Music review: Trace Adkins concert

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Trace Adkins doesn’t write his own songs. He doesn’t move much on stage. He had a guitar that he didn’t hold much, and when he did he just fiddled.
But the country singer has a amassed a collection of hit songs – keg-glass and heck-raising tunes and nostalgia soundtracks – that fans in sleeveless shirts, cowboy hats and calf-high boots want to whoop to. He also has a body like a roadhouse bouncer and a voice so deep it sounds like a record being played a setting too slow.
The star who busted into the scene in the mid-1990s played a
90-minute show for about 3,200 fans on about the best summer night one could ask for at Bayfront Festival Park.
Adkins opened the show with “Whoop a Man’s Ass,” standing center stage in tight black jeans, a tight blue shirt and a black cowboy hat with a long ponytail hanging down his back. While he sang, videos for his songs – some that
appeared on the likes of CMT, some that seemed special to the tour – played on a screen behind him. His band was pushed to the back and sides of the stage.
On “Marry for Money” and “Chrome,” he showed off his growl, hitting bassoon-level depths.
“You’re Gonna Miss This” drew the most amateur video, with tons of cell phones trained on the singer as he sang the slow carpe diem ballad.
He sang “Just Fishin’,” the first single from the album “Proud to be Here,” which comes out on Tuesday. He pointed at the screen and told the audience that his young daughter stars in the heart-tugger about a daddy and his little girl.
Adkins hit his peak toward the end of the show with a cover from the song “How Long,” a hit from the 1970s by Ace. He took his hat off, let his hair down, and rather than stoic guy manning the door seemed taken with the lyrics, his arms raised, pitching forward and back.
. He stayed in that mood for “One in a Million,” a song made popular by Lou Rawls.
In an interview last week, Adkins attributed the longevity of his career to surrounding himself by people who really know what they are doing.
He’s also got good instincts. Adkins closed the show with the C&W response to “Baby Got Back.”
“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” was introduced as a love song, included strobe lights and had the audience on their feet and singing the chorus.
He sang “Dirty White Boy” for his encore, which didn’t quite match the fervor of “Badonkadonk.”
Relative newbie Glen Templeton opened, a Nashville singer who has made inroads with his ability to channel Conway Twitty. Twitty’s relatives approached Templeton about playing the country legend in a traveling musical a few years ago. Templeton included a mini montage in his hourlong set, taking his vocals a little lower and ramping up his growl for bits of “Slow Hand” and “Don’t Take it Away.”
Templeton, a Cobain-blond in mirrored sunglasses, played Southern rock songs from his debut studio album “GT.” He mixed in an eclectic handful of covers, including “Interstate Love Song,” which worked, “Every Rose Has its Thorn,” which worked better, and Sublime’s “Santaria,” which was clunky and sounded more like a favored song for shower karaoke.

This review ran in the July 30, 2011 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.


Music review: Willie Nelson concert

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

After Willie Nelson had surgery for carpal tunnel a few years ago, his doctor told him to go home and shut up, the gray-braided country music icon told his audience Saturday night at Bayfront Festival Park.
“So I wrote this song,” he said, leading into “Superman” – a song about trying to do more than he can and learning that he ain’t Clark Kent’s alter ego.
The old man didn’t make much of a case for himself. Nelson ripped through about 30 songs – one bleeding immediately into another with rarely any chatter – during a 90-minute set that ended with him calling out “Thank y’all” and leaving at the back of the stage.

   OK, so maybe Superman would have had an encore. How about Superman-ish? After all, on Friday night the 78-year-old was on the stage at We Fest near Detroit Lakes, Minn., and he’s got five more shows this week.
Nelson took the stage unceremoniously. All of a sudden he was just there, a short figure dressed in a black cowboy hat, black shirt and black pants with a red, white and blue guitar strap. His signature hair braided to just below his collarbone, shorter than in years past. Recordings of his songs had been playing in the park before the show started, and kicked in again afterward.
He stayed true to the Willie-isms that fans have come to expect with his shows: Opening with “Whiskey River,” a Texas flag as his backdrop, tossing red bandanas into the crowd and trying on the cowboy hats that were tossed on stage. He pointed at the audience and he pointed at the sky and occasionally broke out into a big grin.
Nelson took plenty of solos on his guitar, ripping away at it like there was something hidden inside.
He filled the middle of the set with a string of hits: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “On the Road Again” and “Always on My Mind.”
Nelson didn’t seem to have a target demographic among the estimated 7,000 people who were at the show. There were baby boomers on up and Gen X on down.
There were glowing hula hoops and children dancing. There were barefoot women in long skirts spinning in the grass and plenty of bandanas knotted around heads. Some fans sat on blankets or chairs while others pushed against white barriers in a pack.
Nelson closed the show with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I Saw the Light,” which his band continued to play long after he was likely tucked into his tour bus.
Minneapolis band 4onthefloor opened in the early evening, playing about an hourlong set of bluesy music defined by four bass drums.
They were followed by hometown-bred Trampled by Turtles, who finally played a show where no one had to be turned away at the door. The speedgrass band’s past two concerts here have sold out.
Fans at stage left were distracted midway through the hourlong set when a decidedly Willie-looking tour bus, airbrushed with a cowboy theme, rolled into the parking lot behind the stage.
After closing with  fan-favorite “Wait so Long,” Trampled by Turtles answered the call for an encore with “Codeine.”

This review ran in the August 11, 2011 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.


Feature: The Acceleratii, band

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

While Day 5 of last year’s Homegrown Music Festival was winding down, The Acceleratii was winding up. The microphone seemed like it would have to be surgically removed from frontman Chad Lyons’ clutch. The fans seemed like they would have be surgically removed from Norm’s Beer & Brats in Superior. 

Lyons negotiated 10 more minutes out of the guy working the sound board, then the band went on to play about five more songs.

This foursome started as a fun-time band. A band for beer drinkers. A band to play car shows. No banjos, no washboards. No folk influences. No Journey covers.

“I wanted it to be about partying and cars,” Lyons said Tuesday night in The Acceleratii’s practice space, a rented room on East Third Street in a building shared with other local musicians.

For the first time, that party can spin in your Sony Discman. The Acceleratii, which took its name from an advertisement for a 1968 Road Runner, is releasing its debut album five years after they joined the local music scene by opening a Black Labels/Retribution Gospel Choir show. The self-titled album is a 14-song mix, equal parts covers and originals, and includes plenty of fan favorites.

The players

Lyons is a blend of voice, comedy improv and theater, a frontman who went to stuntman school. Ben Marsen uses technical terms to define where a song went off-track (Lyons calls him the group’s “Lawrence Welk”). Scott Millis is the newest member and The Acceleratii’s third drummer in five years. Gomez is a super-skilled guitar player and sort of band mascot. He goes by just Gomez — no more, no less, like Banksy or Cher.

This is not your grandpa’s rockabilly.

“People expect ’50s and ’60s music, oldies,” Marsen said. “We speed it up, with inappropriate stuff strewn throughout.”

Sure, the rockabilly fans might technically dig the sound that defined an era, but if they get close enough to extract the lyrics, they are in for a surprise.

“You’re not going to like ‘Poop Fight,’ ” Lyons said of one of the band’s more popular songs.

There isn’t a pompadour in the bunch. Just Gomez dresses the rockabilly role with his black and white wingtips, a shirt with “Gomez” stitched on the upper left side. Lyons has performed wearing a deputy sheriff’s tan uniform, complete with the official star.

The Acceleratii plays plenty of originals in a sort of raunch-abilly style. The band also re-imagines punk music as swing and messes with the speed on obscure tracks influenced by the more than 5,000 45s Gomez has collected. They have a term for how they treat covers:

“Accelerat-omize it,” Millis said.

At rehearsal

The Acceleratii shifted gears on Tuesday night. Lately practices have centered on mastering the music of The Animals for an Ides of March show at Pizza Luce. Now it was back to picking through the more than six hours of 2-minute songs they’ve accumulated.

There is a small refrigerator filled with Pabst Blue Ribbon. The walls are papered with women in various states of undress, posters featuring old cars, “Easy Rider” and Johnny Cash. Pink flamingos poke out of a tire. There are bills announcing past shows and a banner for a gig at the Loading Dock in which the band’s name is misspelled to include three Ts, one I. Someone is always spelling The Acceleratii wrong.

Off to a corner is a lounge area. There is a coffee table. The couches are the red benches from their first band van.

This is a DIY band that has finally made enough money playing shows locally to put out a CD. And with the money they make from the CD, they hope to make more CDs. Maybe T-shirts. Maybe play shows farther away without pooling the cash they make at day jobs to pay for gas.

Maybe, for instance, Moscow.

“We’re setting our sights on Europe,” Marsen said. “They’re still into this (stuff) there.”

This story was in the March 3, 2011, edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

Review: Jeff Daniels concert

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Jeff Daniels addressed the celebrity farkle-narkle immediately.

“We got any ‘Dumb and Dumber’ fans here tonight?” the co-star of the 1994 comedy with Jim Carrey asked the audience of about 120 at Sacred Heart Music Center on Thursday night. “There are some of you who think of it as your ‘Citizen Kane.’ ”

The audience cackled when he invited them to get out their cell phones and take their photos now. The actor/singer/songwriter/guitar player strummed as he chatted. Sure enough, screens were lifted in his direction. He mugged a bit, goofy smiles to different sections of the room.

“Let’s get that (stuff) out of the way right off the bat.”

The award-winning actor seems to have created a niche with his brand of concert. He’s a guitar-plucking memoirist whose songs swing between hilarious and thoughtful. He’s your unassuming neighbor leaning over the fence: black T-shirt, baseball cap, his boots keeping the beat. Mostly he sang slices of his own life both among the rich and famous and the pedestrians of Toronto.

  • About being killed by Clint Eastwood in the 2002 film “Blood Work.” The song, “Dirty Harry Blues,” includes Daniels’ own impersonation of Eastwood, a low, throaty monotonous growl.
  • “Have a Good Life Then Die,” the story of nearly running over a man in Canada and the verbal onslaught that followed.
  • About his daughter’s pedal-to-the-metal days with her learner’s permit in “Daddy’s Little Daughter.”
  • And the crowd favorite: A story about the time he left his wife behind at a truck stop on the way to Cooperstown for a family vacation.He performed two non-originals, songs penned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson, his friend from their old NYC theater days. The first was about a dancer, sipping gin with a soda straw, holding her joint under the table. The second was about a bus ride from Missouri to New York. Daniels said he keeps his original copy of the lyrics on the wall.

    It wasn’t all yucks, though. Daniels slowed things down here and there during the first half, moreso after the 15-minute intermission. He’s got a pleasant voice. Full, with a bluesy accent without the bluesy tragedy. His songs went from quick-picking fun to slower journal entries. But there was always a story.

    When it was over he stood up, took off his black baseball cap and took a deep bow. He got a standing ovation, and it didn’t take much to get him back in his chair for one more song.

    His RV — oft-referenced throughout the show — was idling at the curb, a dog at shotgun.

  • This review was in the November 12, 2010 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

    Review: Allstar Weekend concert

    By Christa Lawler
    Duluth News Tribune

    If you’ve ever been associated with a slumber party, you can imagine the sound it makes in a warehouse-style venue when 300 girls are waiting for a glimpse of a handful of Radio Disney heartthrobs.

    First there were chants. “All. Star. Week. End.” Then there were squeals. Neon bracelets and neon signs with neon letters: “I love you Allstar Weekend. You rock!”

    Finally the guys rushed onto the stage, bubbling like Red Bull, and began cranking out their wholesome poppy synth single “A Different Side of Me” to kick off Wednesday’s concert at Clyde Iron Works. Allstar Weekend was the finale in a four-band bill that included Action Item, the Scene Aesthetic and Stephen Jerzak.

    There was lead singer Zach Porter in a denim jacket, plaid shirt and black skinny jeans. He’s an enigmatic leader, who leans into the swell of girls, points to the ladies and probably sends his words straight into some poor sap’s soul. The dreadlocked Nathan Darmody is the supercool lead guitar player in a tight polo shirt and acid-washed skinny jeans. Bass player Cameron Quiseng is the personality behind the operation, messy-haired, rambunctious, most likely to crash into a bandmate while skittering across the stage. Michael Martinez quietly manned the drums — until a very special acoustic moment when he stepped out from behind the skins and busted out some rhymes.

    Finding a dude in the crowd was like playing “Where’s Waldo.” There were a few, though. Boyfriends and dads.

    Allstar Weekend’s on-stage antics are the stuff of montages in gum commercials: playful, flirty, boyish. A minute from erupting into a noogie-fest.

    They played the entirety of their debut album “Suddenly Yours,” getting the hugest response from “Come Down with Love,” and “Hey Princess.” They kicked it old-school with their very first radio single, “Journey to the End of My Life,” by handing over their instruments and going unplugged.

    At one point, Quiseng invited a fan on stage, a woman he incorrectly identified as “Marcy.” She sat in a chair under a spotlight while Porter sang the oozy-goozy love ballad “Amy.” Not-Marcy quietly sang along and got hugs before she left the stage.

    They also covered “Magic” by B.O.B., with Darmody trading his guitar for a microphone and rapping. And rapping well.

    Porter ditched the stage to search for a harmonica, came back and performed Shania Twain’s “Still the One.” First slow and lovely, then fused with punk. Eventually he was on his knees ripping away at the mouth harp.

    They closed the night with “Dance Forever,” and Quiseng spotted Darmody in a back flip. They promised to meet and greet fans by the merchandise table after the show. In a curious twist, there was no encore, nor did anyone call for an encore. Has that tired tradition finally gone away? Here’s hoping.

    Stephen Jerzak is a pretty big stage presence. He played a quick set of evil-girl-themed pop songs, and closed with “She Said,” his new single that is a duet with Leighton Meester of “Gossip Girl.” Action Item started the night. The five-man band from New Jersey played right into the front row feeding frenzy, grabbing girls’ hands and sticking around afterward to sign CDs and body parts. The Scene Aesthetic’s Eric Bowley, one of two lead singers, looked in such raw love with being on stage that it felt like walking in on a kid singing in the mirror with a hairbrush for a microphone.

    This review was in the November 11, 2010 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

    Feature: Jeremy Messersmith, musician

    By Christa Lawler
    Duluth News Tribune

    Season 4, Episode 2 of the computer geek-meets-a bumbling James Bond television show “Chuck”:

    Our T-shirt and jeans hero is looking for something that might be wrong in his relationship with the sexy girl-next-door slash super-spy Sarah. Meanwhile, Chuck’s sister is armed with an old photo album and flips through memory lane during a fit of insomnia.

    The spare folk vocals of Jeremy Messersmith play in the background of this three-minute heartfelt plot wrap-up. His song “A Girl, a Boy and a Graveyard” is the mood-setter during this moment of the episode that aired on Sept. 27.

    Imagine what that kind of prime-time, network television saturation could do for a Minneapolis musician’s popularity.

    “This is the first time a mass audience has had a taste of one of my songs,” Messersmith said in a recent phone interview. “It’s fun getting re-Tweeted in different languages. That’s all the result of being on ‘Chuck.’ My website traffic quadrupled.”

    Catch Jeremy Messersmith live when he plays a free all-ages show at 7 p.m. Saturday at Beaner’s Central in West Duluth.

    The concert is part of “The Current Road Trip,” a series that brings Twin Cities music — the kind found on Minnesota Public Radio’s all-music station 89.3FM — to other areas of the state. DJ Barb Abney is traveling with Messersmith. There will be some music, some banter and some fan interaction.

    WHO IS HE?

    Jeremy Messersmith’s exact level of celebrity is hard to pinpoint. Around his adopted home court of Minneapolis, the thin and Buddy Holly-bespectacled musician is recognizable in public. He just knows a lot of people, he admitted. But when it comes time for cross-country tours like the one last summer: “Outside of Minnesota, nobody gives a shit,” he said. He can draw a bulky crowd in Chicago and New York, but “I’m opening for jazz trios in Washington, D.C. That’s just the way it is. I’ve put in a lot of time to be able to make music in the Upper Midwest.”

    This doesn’t seem to be a big deal to him. When Messersmith was in college, he imagined he would be a guitar teacher. And, actually, he is a teacher. He has classes in composition at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. Now he just wants people to listen to his music and then pass it along to someone else.

    Jeremy Messersmith is the kind of artist you contact through a publicist. But he responds to an interview request himself, and he includes his home phone number.

    He is super-accessible to his fans. He hand-delivered a large order of Messersmith memorabilia to a fan — $80 worth of records and posters. There was no one home when he got there. He delicately put the stuff in the mailbox, he said. Later he received a horrible e-mail from the buyer, complaining about the way it was wadded up and the lack of delivery confirmation.

    “I think I will not do that anymore,” Messersmith said.

    His Twitter feed is a quirky day-to-day and fun-side-of-professional stream, which gives him the feel of a sort of Wil Wheaton of the music world, a comparison he doesn’t object to. Messersmith posts things like:

    “I have the top selling iTunes song with the word ‘Graveyard’ in the title. Nothing like setting the bar low! #loweredexpectations.”

    And this two-parter:

    “I love St. Paul. Sitting outside and a dude came up and said, “Hey, I’m hungry. Can I have your sandwich?” #politeness”

    Which was followed up with:

    “So I gave him the rest of my lunch then went over and sang with an old dude playing beatles covers on his guitar. #bestlunchbreakever.”

    His new album recently cracked into the iTunes Top 150 iTunes pop charts — the only nonlabel artist in the mix. Yet, if you go to his website, he is offering up “Reluctant Graveyard” for whatever you want to pay — a tactic employed by plenty of artists in recent years, including

    Radiohead and Amanda Palmer’s ukulele covers of songs by Radiohead.


    This thing on “Chuck” wasn’t his first go-round creating a soundtrack for pop culture. MTV has a large sound library, including Messersmith’s complete works. Over the course of nine episodes of the first season of the faux-reality show, “My life as Liz,” Messersmith said he heard almost all of his songs.

    “Miracles” was playing during a pivotal moment on the duckling-to-swan moment on the show “Ugly Betty.”

    “‘Miracles’ was played when Betty was getting her braces off,” Messersmith said. “Which was a monumental moment … like when Forest Gump got his leg braces off.”

    And fans of America’s favorite self-described guidos and guidettes got a taste of the Messersmith when his song “Love You to Pieces” was played on Season One of “Jersey Shore.”

    “When ‘Jersey Shore’ needs to be reflective, they’ll play a clip from one of my mellower songs,” he said.

    TV aside, Messersmith has three albums: “The Alcatraz Kid,” “The Silver City” and “The Reluctant Graveyard.” Next up, Messersmith plans to confuse his fans.

    “I’ll probably pursue some intellectual tangent,” he said. “It will only make sense to me. Everyone will be like, ‘I remember when he was good.’ ”

    This story originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Oct. 7, 2010 (without the word “shit” in it. I prefer it with the word “shit” in it).

    Review: Tech N9ne concert

    By Christa Lawler
    Duluth News Tribune

    First the room went dark. Then they fogged the stage. Hundreds of cell phones lit up, pockets of green glowing light.

    There was a shout out to DJ Chill, manning the turntable.

    A giant screen filled the back of the stage, the size of something that would be the centerpiece in a sports bar, but pixilated like a Lite-Bright board. There was a countdown from magic No. 9, and then a shadow developed into the form of rapper.

    Tech N9ne bounced up from behind the screen to scaffolding above it. The longtime Kansas City rapper in his trademark white face paint, a tan work shirt and baggy shin-length pants busted through the bubble of anticipation for a crowd of more than a thousand during Tuesday night’s multi-artist hip-hop show at Clyde Iron Works.

    This. Was. Pure. Theater.

    Tech N9ne opened with “The Industry is Punks,” from his 2002 album “Absolute Power,” and then was joined onstage by Kutt Calhoun. The duo dusted off some synchronized choreography, robotic movements and eventual moonwalking over a sample of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Tech N9ne, who has been in the biz since 1990, set down his mic and did a 30-second break-dancing combo.

    They summoned onstage a young blonde from the front row, and took turns grinding on the girl wearing black leggings, flip flops and a tiger-stripped tank top. During the song “Psycho Bitch,” everyone’s favorite self-described “Jersey Shore” guidette Snooki’s image was part of a video montage. It was a mess of amazing sensory overload between the beat, the swirling red siren light, the projected crosses spinning against a cloth cityscape backdrop and pole dancing women on the big screen.

    Eventually the duo moved over, and let the spazz-tastic Krizz Kaliko take over — introduced by a sound tech with the voice of a shock-jock radio host.

    It was a big bill with homegrown talent, West Coast rappers and some relative newbies. The night also included Glasses Malone, and his frequent reminders that this was an “(effing) party,” sampling “California” by 2Pac, and calling for some West Coast love. Jay Rock followed, shedding layers until he was down to just a white tank top, flashing West Coast signs. E-40 followed with internal organ-vibrating beats.

    Superior’s Off the Couch Ent with Mike White, A-Dub, Special K, and Brandon Nicholson opened the show, the highlight being crowd-favorite “Futuristic Superstar” which included a cameo of a dancing alien dressed in black-draped reaper ware.

    The crowd was heavy on high school and college-aged students. It kind of looked like a lock in.

    Review originally published in the Duluth News Tribune on Sept. 22, 2010.