Saturday, August 30, 2008

Summer Music Highlights

Seeing as I began the summer by being out of the country, I ended up being fairly impressed by the number of good shows I saw here in the twin cities.

Here is a brief overview of some of the best shows I was able to see.

On July 9, there was an event to kick off the Bike Film Festival called, “Bikes Rock” at the 7th Street Entry. While most of the performances were not particularly memorable, one artist stood out. Ice Rod, a former Minneapolitan who can now be found in Los Angeles, has a stage presence like no other performer I have ever seen. As a member of the audience I was simultaneously struck by feelings of repulsion at the vulgar content and an unshakable desire to be Ice Rod’s friend. He, also known as Michael Gaughan, is so charismatic and laid back that you can’t help but get past the fact he’s talking about squeezing zits. Throw in some back up dancers and his obviously home-made, played-on-what-looks-like-a-tape-player beats, and you have a happy, dancing and laughing crowd.

Just a week or so later on July 17, local duo Roma di Luna graced the stage at the Mill City Museum in the riverfront district. Due to “questionable weather” the concert was moved indoors to the collective dismay of the elegantly dressed hoard that came out for the performance. Though the room was warm and crowded, Channy Moon Casselle’s cool vocals kept everyone complacent and quiet. The sound quality was hit and miss throughout the show, but when Channy and husband Alexei got to their harmonies, it didn’t matter whether their mics were working or not. As someone who has seen the group perform at a number of venues, I have yet to be disappointed.

August 6 marked the return of Malian Habib Koite back to the Cedar Cultural Center for what has become a fairly regular occurrence and an assured good time. Despite the heat, fans filled the hall and kept the dance floor occupied. As one of the few concerts taking place at the Cedar this summer, Habib’s performance seemed a welcomed release for staff and patrons alike.

Of all of the concerts I attended this summer, one stands above the rest. On August 14 Nomo headlined the 7th Street Entry. Nomo is a nine-piece jazz, funk and afrobeat group from Ann Arbor Michigan, whose talent is only outweighed by their energy. The group took the stage late and kept the music coming, making sure that those who slipped in did not miss out on anything. While not all nine members were in attendance, those who made it seemed to be giving us their all. And while much of the attitude seemed to be coming from the sassy bass player’s moves, one could tell from the funky feel and the smirks and grins from the band that this was clearly a group effort.

Opening the show were local groups Beatrix Jar and Solid Gold, neither of which felt like an opener. Conjuring images of kittens, puppies and other cute things, Beatrix Jar danced and circuit-bended their way into my heart. Cuteness of this magnitude should be regulated as it may induce dancing from those not meant to dance. Along these lines, Solid Gold took a hugely popular format (synth-heavy, psychedelic rock) and made it fresh, fun and danceable. While their performance was engaging, it was almost too much so. The recording, which has been made available through iTunes, does not do any of the tracks justice.

There were many other great shows this summer that I could rave about, but I have already missed my deadline.

What were some of your favorite shows this summer?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Thanks for the Memories, Bill K.

In another time, another place there used to be a funky old brick store front down Riverside Ave some few blocks on the site of what is now a parking ramp? or some new building belonging to Augsburg College. The last occupant of the century-old building was a funky old co-op, the late lamented North Country Co-op. A rather grubby little place, back in the day before co-ops had to stock 45 kinds of natural salad dressing and a shopper could actually get a question answered by a staff person, without hearing "I don't work in that department." Back when co-ops were actually non-profits, as in donating all their profits to a food shelf at the end of each fiscal year, instead of declaring eminent domain on neighboring senior citizens' houses to enlarge their own parking lots...but I digress.

To this little store in January of 1990 came wide-eyed me, a few weeks shy of twenty-five and thinking I knew it all. Bush the 1st was in power, it seemed like the Reagan era would go on forever and we were on a mission of whole wheat flour and soymilk.

Bill Kubescko was one of the blur of "bearded guys" when I started. (Did they all have beards? In the winter anyway...Hey, I had hair halfway down my back!) It took a few weeks to separate him from the others, but since my shift often began at 4:30 in the morning and he came in at 7:00, I soon figured out he was that music guy, who often was heading to Europe on tours and coming home with batches of new cassettes, and eventually, cds. He's rave about hiking the hills in Wales and eating local cheese and drinking local ales, but the raving was mostly about the music.

It was the early '90's, right? So that means no internet for most people, no mouse on the computer (remember DOS?) and the log was a hardbound book of blank paper in which the staff communicated by notes that varied from really mean to very funny.

To me in those years, world music meant South Africa and West Africa. Staying out past midnight at a Mahotella Queens show when I had to work at 4:00 the next morning is a painful memory...four hours of sleep before a full day of work is just wrong. All the big highlife and Afro-Pop acts played First Avenue in those years...Fela, King Sunny Ade, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey.

With his shiny new Euro-music, Bill K. showed me there was a whole world out there, and I listened eagerly, almost every morning. He was managing and touring often with Boiled in Lead in those years, so there was lots of Celtic, both rockin' and trad. He brought in boundary-crossing British stuff like the Barely Works (founding member Sarah Allen is still seen at the Cedar once in while rockin' that giant flute in Flook) and Edward the 2nd and the Red Hot Polkas. (Whatever happened to them, anyway?) He'd come back from hanging out with the Oyster Band sporting funny new haircuts. I think my first Cedar experience was an Altan show, because one of the other co-op coordinators (former Cedar house manger Bill Hayes - Bill H. in those days - had written in that paper log that they were "hotter than a turf fire in January."

Crossing paths with music pals in Europe like the guys in 3 Mustaphas 3, Bill brought in Ivo Paposov's Bulgarian Wedding Music and Musikas' neo-trad Hungarian folk, sounds for which I really had no frame of reference in those days. Eastern Euro music was so new on everybody's radar, as the Wall really had just come down. Both acts would later perform numerous Cedar shows, and, I like to imagine, paved the way for some of the Balkan mash-up stuff that I love so much now. Ivo played for years with Yuri Yunakov, who later moved to New York where he became teacher and mentor to the recently-immigrated-from-Tel Aviv Ori Kaplan who later helped found Balkan Beat Box. Uh huh.

I have only one clear non- musical memory of Bill in those years. Time were tough, yeah? The economy was pretty lousy and people used to come in to the co-op and try to steal food, figuring we had no security system. One day a pair of guys ran a good distraction scam and one of them ran out the door with a bunch of meat, expensive stuff like steaks and roasts. Bill ran out the door and chased them for blocks, but they had a pal waiting in a car and got away. He came puffing back to the store, and just started crying. Whether ashamed of his failure to apprehend the thieves, or more likely, knowing Bill, just saddened about the state of the world that would cause people to turn to such activities.

Sometime in 1992 or '93 the Cedar Board of Directors came looking for Bill K. Read here for a nice little history of Bill's time at the Cedar that local music journalist Bill Snyder wrote for Mpls-St. Paul magazine a couple of years ago. They hired him to take over.

Soon after, he started spicing up their mix of swing dances, square dances and Cajun dances, using his global connections to bring his kind of world music to the Twin Cities. I have a very clear memory of running into Bill at Riverside Bank shortly after he started at the Cedar. "You gotta come check out this band from Finland! Just come over and I'll give you a job for the night. Give this disc a listen!" (Volunteer protocol was a bit more casual 15 years ago.)

The disc was Seleniko and that night was, of course, the legendary first-ever Värttinä show at the Cedar. (And other than a South-by-Southwest showcase a few months earlier, one of their first ever U.S. shows.) Finnish septuagenarians drove down from the Iron Range in response to an ad in the Finnish language newspaper up there. A fellow volunteer ( I seem to remember selling cds) taught me how to say "smell my bellybutton" in Finnish. Apparently a bad curse in Finland? Big sister Sari Kaasinen seemed to be about the only one in the band who spoke any English, and she kept picking random men out of the audience and saying "This song is for you! It is about a very bad husband!" The crowd ate it up, everybody's mind blown by the vocal harmonies and instrumental chops, and that was the beginning of Nordic music at the Cedar. (Wait! Maybe Vasen had already played here by then? It's all a blur...) It may have also marked the beginning of the now-traditional Cedar wisdom "When a Finnish woman sings to you, you know you've been sung to." Bill stood around the hall beaming his toothy grin, shaking hands and patting shoulders all over the place.

A few months later, another Bill K. tip,"this band's from Sweden and does more of a dark thing" had me there in the tiny crowd for Garmarna's first Cedar show. Other than a quick gig an the Entry the night before, this was their U.S. debut. I'd never really heard a live hurdy-gurdy before, much less kulning. I have so many very clear memories of that night; of Emma stepping back from the mike and looking expectantly at the crowd before letting letting fly with the high pitched stuff, of Stefan looking up from a totally psychedelic hurdy gurdy solo with an expression like "was that OK?", of Rickard raving about a band they'd seen at the Entry the night before. I think they'd just released Vittrad in the U.S. on Drew Miller's record label, having met him on the internet somehow. Small crowd notwithstanding, Bill was grinning away in the back again, knowing something big was happening. [Look how young they look in this photo from the Vittrad era!]

Just so there's no confusion. Bill K. was all about the hand shaking, the back patting, the story telling, the did-you-ever-hear-that-one-album-by....., the introducing of one artist to another (like the wild night Bruce Molsky was in town with Fiddlers Four and they came over to a house party where Altan was playing. Whew!) In his early tenure at the Cedar, he briefly had an assistant named Nicole (I think.) I ran into her on the West Bank shortly after she was hired and asked her what she was going to do in that job. She shrugged and answered "Learn how to schmooze?" That was our Bill, he loved to schmooze. Not just because it was part of his job, he actually was just naturally in schmooze mode, most of the time.

He'd come back from WOMEX with stacks of discs to peruse. The last few years he'd just hand me all the Eastern stuff and I'd do mini reviews of them all. The Croation Roots collection...not so great. Stuff like Baba Zula, Little Cow, Burhal Ocal & the Trakya All-Stars got the big Mama E Dub thumbs up. Ill be writing about several of these bands in the next few weeks, and you can see Baba Zula and Little Cow at the Cedar in September! Check out these sweaty guys loving them some Burhan!

So many memorable concerts over the years...Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, selling out the hall on a Monday night, the silent crowd yearning for every note, Bill K. grinning away in the back. Shooglenifty showing up five minutes before we opened the doors, whipping out a one tune sound check, smoking a few cigs and then playing one of the most amazing shows I've ever heard at the Cedar. A roomful of teenagers sitting on the floor singing along note perfect to finish a song with Ani DiFranco when the mike went bad. Karan Casey taking the stage after the rest of the Solas gang had nailed a blistering set of reels, wondering to the crowd "How can I follow that?" then sending up the most ethereal a cappella song. And on and on and on. Bill was always there in the back, grinning, schmoozing, hosting.

When bands come through town, many still ask "Is Bill around?", because he was the host of the party at the Cedar for 15 years. I'd like to think that some of that rubbed off on me when I'm in "Queen of Hospitality" mode as a house manger; bringing a plate of cookies to the green room or remembering what various artists like to drink, or who has what food allergies, or how old a musician's child is, in short, doing the things that make the Cedar feel like a little piece of home.

* * * * *

I used to house sit for Bill and Mag when they'd drive the kids out to California every summer to see the in-laws. He'd pay me in blank cassettes, knowing I was greedy to attack his massive cd collection.

They have one of those Felix the Cat clocks on the wall over the wood stove, the kind with the eyes and the tail that move back and forth. When I think of Bill K. in super-gleeful mode, anticipating a really good show, I think his eyes look like of the eyes on that Felix, his face grinning ear to ear.

Thank you, Bill K. for all the sweat, joy and love you poured into the Cedar all those years. We are much the richer for it.