Mistaken Identities

THE LEGENDARY CURTISS A will not be performing at this Friday's 15th Annual John Lennon Tribute at First Avenue. But fear not: Beatle freak Curt Almsted will be there, along with numerous special guests, to once again perform Beatles tunes from every era (including, one would suppose, this one).

The fact is that Almsted's capital A alter-ego is near about as gone as the man this tribute is meant to honor. For a couple years now, the many fliers and calendars that promote "The Artist Formerly Known as Curtiss A" have seemed like overextended, self-inflating jabs at you-know-who. But to Almsted--a man who can laugh at almost anything--the need to dispense with the legend of Curtiss A is no joke.

"My life used to be like an Elvis movie," said Almsted. "I'd walk into a bar, sing a song with the band. Some guy would bug me, I'd punch him, and leave with some chick. Now that's a total oversimplification, but that's what people think when they think of 'That wild man Curtiss A.' I'm really not that way. But I've been told that when I'm Curtiss A, I act like a different guy, and there might be some truth to that. That's why I killed him--the persona, the idea of this guy that people hate, is dead."

Which is why Almsted now appears mostly under the name "Buzz Barker," while "The Curtiss Agency" produces his gigs, offering a clue as to who's who behind the masks. But the name changes and innumerable band lineups are just a few of many things which have created confusion about the graduate of old South High School, including his well-known preoccupation with aliens and his well-publicized criminal record. (Almsted claims he did five weeks in the workhouse for aggravated assault, which involved violating a restraining order by bringing 13 roses to an ex-girlfriend.) His mythology, along with some lackluster recent appearances (among them some flat cameos with Lights Out Committee), have caused many to write Almsted off as an uncontrollable has-been.

What's gone unnoticed, however, is how Almsted, along with snuffing his Curtiss A persona, has held tight to two fairly stable bands of late: one, the very seldom seen Jerks of Fate, and the more prevalent Mr. Midnight and His Spooky Paradise Kings of Love, a mouthful of a moniker that inherited a phrase from numerous Almsted band names down through history.

The emphasis on band names themselves are part of Almsted's effort to get out of the spotlight and amplify his ability to collect great players, providing a sort of John Mayall-style training ground for fun-damental R&B-inflected rock players. Jerks drummer Johnny Haga (Hypstrz) was the prime catalyst for getting Almsted out of the basement and back to the music world after the tragic death of his daughter a number of years ago. Songwriter Gary Rue and Trova's Jeffrey Wilkomm are the remaining Jerks, while Ex-Piston Frank Berry is in both bands; Safety Last bassist Rusty Jones, and drummer Ernest Stevenson round out Mr. Midnight.

The consistent chatter around town and on my message machine this year is that the mysterious Mr. Midnight and crew were tearing up local clubs like classic Curt: By many accounts he brought down the house opening for Los Straightjackets, and I can attest they were definitely in another zone at an open-ended Garage D'or anniversary party this summer, playing a long blues dirge that summoned the spirit of Howlin' Wolf, and suggested that any youngsters diggin' the new power roots movement are gonna have to answer to Mr. Midnight.

"I'm doing this with as much verve as when I was a youngster," Almsted says. "I'm glad some people are liking it. Jerks of Fate is more like the Beatles, more colorful pop. But Mr. Midnight is a much more narrow thing, mostly based on black music. I'm still electrified by all that New Orleans music coming up from Chicago. I'm not a 60-year-old black guy, but I am a 45-year-old white guy who's listened and lived through some stuff."

Perhaps that new dedication will be evident at Friday's tribute, which Almsted jokes will split nicely between "pre-acid and post-acid" Beatles. Guest string players will be on hand to recreate the orchestral parts that the real Fab Four never had to address in concert, while Greg Haugesag is leading a horn section. "Doing this Beatles thing, I got all these friends together who may or may not have always gotten along--especially with me. At one time or another I've probably been angry with everybody I'm playing with this time. But we're all together now, we're all pretty happy and have some good laughs and good times. That's hope for the future. That's what keeps me goin'. I know that sounds naive, but I'm not naive. I'm not jaded yet, either."

If Almsted seems too nostalgic, who can blame him? While he professes an admiration for the young locals Honeydogs and hotshot G. Love, he may not be nuts to feel that the better times, both musically and socially, are behind us. Still, Curt Almsted's doing whatever
he can to ensure that his best times are ahead.

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