In the battle to make Duluth cool, Bob Monahan is on the offensive.
“I sort of sometimes feel as though I’m keeping the dream alive — that big things are possible, that a bona fide music venue can exist here, which is still an extreme struggle,” the 38-year-old entrepreneur says. “That’s what I set out to do: to give our scene some backbone, at least on a regional level.”
Monahan’s enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s shared by a small cadre of Duluth businesses — Bent Paddle Brewing Co., Vikre Distillery, and Duluth Coffee Co. among them — determined to make their city a destination for young people.
Monahan, armed with some savings and “wacky ideas,” created Chaperone in 2012 to promote acts like Retribution Gospel Choir, Southwire, and Charlie Parr. He wanted the label to spotlight “undeniable” regional talent, especially since “Duluth will always sort of feel in the shadow of Minneapolis.”
Monahan plotted his next move during walks to Chaperone’s former downtown office above the Electric Fetus. He was frustrated with the “dehumanizing” process of booking concerts in the Twin Ports, so he began eyeballing potential spaces for a new kind of music hall.
“I kept seeing this building and I was like, ‘Man, that would be the spot,’” he remembers. “I was finally like, ‘I need to buy this fucking building.’”
In 2012, Monahan cold-called the owner of a space that once housed the storied Rocket Bar and hammered out a $40,000 deal.
“It was rotten — it almost felt like a cave,” he says of the 5,000-square-foot brick and wood structure built in 1886. “We literally took everything out.”
Monahan began the $240,000 renovation process, with initial aspirations for a fresh fish restaurant/concert venue. That plan died when a contractor quoted the project at a half-million dollars.
Enter Plan B: the Red Herring Lounge. The bar debuted in 2014 with a three-night opening party featuring 19 bands, something of a precursor to Monahan’s Super Big Block Parties, which annually draw 1,000 attendees to the Herring. The lounge’s offerings are diverse, from singer-songwriters to punk bands to EDM. Former ’90s teen heartthrob Aaron Carter even played the 300-capacity room last year.
“It’s not the only place in town. We just happen to be doing it better, in some ways, and we’re just more dedicated to it,” Monahan says. “It takes every resource, all my imagination and energy, just to make it go.”
And the Herring is going, with concerts booked through April and a locally sourced pop-up restaurant beginning service later this month. Monahan, who balances his de facto role as Duluth’s music mayor with raising a teenage daughter, is realistic about his town’s rising cultural cachet.
“We all believe that great things are in store,” he says of his likeminded crusaders, “but change comes slow.”