By Jack Spencer
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By Reed Fischer
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"REMEMBER THOSE OLD hi-fis where you could stack up the records?" asks Strawdogs leader John Eric Thiede. "When I was a little kid, my dad would stack up Louis Armstrong, and the Beatles' first album, the Firehouse Five, Petula Clark... I thought they were all peers. I really thought the Beatles and Louis Armstrong were like buddies."
Thanks mostly to Thiede's strange brand of musical blind faith, the Strawdogs--an eight-piece aggregation of young rock band refugees turned jazz and blues aficionados--are giving local clubs a refreshing blast of the past. Thiede, a high-school marathon runner, taught himself piano just as he was moving to Minnesota to attend St. Olaf College in 1980. He graduated in three years with a degree in English and American Studies, learning that's borne out in the Strawdogs' strangely colorful storylines and Theide's passion for classic American music.
It wasn't until his marriage dissolved in 1988 that Thiede really began focusing on music, banging around with energetic but unexceptional local rock bands such as Dog 994 and The Strapping Daddy O's. "It took me a while to figure out what I really wanted to do," says Thiede. "I was playing this alternative rock or lounge punk or whatever, but I never listened to that stuff. For 15 years, all I've been listening to is Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, the Rebirth Brass Band... The only Nirvana songs I know are ones I heard on the radio."
Last year Thiede finally mustered the nerve to lead a bigger band to play the New Orleans pop and mid-century jazz he truly loved. That would seem like quite a stretch for the happy-go-lucky local barfly, but unknown to most, Thiede had been wintering in New Orleans for the last five years, soaking up the city's musical gumbo. Oddly enough, the late-blooming Long Islander has made a decent living playing in French Quarter piano bars, thanks no doubt to a vocal growl he's honed into a reasonable resemblance of Louis Armstrong.
If Thiede can hold his own in Crescent City, no wonder the Strawdogs have caught on so fast here, where the band is one of the few rock club regulars with a full horn section, carving a musical niche all their own. Saxophonist Hall Sanders has led various small jazz combos, while ex-Zenbishops trumpeter Jay Mote was looking for a band that challenged his arranging and soloing skill. With the recent addition of trombonist Buck Nelson and the restoration of the 400 Bar's upright piano, the summer's hottest new band has captured a sound and spirit similar to the old Milwaukeeans when they had soulful sidekick Robyn Pleur.
In the Strawdogs' case, the added attraction is second vocalist Dana Thompson, a singer-about-town who joined Thiede on some Billie Holiday tributes a few years back. Visually and vocally, Thompson offsets Thiede beautifully, and provides a little breather from the man's nonstop stage energy.
"There's an old New Orleans phrase 'If you're not gonna shake it, why'd ya bring it?'" says Thiede. "I was watching a band at the Uptown once where all the guitarists were looking at this one spot on the floor the whole night. I went right up to the stage to see what was so interesting on that spot. I didn't see anything, and the guys in the band never saw me either. When bands mope about how nobody got up and danced, I say, 'Well, I didn't even see you move your hips.' What do they think--their stoicism is gonna drive people wild?"
Judging by a preview tape of the Strawdogs' debut, John Perkins, John Perkins, that energy transfers quite well to tape. Recorded this summer at AmRep, Thiede and engineer Tim Mac have made a vibrant, action-packed record that stands out strongly from recent local self-releases, thanks to the wide-ranging repertoire and some tasty overdubs from Jon Duncan on squeezebox and Andy Sullivan on banjo.
With growing local popularity and an impressive debut in the works, talk would naturally turn to record deals and booking tours. But Thiede, survivor of the road grind, will take the big business as it comes. "I really love what I'm doing, and that's about as good as life gets, really. We know that there's basically a certain popularity level this can reach, but I think the enjoyment level can go anywhere. I don't want to play music for musicians--when guys are soloing, I urge them to stick to the melody. When Louis made those Hot Five and Hot Seven records, which are now considered jazz masterpieces, they were made to entertain people; it wasn't made for bookworms. There's a lot of great literature about music, and I read it all. But the live show is about as complex as going out there and just shaking it."
The Strawdogs perform a holiday Christmas special every Thursday in December at 400 Bar. There's a $1 discount for those who bring nonperishable food items. Also this week, Dana Thompson performs with Nate Dungan and Dan Gaarder of Trailer Trash at Uptown Bar & Cafe Tuesday.