All aboard 'Lowertown Line'

NEAL JUSTIN | Updated 1/3/2013

A "St. Paul City Limits"? If TPT's experiment with a local-music show hits all the right notes, it's possible.

Alan Sparhawk, left, and Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles with Dessa, host of TPT's "The Lowertown Line."
TPT

It has been a decent year for Minnesota musicians getting national exposure on TV shows, most notably "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," which welcomed both Poliça and Now, Now.

It would've been even better if the bands didn't have to travel all the way to New York City.

Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) is tinkering with a show that would give musical artists a coast-to-coast audience and, in the process, reshape public TV's image as the home for toddlers, Anglophiles and Ken Burns groupies.

The half-hour pilot episode of "The Lowertown Line," featuring Duluth's Trampled By Turtles, debuted only within the state's borders on New Year's Eve. You can watch the entire episode here:

But if there's enough interest -- and cash -- producers will explore pitching a nationwide series to PBS.

But don't expect our own version of "Austin City Limits," the popular concert series based in the Texas capital, anytime soon. Dianne Steinbach, TPT's senior director of arts and cultural media, said her team is taking a cautious approach with a maximum of two more episodes in 2013.

"Our idea is to roll it out slowly and make changes along the way," she said. "We'll see where we can trim back and where we can embellish."

Spotlighting local music isn't new to TPT.

In the early 1980s, Minnesota public TV stations aired a weekly music series. The commitment dried up after a few years, but clips are still recycled on the news program "Almanac."

Things changed in 2010 when Minnesota voters approved the Legacy Amendment, adding a sales tax that is expected to pump $500 million into the state's arts economy by the end of the decade.

TPT used its share of the pot to launch "MN Original," a Sunday-night arts series that almost always includes a musical performance from local favorites such as Mason Jennings, the New Standards and the Cactus Blossoms.

The "Lowertown Line" concept evolved out of those segments, with some twists that senior series producer Ashleigh Rowe hopes will separate it from other musical shows.

The idea: Have a red-hot act engage in a jam session and an on-stage conversation in front of about 150 fans in the station's studio. In this case, Trampled by Turtles invited another Duluth musician, Alan Sparhawk of Low.

It's a simple concept, but not an inexpensive one. Concerts with that many musicians require at least five cameras, a luxury for a mid-size public TV station. Putting together the throwback set, which uses wooden railings, street lamps and steamer trunks to suggest an old train station, was a big part of the episode's $70,000 budget.

That may seem like a lot of money for a show that isn't expected to draw a huge audience. (The two airings of "MN Original" on Sundays attract a total of about 19,000 Twin Cities area viewers.) But Rowe and Steinbach believe "Lowertown" could bring in young adults who associate public TV with Yanni and John Denver, not hip music.

To help shatter that fuddy-duddy image, producers recruited director Dan Huiting, a local filmmaker who comes with high indie cred thanks to his work on videos for Bon Iver, Cloud Cult and Kathleen Edwards.

In addition, producers tapped local hip-hop favorite Dessa to host and moderate a discussion that takes place in the middle of the broadcast.

Dessa is optimistic that this won't be a one-off.

"I might be throwing them under the bus, but I'd say there's a 68 to 76 percent chance for this to be a regular series," she said. "But I may not be the best authority on this. I don't even own a TV."