Gaelynn Lea: Catching Rising Stars at the Sacred Heart Music Center


What could possibly have been a better use of time than watching the second debate between Clinton and Trump on Sunday night? Anything at all, you say? Okay, solid point. But I would not have traded my evening seeing Gaelynn Lea at the Sacred Heart Music Center for anything. And if you know anything of my passion for politics, that is saying rather a lot.

Luckily, Duluth’s Gaelynn Lea volunteered herself and guitarist Al Church to stand in as the candidates so we wouldn’t feel like we were missing out. “What do you think about health care,” she jokingly asked Church, who leaned into his mic with a good nature and gave the sort of refreshingly direct answer no longer found in political debates.

It’s been a rough year for Americans, and it seemed for a while that there was nothing left for us all to agree on—no win/win situations to be had.  

That’s when we turn to music. Isn’t it?

For three hours on Sunday night, rather than hearing people tear one another down while clawing for some kind of moral high ground, we listened to beautiful voices and beautiful instruments remind us that we’re all trying and failing and hoping and loving and losing and gaining in a million little ways that add up to a great heap of human middle ground. To say it was refreshing might be the biggest understatement I make this year.

It was refreshing.

To say that Gaelynn Lea has had a good year is also an understatement. In case you somehow haven’t heard, she was selected by National Public Radio to appear on their Tiny Desk concert series after submitting a recording of “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun. The panel of judges—including Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys—fell unanimously in love with the song, and soon enough Gaelynn’s venue shifted from local farmer’s markets, festivals and coffeehouses to a platform with hundreds of thousands of listeners.

Gaelynn Lea has had a good year.

Chatting before Sunday’s gig, Gaelynn spoke a bit about life before and after Tiny Desk. “Before Tiny Desk, I was teaching violin to about fifteen students and working four days a week,” she said. After the announcement came that she had been won, her plans for booking a small regional tour over the summer, “well, kind of a lot of things happened after that,” she added with a laugh. With a heavy heart she told her violin students she wouldn’t be teaching in September, but for very good reason: a lengthy cross-country tour that, dived over two legs, would take her first out West and then to the East Coast that would support new albums and a career gaining more and more momentum all the time.

Amid this exciting whirligig, one did not get the impression that anyone sharing the stage with Gaelynn had anywhere more important to be. The evening was wonderfully relaxed, everyone was completely present, and for a blissful few hours time and trouble and politics stood still.

Superior Siren took the stage first. This foursome of fierce young women describe their sound as “eerie folk” according to their introduction but it seems too shallow a description to do them justice. Their combination of cello, upright bass, stripped percussion, and guitar and vocals blend together to embody all the atmospheres of which Lake Superior is capable—dark, murky, with mallet-driven drum work creating fathom after fathom of rolling low-end rhythm, broken at the surface by shimmering acoustic guitar and a voice reminiscent of Emiliana Torrini. The band is only about a year old, but plans for recording are in the works. I’ll be watching closely for their album to emerge (and so should you), because a band that feels like the delicious shadow of First Aid Kit is exactly what I did not know I had been craving.

My favorite song of their set was “Swamp Creature,” which (and maybe this is projecting) makes one guess someone in the band may have picked up issues of Alan Moore’s tenure as the writer of Swamp Thing, a horror comic about magic and love and transcendence. Superior Siren can lure me to the depths of their haunting, beautiful, intimate sound any time they want. Also, I’m, like, obsessed with the Sirens of classical myth, so they kind of won me over in an instant.

The middle child of Sunday’s lineup—often a difficult, overlooked position, as any actual middle child will attest—was Dusty Heart. This duo consisting of Barbara Jean and Molly Dean (those names just belong together, am I right?) is impossible to overlook with their tight harmonies that unite the old time roots of West Texas and Appalachia by way of Superior, Wisconsin, where Barbara Jean’s fiddle playing grandmother grew up and nurtured a musical legacy that lives on. Old time music lives on. And that’s remarkable. These achy, breaky songs harken to an age of scratchy radios and boots and skirts and beer hall waltzes, but they sound fresh, alive, relevant. Like Superior Siren, Dusty Heart is newly minted, but their timeless Americana and rich, vivid voices are a recipe for success and longevity.

Gaelynn Lea, accompanied by Al Church of Minneapolis, closed the evening with a set that took us everywhere from traditional Scottish fiddle reels to Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes,” a wonderful throwback and first song Gaelynn “ever sang in public,” as she told the audience. My favorite stop along the way was “In the Bleak Midwinter,” a track from her upcoming Christmas album. While it might seem a little early for Yuletides, this simple arrangement laid over Church’s guitar work that would have felt at home on a Jeff Buckley record, was just gorgeous. Also gorgeous was the theme of love in spite of everything—including love for yourself, which provided the heart of a spoken word number late in the set. “Watch the World Unfold,” the first track on her most recent EP, stands out as another of my favorites.

I had the sense I was watching the future unfold, to be honest. This was an evening of rising stars, and I feel lucky to have caught them. Check out Superior Siren, check out Dusty Heart, and of course, of course, of course check out Gaelynn Lea, who is playing TONIGHT  at Bulldog Pizza from 8:00pm to 10:00pm. I’m promised the venue is family friendly, and also offers a happy hour during the show. To call it a win/win situation is an understatement.

But it’s a win/win situation.

Andy Browers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Aqueous, The Talking Stick, Cleaver, and Drawn From Marvel: Poems From The Comic Books. He writes regularly for the website Book Riot and also acts, directs theatre, and is generally ridiculous. Andy grew up in Cloquet and currently lives in Minneapolis. He would probably love to write something for you.