Smaller Towns, Vibrant Sounds: Exploring the music scenes of Greater Minnesota

The Average Mammals playing at the 218 Taphouse in Virginia, Minnesota // Photo by Ron Kutsi

The Average Mammals playing at the 218 Taphouse in Virginia, Minnesota // Photo by Ron Kutsi

Some music venues advertise thousands of seats and state-of-the-art light shows. Others double as sports arenas. And then there are those that offer pottery classes or operate out of someone’s living room.

While the Twin Cities house some of the state’s most iconic music venues, Minnesota’s small towns are the perfect places for discovering vibrant music scenes and one-of-a-kind performance spaces.

The following venues are located in three distinct towns. They’re separated by hundreds of miles, but have a few traits in common: intimate performance spaces, the promotion of original music, and a dedication to supporting their community.

218 Taphouse • Virginia

Charlie Parr performing at the 218 Taphouse // Photo by Ron Kutsi

Charlie Parr performing at the 218 Taphouse // Photo by Ron Kutsi

Carly Gobats and her brother, Kevin Gobats, opened the 218 Bar in 2010 in Virginia, Minnesota, as a space dedicated to craft beer and original live music—a rarity in a region scattered with bars focused on hosting cover bands, which constitute the bulk of the Iron Range’s bustling music scene.

The opening of the 218 Bar began to change that trend. “It kind of opened the door,” says northern Minnesota native and musician Rich Mattson. “All these [musicians] kept coming out of the woodwork with their own songs. It’s just been a great thing for the community.”

Carly and Kevin sold the bar in 2014. Around the same time, Kevin opened The Shop Coffeehouse in the long-vacant Alto Menswear building in Virginia. Wanting to maintain the 218 Bar’s reputation for hosting live performances and serving craft beer, Carly decided to repurpose the empty space in the back of The Shop into the 218 Taphouse.

218 Taphouse hosts live music every Thursday and Friday, and, like its first location, showcases only original material from local and touring musicians. The venue accommodates 40 to 60 people. Carly describes the audiences as “receptive and appreciative,” and says that 218’s intimate environment encourages performers to share new material. The venue’s small size also encourages musicians to perform acoustic and stripped-down sets, and exposes audiences to a wide range of musical styles.

218 hosts a handful of street shows each summer, which celebrate Minnesota breweries and local music. The outdoor stage allows the venue to book acts who draw audiences too large for their indoor space, such as Charlie Parr, who has performed at the street shows each year.

Mattson recalls going to an alternative rock show at 218 in June: “I couldn’t believe the volume of it in this little taphouse, but it was packed and sweaty, and people were loving it.” Mattson, who lives and operates a studio in Sparta, Minnesota, often comes to watch performances at 218. He says that in less densely populated areas, venues such as 218 act like watering holes, allowing local musicians to connect and share ideas.

Crossings at Carnegie • Zumbrota

The band Harpeth Rising performs at Crossings at Carnegie in Zumbrota, Minnesota // Photo by Ellie Starks

The band Harpeth Rising performs at Crossings at Carnegie in Zumbrota, Minnesota // Photo by Ellie Starks

When Marie Marvin bought the old Carnegie Library in the heart of Zumbrota nearly two decades ago, she knew that she wanted to use the space as a center for the arts.

In its early days, Crossings at Carnegie’s programming included exercise and dog obedience classes alongside art exhibitions. “I would do anything the first couple years to get people in here to look at art,” Marvin says.

Marvin also envisioned incorporating music into Crossings’ programming, but didn’t have a clear plan of how to make it happen. In the summer of 2001, shortly after opening the arts center, she received a call from Minnesota guitar legend Dean Magraw.

Magraw had heard that Crossings had opened and asked Marvin about setting up a concert. Crossings didn’t have any sound equipment and the space was not yet prepared to accommodate live performances, so Magraw referred Marvin to his sound engineer, who told her exactly what she would need to get. In early September 2001, Crossings put on its first concert.

Crossings now hosts one to two concerts every weekend by local and touring artists. Paintings, prints, and handmade pottery are pushed to the perimeter of the room and 90 folding chairs are arranged in front of a temporary eight-by-12-foot stage. Despite its space limitations, Crossings has hosted a variety of musical acts, from Magraw to pianist George Winston, for whom the Crossings staff hauled a grand piano on stage—for all six of his performances. Crossings also hosts concerts at the State Theatre next door, which allows them to book larger bands like Reina del Cid, Marah in the Mainsail, and various tribute bands.

The primary goal Marvin has for Crossings is to make it clear that the arts are for everyone and aren’t some exclusive, untouchable thing too intimidating to approach. “We’re changing that [misperception] as much as we can,” she says. “We’re changing that paradigm to try and help people realize that art is part of everybody’s life.”

The Gold Mine • Mankato

Laura Schultz and Colin Scharf stand in front of the music venue, The Gold Mine, which is run from their living room // Photo by Mansoor Ahmad for MPR

Laura Schultz and Colin Scharf stand in front of the music venue, The Gold Mine, which is run from their living room // Photo by Mansoor Ahmad for MPR

Colin Scharf and Laura Schultz are members of the four-piece Mankato-based band Good Night Gold Dust as well as the proprietors of a music venue called the Gold Mine, which they operate from their living room.

Scharf and Schultz originally came to Mankato for graduate school where they studied writing and gender and women’s studies, respectively. Mankato is widely regarded as a college town, but the couple says that despite the constant turnover of students, Mankato maintains a thriving music scene kept alive by its long-term residents.

Although Mankato is full of passionate and driven artists, many musicians feel that the city doesn’t have sufficient venues to support the local scene. “After living here for 10 years now, I think I can safely say that we’re missing that central venue that supports local music and can also house traveling bands,” Scharf says.

Before opening the Gold Mine, various musicians had reached out to Scharf and Schultz asking where they could play a show in Mankato. Frustrated by the lack of options, they decided to take matters into their own hands—or, rather, living room.

The couple now welcomes local and out-of-town musicians into their Craftsman-style house to perform after initially only booking musicians they personally knew. Past performers have included Communist Daughter and Chris Porterfield of the band Field Report.

In recent years, intimate listening rooms and house venues have become increasingly popular among Minnesota musicians. Schultz recalls going to a performance at Brianna Lane’s house a few years ago; Lane now operates the Warming House, a nonprofit listening room in south Minneapolis. “It was so cozy and it just felt doable,” Schultz says. “It felt like something we could offer to our neighborhood, to our community, and to the artists themselves.”

Performing in these small spaces gives artists an opportunity to engage with their audience in a way that a crowded bar or loud club doesn’t allow. Artists often debut new material and experiment with stripped-down arrangements of their songs. “I know what I want from an audience, so I can curate this space to make it as comfortable as possible for artists like myself,” Schultz says.

At the Gold Mine, audience members gather on the floor, or perch on an armchair or sofa. There is no stage separating the musicians from the listeners, and the house’s third resident, a cat named Marty, mingles with the guests. “The house just makes sense with a lot of people,” Schultz says. “It feels like it’s fulfilling its purpose.”


This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and 89.3 The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.

Colleen Cowie runs the blog Pass The Mic.