles. Where the faces seem familiar? The same local music fans who always seem to attend the shows you do? (That must mean they’re cool, right?). People like Front Row Paul, who as expected, was in his normal spot. Seeing Paul is all you really need to see to know you’ve picked the right place to be on any given night.
Vibe plays a huge role in how I react to a music event. RRDB always seems to attract more music industry folks and musicians than any other event. They come from every facet of the scene. It takes something extra to turn the established pro into just another music fan milling around front of house. I contend that these folks, way more than most, know the best stuff when they see it. If you wanted a good restaurant experience, wouldn’t you look for a place where your favorite chefs go to dine? RRDB is the de facto annual party for the people around this city who make the scene so damn good.
I said I wasn’t going to comment on every band. But two must be singled out. I will say I managed to catch every band. Every one of them was very cool and well received. We ran the gamut of the history of blues. The place was jumping by the time the evening came around. The pace and space allowed for plenty of conversation and socializing. Something I don’t usually do when attending live music. Everybody there just seemed in a happy place all day long.
Things amped up when Ashley Ackerson’s newest project Mood Swings took to the stage. This was one of the bands all the local music working community had come to see. Many of us believe her prior band band BNLX, with late husband Ed, was the best band in town. This rendition of the Mood Swings featured Pony Smith and Mark Wade on loan from The Melismatics. Okay, I’ll also admit The Mels are my current favorite local act. Ashley quipped the band name ought to be The Moodismatics. Whatever you want to call it, things tend to go in a good direction when you’re working with the best ingredients.
I’m not saying The Mood Swings were all that tight. Nowhere near as slick as BNLX or The Mels. But here were four rockers with talent to burn who just went after it. They had a pile of friends and family out front to drive them forward. The audience had a blast. Yet, I’m willing to bet that the four people on stage probably had more fun than any of us. That’s when music is getting close to that primal source I was talking about. It’s high end. Pure. It’s community. And it’s having too damn much fun to ever get pretentious.
Then came Ultrabomb. The ultimate mystery. A unicorn. And flat out, the coolest, rawest, most authentic punked up rock show I have seen in a long, long time. Certainly since the The FleshEaters Reunion Tour blew up the Turf Club at some point in that pre-Covid murk. For what it’s worth, that particular show topped my list that year. As this one may well end up being in 2022.
If you didn’t connect to the Ultrabomb name, you aren’t alone. (Maybe one reason the crowd was down is one of your headliners is a band that’s never played a gig?) Except, remember all those industry types I referenced? They were there because they had a pretty good idea of exactly what Ultrabomb just might BE.
Maybe the band name is apt. Maybe it’s like those scientists gathering round at the first test at Los Alamos. Everybody knew some part of the Manhattan Project but not the whole thing Nobody had a clue what exactly was going to happen. But word around the test site was that the thing might just go off. I mean really go off. And if it did, everybody wanted a front row seat to watch it happen.
Oh, right! Who is Ultrabomb? Local music fans know bassist Greg Norton from Husker Du. The band that paved the way for all the killer punk and rock bands that defined the Minneapolis sound in the 80s.. What happens if he’s thrown together with Irish guitarist, raconteur and Mohones frontman Finny McConnell and UK Subs drummer Jamie Oliver? You get kind of a punk supergroup. If punk supergroup is actually a thing.
It began as an experiment. Three guys with serious punk pedigrees huddle up in a UK studio and bash out an album in two days. It’s so good they decide to take it on the road. European and American tours get booked. And then Greg Norton gets diagnosed with cancer which derails the whole thing. Not to worry, folks, Greg assured us all he’s in good shape and in good hands. But the decision is made that they’ve got to honor one gig. RRDB. Another indicator that this festival may be small but it’s mighty.
So who knows if what we witnessed was a one off? Or if the guys will find a way to re-package this tour and hit the road? All I know is it was a revelation. A privilege. The crowd packed to the front. Raw and gritty. Lots of stops and starts. Spontaneous ideas that tore up the set list. Plenty of interplay with audience members. Punk with a capital P and unabashed rock fun. Shades of Husker Du, figuratively as well as literally. Some dynamite Husker classics delivered; added to the show because this was homecoming and Get Well Soon for Norton. My favorite set of 2022. Hands down. If I catch a better one, this will be a hell of a year.
Was I alone in this opinion? Nope. I heard the same thing from local players, radio people, bookers, long time club workers and well versed music fans. Promoter Jackson Buck said to me: “That was the best show we’ve ever presented at The Hook.” Ultrabomb was just one of those special moments, I guess. Rare as stumbling upon a unicorn in the woods. I remember thinking that it was like flipping over a rock in a muddy creek and having this huge dinosaur rise up dripping from the mud. Fully formed. Lop off a few heads, smack those proverbial lips and then look for another chomp. You can’t run away. Kind of glued to the spot thinking “Are you f*ing kidding me?”
No slick. No packaging. Just plugging right into the source and flipping the switch. I’d look for that kind of fix every weekend. Ultrabomb took one of my favorite events of the year and made it even better.
Thank you to The Hook for doing what they do! If you claim you support local music, please frequent The Hook. We have an almost unlimited number of live music choices day in and day out here in the Twin Cities. We’re fortunate. But we can’t escape the fact that live music is a business. Most of the major operations around town are in it for the money. Don’t expect them to willingly lose money on a band simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Folks like First Avenue or Live Nation offer consistent quality, big names and the right sized venue for each band. The Hook, on the other hand, is more about curating a space with artists we need to hear. They’ll bring back a band as often as discerning fans say is warranted. They keep their focus on our homegrown Midwest talent as often as they can. There are nights these guys know they’ll take it on the chin. They do that because they always put us and our musical well being in front of their profit line. We should never take that for granted.
Before you forget. Make a mental note to save the 2023 date. The Hook will deliver again. Just like they do every time. This one took us to 11. That’s my favorite spot on the dial. Particularly, if that 11 occurs on the left of the dial.