While music festivals in Minnesota are overwhelmingly synonymous with summer, outdoor stages, and the Twin Cities, the exceptions are notable. There’s Duluth’s annual Homegrown Music Festival, the Mid West Music Fest held in both Winona and La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the Big Turn Music Fest—which marks its third year in Red Wing the weekend of February 21-22.
Big Turn brings more than 100 artists to 20-plus stages set up mercifully inside the local YMCA, comic book store, bike shop, hair salon, art gallery, and more. The crown jewel is the recently renovated, 468-seat Sheldon Theatre, which hosts the weekend’s headlining events.
Big Turn founder Sam Brown—who also created the Mid West Music Fest—had hoped that listeners would arrive in his hometown and crisscross the streets driven by music exploration. Past Big Turn musicians include local favorites like Dessa, Charlie Parr and Jeremy Messersmith, but part of the thrill of this weekend is discovering lots of new sounds.
Wandering into Christ Episcopal Church with time to kill before Chastity Brown’s set introduced me to Minneapolis singer-songwriter Lena Elizabeth’s powerhouse blues and sweet folk vocals. Similarly, after I stopped by Liberty’s Restaurant & Lounge to warm my snowy moccasin-clad feet, a bar mates urged me to stay to hear Carnage the Executioner. My jaw dropped. It was the fastest rapping I’d ever heard live, and served as a stellar palette cleanser during a folk-heavy weekend.
New music won’t be the only discovery in nooks and crannies of this quaint community of 16,000. Red Wing is less than an hour southeast of the Twin Cities and tucked between the Wisconsin border and rolling bluffs of limestone, both carved by the sharply turning Mississippi River (where Big Turn got its name).
The quick commute makes this festival a logistically sound excursion from the Twin Cities—whether you’re hopping in the car for a diagonal trek along the river or taking a $12 Amtrak ride from St. Paul’s Union Depot into Red Wing’s downtown via Levee Street.
Old mills and manufacturing plants—reminiscent of times chock-full of wheat, pottery (the Red Wing Stoneware & Pottery factory closed this fall), and shoe production—greeted me when I arrived last winter. That industrial past is key to the city’s identity today, still thriving because of many of the same businesses and small-town lifestyles.
I got into town early afternoon Friday. The main drag still felt calm before a big weekend snowstorm, so I got Red Wing’s “required” tourist stop out of the way: perusing the eponymous Red Wing Shoes store. The weather-resilient boots—including the men’s and women’s Heritage lines—can run buyers a few hundred, but there’s also a discounted selection in the basement. As I got a selfie with the novel “World’s Largest Boot,” the Wall of Honor above proved hard to miss: A checkerboard of suspended boots represents stories of long hours worked, relationships formed, and careers forged throughout the company’s century-long history.
Those boots—and their detailed, personal histories—have come in locally, from Welch to Champlin, and not-so-locally, from California to Rhode Island, cementing the impact of the town’s most famous export.
In terms of lodging, there are a handful of bed and breakfasts scattered around if a standard hotel doesn’t tickle your fancy. Pratt-Taber Inn, Moondance Inn, Candlelight Inn, and Round Barn Farm all offer a place to rest in preserved historic homes. Big Turn festival-goers can expect music to continue into the wee hours of Friday night, so staying someplace nearby proves imperative in the frigid weather.
When it comes to edible favorites between shows, there are many choices within walking distance of Main Street, but there’s nothing better than browsing the cases of goodies at Hanisch Bakery & Coffee Shop in the morning. From German chocolate to maple bacon, their doughnuts are light, airy delicacies, with dozens of flavors. Also noteworthy is the fresh Swedish limpa rye bread, made from the original bakery owner’s recipe and available only on Fridays.
Scandinavian craft store Uffda Shop flaunts ornately carved wooden decorations and Nordic sweets I stashed for later. Whimsy’s Closet offers lavish jewelry with clothing to match. Harbor Bar, across the Mississippi, offers a wonderful mishmash of Jamaican-inspired dishes and Midwest bar staples, namely their beer-battered cheese curds. A free shuttle transports customers back to downtown Red Wing after they enjoy a few bargain-priced drinks during Friday’s happy hour, or after their food-truck delights on Saturday.
Red Wing Brewery has a wide selection, including the classic flavor of Cokins Red Wing Beer—a Prohibition-age drink made only with barley, hops, water, and yeast—and Good Old Zimmie’s Root Beer, made without high-fructose corn syrup. Bev’s Cafe is known as the oldest restaurant in town, with a menu of diner classics like the hearty breakfast of Red Wing’s own Sturdiwheat pancakes, or Minnesota-made Bridgeman’s Ice Cream.
For outdoor enthusiasts, Barn Bluff has been an icon of Red Wing since before the town got its name. The iconic western rock face, 340 feet above the riverbed, was originally called He Mni Caŋ, meaning “hill, water, wood” in Dakota.
Make sure to look out for images on the iconic limestone bluff-topper, which has a colorful and contentious history of being spray-painted for more than 60 years. Visitors can take both easy and moderate routes up scenic hikes. If you can reach the top of the bluff from the south trail, your reward is a vast view that goes on for miles. Heights are off the table for me, so I opted to take U.S. 10 into town for a view of Barn Bluff from the ground up.
All of these destinations are worth a spot on your to-do list during the Big Turn Music Fest. Our only request? That the unforgiving blizzard of last year doesn’t return for an encore.
Eat, Play, Stay in Red Wing
Grab a quick cup of joe at Clara’s or the multi-story Caribou Coffee inside an old train station. Find Prohibition-era cocktails at an antique 1860s speakeasy bar, at the Port downstairs in the St. James Hotel. If wine is a must, Oliver’s Wine Bar is a local hit.
Scenic overlooks abound along Memorial Park’s winter trails not far from downtown, and are snowshoe rentals for trails at Frontenac State Park 15 minutes southeast. Enjoy cross-country or downhill skiing and snowboarding on the 60 trails and 140 acres of terrain at Welch Village 20 minutes west, or take in the frozen sights of Vermillion Falls Park in Hastings, a half-hour north of town.
A handful of local Airbnb options cater to the quaint feel of Red Wing, whether nestled in a cozy cabin, spread out in an airy farmhouse, or under the sanctuary ceilings of a restored Lutheran church. The historic St. James Hotel offers 67 high-end Victorian-style rooms, combining history with accessibility just blocks from most Big Turn Fest venues. Its cozy atmosphere is a picturesque spot to warm up, whether next to the fireplace or with a brew or two.