MN Original leaps forward

Alan Sparhawk and Dave Simonett field Dessa's questions on the first Lowertown Line episode
tpt/MN Original

Solid Gold sit at the center of a 6,500-square-foot sound stage surrounded by swinging neon lights. It's a Wednesday afternoon in November, and a team of Twin Cities Public Television camera operators, sound technicians, and set designers is at work capturing the Minneapolis synth-rock act performing new material. Frontman Zach Coulter's vocals sound a bit muted in the sound stage area, but they resonate loudly back in the control room. There, producers seek camera angles best capturing the bright lights reflecting off Coulter's sunglasses. You'd never guess it from the final results, but a MN Original taping is controlled chaos.

MN Original, TPT's award-winning weekly arts series, began in 2009 with funding from the State Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Its first broadcast featured a live performance by the Twilight Hours at 89.3 the Current's fifth birthday party at First Avenue in early 2010, and the show has since highlighted local musicians alongside other Minnesota-based visual and performing artists. The impressive roster includes the Bad Plus, Dan Wilson, the Honeydogs, Charlie Parr, Jeremy Messersmith, the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, and Tapes 'n Tapes, as well as Dessa, P.O.S., and the entire Doomtree crew, to name just a few.

Live music portions tend to bookend each MN Original episode, drawing on one or two performances. The crew has the luxury of either inviting bands into the studio or heading out into the clubs to film. And while the on-location live clips capture the connection between band and audience, the tapings in Studio A in downtown St. Paul are intimate affairs witnessed primarily by production staff. Until now.

This New Year's Eve, MN Original's debut broadcast of the The Lowertown Line music series airs, featuring Duluth folk act Trampled By Turtles and Low frontman Alan Sparhawk. This pilot, hosted by Dessa, aims to be a full-fledged live music series, with eventual plans to attract national acts and audiences akin to the Austin City Limits show. Both Trampled By Turtles and Sparhawk's group Low have appeared on MN Original over the years, and the show produced an hour-long special with Dessa at the Cedar Cultural Center in 2011.

For the Lowertown Line taping, a small crowd of lucky fans snatched up a limited number of tickets. Bringing an audience into the studio presented a fresh set of challenges, but the experience went well.

The show's name comes from the studio's location in the historic Lowertown neighborhood, according to executive producer Dianne Steinbach. "Lowertown was the center of the railroad industry — and how its past is now connecting to its future with the advent of light rail and the re-opening of the Union Depot next door," she says. The set design, which Steinbach calls "a stylized, gritty combination of an old train station and an artist's loft," brings together themes from past and future rail lines passing through the city.

The program's director of photography/editor, Dan Huiting, has been involved in MN Original for a little over a year. He caught Steinbach's attention through his ties to MPLS.TV's City of Music video series, which featured performances by acts like Brute Heart and No Bird Sing, and used to debut on City Pages' Gimme Noise blog. He was brought on board full-time shortly after filming the hip-hop group Heiruspecs performing on the Jonathan Padelford riverboat in St. Paul, a shoot which eventually won a local Emmy, one of nine won by MN Original.

"When I first came to MN Original, they would use the same look for every group. And I said, 'Hey, we should try and use a different look for every band,' which of course is a ton more work," Huiting explains with a laugh. "But the end product is much more true to what that band should look and sound like."

Huiting served as director of photography for the Lowertown Line taping, and also played a major role in assembling the lineup. "One of the things I think that has helped MN Original are my relationships within the music community," Huiting says rather modestly. "So, I was able to get Trampled By Turtles to be into the idea of doing the show. And once they were on board, it was easier to get Dessa involved. And Dave had the idea of getting Alan to play as well, and slowly the show began to take shape."

MN Original holds a lasting appeal to the musicians as well, according to songwriter Kevin Bowe, who has filmed three MN Original appearances. "They give me a lot of freedom to do whatever I want," he says. "It's a much looser environment than most music on TV. TV is where music usually goes to die a quiet death. Live music brings some excitement to the show and gives the audience a chance to really get to know an artist before they commit to spending the time and money to go see them live."

Steinbach is hopeful that the MN Original programs will continue to flourish alongside more Lowertown Line episodes. "We sure hope we're able to secure the funding necessary to produce a few more The Lowertown Line pilots. We learned a lot from the first one."

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