Bayfront Blues Festival

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune
The second to last thing anyone would expect to see at a blues festival: A cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” The absolute last thing: The classic tune performed by a dream team of three nuevo-blues musicians who are easy on the eyes, hard on guitars.
Blues Caravan 2011 – Girls with Guitars featuring Cassie Taylor, Samantha Fish and Dani Wilde shook things up midafternoon Saturday during Bayfront Blues Festival. The ladies, who each have thriving solo careers, joined forces for a set that caused a ruckus among the thousands of fans who turned out for the second day of the event at Bayfront Festival Park.
They’re young. They have full voices. They have songs that run from girl power to social justice. They’re intense and rip up the stage. Taylor, the band’s bass and keyboard player, has bluesfest in her genes. She joined her father, Otis Taylor, on the stage a few years ago. Wilde, a guitar player and vocalist, is from England. Fish is a Kansas City girl who came into the limelight while playing the Chicago Blues Festival last year. 
Perhaps young Nick Roloff of Coon Rapids, Minn., summed up the spectacle best:
“They play better than the guys – and they’re hot,” he said.
The Roloff family ditched out of the show early for the meet-and-greet area and landed at the front of what would become a very long line. The Trooper Award goes to Nick’s mother, Colleen Roloff:
“I have to take a picture of my husband and two boys with the girls,” she said.
Here are other scenes from the 23rd annual bluesfest, which finishes with headliners Vicci Martinez and Beverly McClellan, who play at 5:45 p.m. today on the main stage.
As long as there has been a Bayfront Blues Fest, there has been Big Walter Smith on the bill. The old man was dressed in all white and propped on a stool for a set that included songs like “Stand by Me” and “I Ain’t Drunk (I’m Just Drinkin’ “).
“Twenty-three years,” Smith said, counting his performances at the park. “Twenty-three years.”
The 81-year-old was the day’s first performer on the main stage and had a full lineup of musicians all dressed in white – a guitar player, a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, trumpet player, sax player and trombone player.
He had fans singing along to “Hey Hey The Blues is Alright.”
“He’s so warm and loving,” said Mary Anne Burns of Maple Grove, Minn. “He’s like our grandpa.”
Donna Herula tells breathless stories with the touch of a Midwest accent. But her music has a Southern style. Herula returned – this time with her husband, Tony Nardiello – for a show in the acoustic tent.
They teamed up for Lucinda Williams’ song “Jackson” and Herula showed off some of the Robert Nighthawk songs she covers on her second album “the Moon is Rising: Songs of Robert Nighthawk.”
Following that, Peter Karp & Sue Foley performed songs from their album “He Said/She Said,” which is taken from letters they wrote back and forth while on the road, after meeting years ago at a blues festival.
Karp is a writers’ songwriter, with interesting lyrics that sometimes lean a little sexy. Foley has a deceptively pretty voice. Together they have a twee sensibility, like a bluesy She & Him.
Chastity Brown, a Memphis girl-turned-Minnesotan, couldn’t sign on to the “sit down and play nice” style of the acoustic tent. She finally had to kick her chair aside and stand up and dance, her cowboy boots moving and tapping. Brown has a big soulful voice that sounds like her guts are being squeezed.
Andi Spike, a blogger from St. Paul, is a blues fan who was covering the event for her fashion-music-vegan living website Bunny Warrior. She favors young blues musicians, she admitted, and said she likes the way they incorporate modern influences.
Spike said Brown was her early pick for a favorite of the day.
“I think she was the best I’ve seen,” Spike said. “She has surprised me the most.”
This story originally ran in the Duluth (Minnesota) News Tribune on August 14, 2011

Daily: Great White and Loverboy

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

    The truth of being a band that ruled MTV in the 1980s: No
modern-day fan is going to be satisfied at a concert until they hear “Working for the Weekend.”
Not a problem, according to Loverboy’s guitar player Paul Dean.
“I think it’s fantastic,” he said in a phone interview from Canada. “It’s the little song that could. It doesn’t quit. It’s amazing. I remember the first time we played it live. We opened the third (set) with Working for the Weekend’ and everyone was standing up and the place came alive. We knew at that moment that this tune was going to do something.”
The Canadian band headlines the Buffalo Valley Music Festival, a two-day outdoor event that starts with country tribute bands on Friday and switches to rock cover bands on Saturday. The festival closes with two real deals – Great White and Loverboy.
Michael Lardie of Great White said the classic tracks from the 1980s and ’90s are the reason they initially drew fans – and they have to respect that. Of course Great White is going to play “Once Bitten, Twice Shy.” Each night at each venue is a unique experience, and he said they keep that in mind when they play it for the millionth time.
“Some bands might make the mistake of saying Here’s one of our hits and here’s 12 songs off our new record,'” he said. “The fans made you have the career by buying the records. If I went out and bought an artist’s records throughout the years and they didn’t play the biggest song, I would find that somehow offensive.”
The bands are both in the middle of heavy summer tour – which seems to indicate there is still a call for an old-school arena rock band fronted by red leather pants and a bluesy group that adopted the hair band image. Unlike the musicians, the fans are getting younger.
“I always say we get babies to blue hairs, and we always have,” Dean said. “Maybe it’s because of our increased Web presence. I love playing to the kids. They have the power. I love seeing the fist in the air. That turns my crank.”
Lardie said they have hard-core fans who have been hanging around for 25-30 years. Now they’ve introduced their kids to the band.
“They’re singing the lyrics and verses,” Lardie said. “That’s the greatest compliment we can receive. They’re handing down music to their kids.”
Loverboy gained popularity in the early 1980s with “Working for the Weekend,” “Loving Every Minute of It” and “Turn Me Loose.” The band is fronted by singer Mike Reno and the lineup has stayed untouched – except for the loss of bassist Scott Smith who died in a boating accident off the coast of San Francisco in 2000.
Dean said each band member is a good politician – and that is how they’ve managed to stick together.
“You’ve got to be,” he said. “It’s like being married to four guys for 35 years. You’ve got to compromise. You put the five of us together on stage and it’s a lot of fun.”
They released the song “Heartbreaker” earlier this year, a single that Dean said fans are digging when they play it live. There have been times when a new single hasn’t been well received.
Great White is a Los Angeles-bred band second-best known for the single “Once Bitten, Twice Shy.” A version of the band was playing the night of the 2003 nightclub fire at The Station in Rhode Island where 100 people died, including a musician. Lead singer Jack Russell is currently on hiatus with health problems. Jani Lane, the former Warrant front man who died last week, was singing with Great White for a stint in 2010.
Terry Ilous of XYZ has taken over as lead singer in the interim, and is getting kudos from his new bandmates.
“He’s got a fantastic Jeff Keith-David Coverdale,” Lardie said. “Edgy and bluesy. He’s putting his own personality into it. He’s not just aping what Jack does.”
Dean said there has been a sudden resurgence of interest in Loverboy that he attributes partly to the band’s marketing team. They’ve had songs in commercials and songs parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” and last season the NBC TV show “30 Rock” did a Loverboy-themed joke in which it was revealed that the character Pete used to be a member of the band.
“I was really happy with that, it was a huge honor. I’m a huge fan of that show,” he said. “To be connected with those guys is amazing.”

This story ran in the August 18, 2011 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.



Music review: Michael Buble concert

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

It’s when Michael Buble references a certain John Hughes movie that everything clicks.

This Canadian singer might be sliding into Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Harry Connick Jr. territory on his smooth-soled shoes. But it’s that lovable prankster, spotlight hound Ferris Bueller, whom he’s channeling.

Buble said as much Saturday night at Amsoil Arena on the final night of this leg of his “Crazy Love” tour. It was watching the character played by Matthew Broderick that gave him that first nudge toward the entertainment biz. Then Buble busted out a bit of “Twist and Shout,” which Bueller performs on a parade float in an iconic scene of the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Toward the end of his concert, Buble ditched the stage. He worked his way through an aisle to a makeshift stage near the back of the floor-level seating, sang a couple songs, then wound his way back through another aisle.

And that is when at least one teenage girl burst into tears.

Buble’s two-hour concert for about 7,000 fans was a mix of jazz standards, ’80s favorites and Buble originals — and heavy, heavy on comedy and charm, with bursts of playfulness and smiles and jokes at the expense of the more than a dozen musicians sharing the stage. Word on the streets is that Buble mingled with fans when the doors opened. Not everyone recognized him.

His entry was a spectacle: The stage curtain parted to reveal a shadow of a conductor with an orchestra while a dramatic string-heavy instrumental played. When that was peeled away, there was Buble and an upright bass player in the spotlight. Buble wore a dark suit, white shirt, black tie and black shoes. He slid down a ramp and oozed to the front of the stage singing the old torch song “Cry Me a River,” which ended with a spray of fireworks from the lights.

His set was lounge-style. There was a grand piano, a guitar player, a bass player and a percussionist at stage right; a multi-tiered horn section at stage left. The backdrop included towers with colored lights and screens that showed Buble or just swirls of color.

He went straight into “All of Me,” then he got comfy with the crowd. He talked hockey. He addressed specific members of the crowd. He said that he had recently gotten married — then gave everyone the finger and a huge smile when they booed. He addressed a wedding proposal from fans in the front row and expressed amazement at the size of a sign he noticed.

Then he got back to the music:

“We’ll start this party with the most depressing song in the world,” he said, and sang “At This Moment” by Billy Vera & the Beaters.

At one point Buble sat on the stage and went through his entire roster of musicians, mentioning them by name and telling an anecdote about them. Fact or fiction, they were high comedy and told with the ease and intimacy of a guy who feels right at home with his face projected on a screen. Then Buble gave them time to strut their stuff with a short jam, packed with solos.

Buble’s 1980s-child style came through in quick bursts of songs: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” “A Whole New World,” from the movie “Aladdin,” and his main influence, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”

And while his fame is centered mostly on his covers, the crowd was digging his original songs like “Haven’t Met You Yet” and “Home.”

Naturally 7, a group from New York City, opened the show with their vocal-play style. The musicians replicate instruments through the magic of microphones and mouths, all while miming the instrument they are mimicking – horns, harmonicas, drum kits and even a DJ scratching up a record.

This review ran in the Monday, June 27, 2011 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune

Feature: Trent Waterman, video maker

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

It wasn’t hard to convince Minneapolis musician Jeremy Messersmith to stroll along a mall alcove and strum his guitar and sing.

All Trent Waterman did was ask the singer-songwriter. And after Messersmith’s show at Beaner’s Central that October night, they shot the impromptu video for “Beautiful Children” in two takes, including a break for Waterman to change the camera’s battery.

The end result was video No. 2 in Waterman’s growing collection of North Shore Sessions, a hobby that pairs the budding filmographer with musicians for quick-hit videos in unlikely settings such as a former railroad tunnel, a friend’s apartment or a barn in Wrenshall. He claims as inspiration Vincent Moon’s “The Take-Away Shows,” in which musicians are recorded playing in the streets and parks, highlighting the quirks, ticks and spontaneity.

“I’ve always kind of been interested in different acoustics and how it affects the way sound travels — spaces that sound interesting and look cool, too,” said Waterman, a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth studying graphic design and photography.

It started with Russian Bride, a Minneapolis-based Americana band that includes friends of Waterman. They set up a recording session at the barn in Wrenshall that hosts the annual Free Range Film Festival. Waterman decided to make a video recording of the session just for fun, and ended up making a 4-minute, low-light, at times abstract arty accompaniment for their song “Hundred Dollar Jig.”

Next came the Messersmith shoot, a quickie when the popular singer-songwriter was in town for a concert. Waterman had just one video shoot on his resume, but Messersmith was game.

“He seemed friendly, and he seemed rather earnest,” Messersmith said of Waterman. “I’d rather err on the side of doing something and having it turn out terrible than not doing it.”

“I watched it and I was like, ‘This is really good. Who is this guy? This looks and sounds way better than I thought it would,’” he said, calling it beautiful and well-edited.

The Russian Bride and Messersmith videos were posted on the locally run community website Perfect Duluth Day. This is where Annie Dugan, who owns the Free Range barn with her husband, saw what had come from that video shoot.

“(The videos) capture the Midwest in a modern way, which is always a nice way to do this,” said Dugan, who organizes the film festival and is the curator at the Duluth Art Institute. “It’s not precious or folksy, it’s more just sort of real. It’s always refreshing when filmmakers and visual artists let the work speak for itself. It was a total surprise when this video came out. He just said he was recording stuff. I didn’t realize the end project. It’s neat when that sort of surprise happens.”

Local musician Sarah Krueger approached Waterman about collaborating after she saw the Russian Bride video. She liked the lighting and the simplicity. He chose to shoot her playing in the former railroad tunnel near Ely’s Peak, and told her the acoustics would pair well with her voice. The video, shot in November, includes puffs of breath from the singer.

“I was really impressed,” she said. “We did like pretty much one and a half takes of that song and one other song. He does a really nice job with the quality of his filming. It’s really simple, and it goes with my style.”

Then came a biggie: Cloud Cult, a nationally touring act with local ties. With a few bands now in the bank, Waterman e-mailed frontman Craig Minowa about shooting the band before its show at St. Scholastica in November.

The result: A casual acoustic version of “Bobby’s Spacesuit” shot in a foyer, the band members harmonizing and playing guitar, violin and percussion. The video ended up on Cloud Cult’s Facebook page.

“I’m a huge Cloud Cult fan, so that was a cool experience,” Waterman said.

Now that he’s got a bit of a base, Waterman said he’s getting solicited by bands looking to catch his camera’s eye. He said he has a few things lined up for the next year and plans to keep the North Shore Session going as long as he lives in Minnesota.

This story ran in the December 23, 2010 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

Review: ‘Rat Girl’ by Kristin Hersh

Two weeks ago, if you had asked me to tell you everything I knew about the band Throwing Muses, I would have gone dough faced and dead eyed. “Canadian punk band?” I would have un-educatedly guessed. Somehow this foursome escaped my musical reckoning in the mid-80s.

I would have been wrong. But that wrongness at least says this: One does not have to be a Throwing Muses Head to want to metaphorically rub lead singer Kristin Hersh’s memoir Rat Girl all over her body in hopes of absorbing a fraction of the smarts, words, and ideas directly into one’s blood stream. Because science is not yet that sophisticated, I settled for turning the book into an origami version of itself, with at least 30 percent of the pages dog-eared.

This memoir, shelved in the bi-polar section of your local bookstore, is (for the amusement of using an out-of-character word) so lovely.

This is not the gelatinous mess that is a typical celebrity memoir — to be expected as Throwing Muses is not a typical band. (I can say that now. I’ve downloaded plenty of its backlog in the past few days. For free. Hersh captures 1985, the year Throwing Muses went from a bar band to label magnet in a series of vignettes and song lyrics, snippets pulled from the journals of a 19-year-old.

Blue-haired Hersh is squatting in a dead guy’s house, taking college-level classes at a university where her father, whom she calls “Dude,” teaches hippie-based courses that start with deep relaxation exercises of the soul-scorching kind. She breaks into backyard pools in the middle of the night to swim laps to combat her insomnia. Her best friend Betty is of AARP membership age, a former Hollywood starlet who imagines she is one wrong turn from an onslaught of paparazzi.

Throwing Muses play gigs at local clubs they aren’t even old enough to patronize, and sometimes get stuck paying a cover charge if they walk outside before their set.

Ever since she was hit by a car, Hersh hears music in the white noise around her. And when a song strikes, she must immediately work it out on her guitar.

Throughout the rest of the year she will move with her band mates into an apartment in Boston, space shared with other artists, and with Harvard thugs for neighbors. Hersh is diagnosed as bipolar. Throwing Muses will attract a following and get good chatter from local press. Fans will leave gifts on their door step, and a dude with an international phone number will express an interest in signing the band. And, despite any hint that Hersh has ever seen a naked man, she gets pregnant with the band’s baby.

These single serving stories don’t make a quote-unquote plot. They are carefully worded, and artfully selected moments in a life — many that inspired lyrics. They reveal Hersh to be genuinely surprised that Throwing Muses have fans, and even a little ambivalent about it. Her three band mates just make cameos, but they are drawn so tenderly. Not the way one would write about family, but with the soft touch one would use to write about a partner with whom they are truly smitten. (But Hersh kind of treats everyone like this. From the old ladies on the bus, to the junkies at their shows, her default seems to be liking people as much as is possible for a loner).

Rat Girl is light on glitz and glamour. (Hersh describes her style as homeless, and her hugest goal is to tour with her band and live out of a van). It is ripe with introspection and imagery. Hersh’s voice is so unique and her life so interesting that I imagine reading this book is a lot like what music hounds in the 80s felt when they first heard the band.

BTW: I judged this book first by its awesome cover.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads on October 24, 2010.

Bits: Hall & Oates: ‘We are victims of rickrolling’

Celebrated 1970s-80s pop duo Daryl Hall and John Oates met with elementary school-aged children in Austin, Minn., on Friday with what appeared to be a desperate plea:

“You have the Internet here. Put us on it,” whispered Oates, his Tom Selleck-ian facial hair worming dangerously close to a the ear of a third-grade boy.

The rock and soul’ers, as famous for their frothy follicles as their so-gay-its-almost-Swedish looking album covers, are visiting playgrounds and computer camps in support of their recently released 74-track, 4 CD box set “Do What You Want, Be What You Are.”

It is a perceived slighting at the helm of this unconventional tour.

“We feel that we are the true victims of the rickrolling phenomenon,” Hall explained. “That joke should have been about us.  ‘Maneater’ gets to the heart of rickrolling in a way that ‘Never Going to Give You Up’ ever will. In fact, most of our discography is way more hilarious than anything that … that … Englishman ever wrote.”

“I mean, have you people ever heard the song ‘Private Eyes’?” Oates asked dramatically, wiping his hands on his spandex-covered thighs.

Rickrolling is a bit of Internet hilarity that surfaced in 2007 in which a seemingly innocuous Web link redirects surfers to a video for the 1987 pop hit by Rick Astley. The meme has made Astley wildly popular with children who were likely conceived while that song was playing.

The 300 students shifted uncomfortably. One looked to his teacher and whispered “If they offer me candy, I should say ‘no,’ right?” His teacher nodded and shushed the tot.

“Please right this wrong,” Oates appealed to the children. “When you get home from school, find a way to surreptitiously link to one of our songs on You Tube. … ‘Rich Girl’ or ‘You’re Kiss is on My Lips’ are good picks for this sort of thing.”

“And when someone asks you what you’re doing, say something like ‘Ha! You just got Hall’ed,” Hall said excitedly.

” Oates. Oates-rolled. Rolled Oates,” Oates corrected his longtime partner.

“It’s Hall’ed. But whatever. It’s going to be huge,” Hall said. “And we’re giving you the chance to start it.”

Originally posted October 26, 2009 on Schadenfreude.

‘Tommy’ rocks at Renegade

The stage at Teatro Zuccone has been painted with a red, white and blue bull’s-eye — the signature of the 1970s rock band The Who. The set is framed with metal trellises, and motion-activated lights slice the scenes. A drum kit in an acoustic-deadening Plexiglas cage sits at stage right, a pinball machine at stage left.

During a recent rehearsal, a woman in fishnets and heavy makeup dashes on and off stage.

With Renegade Theater Company’s production of “Tommy,” which opens at 8 p.m. today, the troupe is looking for a crossover classic: a rock musical heavy with the feel of a live concert for the music heads; something innovative and dramatic for the theater geeks. There isn’t a lot of crossover between these factions, director Andy Bennett said he noticed during Homegrown Music Festival.

“They’re both passionate, but it’s different fan bases,” he said. “We’re hoping this is a bridge.”

“Tommy” was written by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff and is based on The Who’s 1969 double-album rock opera. It is the story of a young boy — Tommy (played by Adam Sippola) — who watches in a mirror as his father kills his mother’s lover, rendering the boy blind, deaf and dumb. The dark story includes molestation at the hands of his Uncle Ernie (played by Jody Kujawa, whose head has been shaved to ape male-pattern baldness), and the eventual realization that he is a bit of a pinball kingpin.

And there is lots and lots of rock ’n’ roll. The 90-minute production has about five minutes of straight dialogue.

“This is the only rock musical that rock music fans would want to go to,” said Evan Kelly, who plays the camouflage-clad Captain Walker.

Full story here.

Originally published June 4, 2010 in the Duluth News Tribune.