By Reed Fischer
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By Jeff Gage
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Wearing nothing but negligées and tennis shoes, four pert women in their 20s walk into a bedroom crowded with 40 or so people. Each of the four takes her place behind a standing microphone, leaving a fifth mouthpiece unoccupied in the center, reserved for tonight's star attraction, Jeremy Ackerman, a.k.a. Walker Kong. It's a balmy spring evening, and the room temperature creeps a little higher when a camera tech from KARE-TV's teen-oriented show Whatever flips on a few extra lights, shining them on Kong's four backup singers-cum-band, the Dangermakers. (The segment featuring the group will air in July.) But the college-aged fans and friends packing the room for this invitation-only May 28 party hardly seem to mind the Marx Brothers-like chaos: They're ready for danger.
This may seem like a bit of a fuss for a retro indie rock group that's been around only a year, even if careful readers will remember the band's 13th-place showing in City Pages' 1999 New Music Poll. But Walker Kong and the Dangermakers have gained something of a reputation by squeezing genuine exuberance out of these staged "happenings." And while Ackerman's Jonathan Richman-like geek magnetism was evident early on, the four Dangermakers have truly grown into their roles in recent months, gaining onstage confidence, learning to play instruments, and tonight, dressed in nightwear that's more Ragstock than Victoria's Secret, even showing a little moxie.
"Thank you for coming to see my band play in my bedroom," says red-bobbed Dangermaker Katie Kanwischer, tonight's hostess. With that, Kong takes center stage, and soon his tie is dangling over the conga drum standing in front of him. He introduces the "guest band" also accompanying him for the evening, Flori-Dan, then launches into a lounge-pop take on Kraftwerk's "Neon Lights" that can't help but recall fellow local crooner Jim Ruiz.
Several songs into the set, Flori-Dan politely exits, and the Dangermakers take over the instruments, with Kanwischer picking up percussion, Sara Vargas manning the Wurlitzer and Farfisa, Alex Reinhart grabbing the bass, and Emily Cahill taking the drums. The music then lunges into a far less self-conscious mode. The spirited mix of Sixties garage rock and psychedelia strips away whatever polish could be detected on their debut album, The Early Years (Roll Music). Suddenly, the Dangermakers sound both less precious and more rock 'n' roll, and a fuzzy feeling of fan puppy love flutters through the crowd--a common occurrence at these shindigs. Drummer Cahill stands behind her kit pounding mercilessly while early-evening sun from a nearby window shines through her sheer dress, illuminating her legs underneath. She's oblivious to the revealing pose, smiling and banging the floor tom like the Go-Go's Gina Schock on a sugar high.
There's a naive sort of sexuality at work in the Dangermakers, and this, more than anything else, makes them archetypal Nineties indie poppers. Standing awkwardly in the middle of his harem, Kong seems an unlikely heartthrob with his geek-chic glasses and severe buzz-cut. But try telling that to the girl in the front row, her hands pressed against her face like a crazed Beatles fan, her eyes glued to the singer's wagging booty, which he can't help grabbing.
When Kong and the Dangermakers join me a week later, relaxing in their downtown practice space--a classroom at MacPhail Center for the Arts--it becomes evident that the singer is in love with the idea of romantic innocence. This fits, since the 25-year-old is attractive in that nonthreatening way indie girls dig to no end. And although it's doubtful he'll be dancing in lesbian bars anytime soon, Kong does lend a Richman-like cuddliness to his various tales of toga parties, goth kids, and squares hanging in Harvard Square. "The songs are serious to a certain degree," he says, "But I'm always making fun of myself."
When Kong moved back to south Minneapolis last year after attending art school in Boston, he never planned on becoming the male bandleader of a female band, a Charlie with four Angels. Instead, Cahill, Kanwischer, Reinhart and Vargas were all sitting around with Kong one day, he claims, when it occurred to them that they should start a group, and that he should teach them to play music. "Basically he writes all the songs and the parts," explains Reinhart. "But sometimes we write the parts."
At first blush, this doesn't sound like much of an empowerment circle, but Kong is more of a favorite teacher than a tyrant, encouraging his pupils to use their own creative powers. And when I ask the women if learning to play and perform has changed their lives, they shyly nod and beam in unison.
The Dangermakers' style of playing is confoundingly simple, the songs positively catchy. And once in a while, as on their Radio K hit "Ronnie Raygun," they pull off tricks normally performed by more seasoned players. The tune could be any other straight-ahead mod anthem until the chorus abruptly slows, as if someone had suddenly punched down the record from 45 to 33 rpm, breaking the song in two. And while many of the band's tunes seem shamelessly derivative and tailor-made for college radio--they borrow equally from Lou Reed and Thee Headcoats--their musical reference points are quickly forgotten amid the band's paeans to the sweeter side of puberty.
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