Love, Sweet, and Tears

The weird, womanly ways of Tulip Sweet and Her Trail of Tears

Finding a Northeast Minneapolis bar closed on a hot Saturday night might seem like a sure sign of the apocalypse to most locals. But singer Tulip Sweet and members of her cabaret folk-glam band Trail of Tears take disappointments in stride. They'd hoped to prepare for a five-shows-in-seven-days "Minneapolis Tour" by unwinding in My Place. Now, forced by a locked door to improvise, they huddle together in the adjacent parking lot, passing around cans of Hamm's to catch a light buzz before departing for tonight's planned appearance at Bedlam Theatre's studio. Sweet, a.k.a. Stephanie Dickson, waves her drink to me in welcome, proudly telling anyone who'll listen that the star on her hat marks her as a commie. In fact, the 27-year-old looks more like a flapper lost in the Seventies, and her combination of styles reveals a bit of the theatrical flair and sexual freedom that are integral to her stage persona. Dickson took her moniker, she says, because she thought it sounded like a good porn name.

A sort of local cult icon, Dickson is probably best known as the eccentric Ohio immigrant who fronted her former band Bean Girl, remembered for its legendary performance-art/punk shows at the now-demolished 24 Bar. With its ever-revolving cast of accordion players, keyboardists, and varying horn sections, Bean Girl was a rock 'n' roll circus with Dickson playing ringmaster. (Her chutzpah earned a fan in that penultimate lovesick crooner, Jonathan Richman, who to this day calls Dickson to play her his new songs.) When she disbanded the group in 1997, Dickson continued to hone her singing and knack for ribaldry with the like-minded freaks who soon made up her band, Trail of Tears.

Tout de suite: Tulip Sweet (center) and Her Trail of Tears, (from left) Tom Siler, Andy McCormick, and Dave Weigardt
Tony Nelson
Tout de suite: Tulip Sweet (center) and Her Trail of Tears, (from left) Tom Siler, Andy McCormick, and Dave Weigardt

Looking like an overgrown teenager with dark horn-rimmed glasses and a goofy grin, Trail of Tears bassist Andy McCormick drains his can before tossing it into the flatbed of the band's rusty Dodge Ram pickup. He's seen as something of a local character himself, and it's not uncommon to catch him playing the saw for children at the Weisman, or throwing late-night accordion jams on the Washington Avenue Bridge after bar time. McCormick's glam-rock foil in the Trail, Casio player Tom Siler, is the former lead singer of the Odd, and he still looks the part of a windblown, Seventies free lover, with dyed and feathered red hair and leather pants. But this evening, drummer Dave Weigardt strikes me as the freest spirit of the crew, abandoning his drums at the practice space in his blind faith that there will be something to play at the theater.

As the band arrives, the cabaret is already under way, and a heavy-metal drag queen professedly dedicated to Satan, is finishing her set. The second stage to the left remains empty, an imposing-looking structure crafted to resemble the exterior of a silver spaceship. Soon, it will make the perfect, surreal backdrop for Dickson, who has fitted herself for the show with a sparkling red dress and go-go boots.

"You people are so boring," she taunts the crowd during her set. "We should all take off our clothes and get na-ked." Misinterpreting the spirit of Dickson's invitation, a man rushes the stage and gives her a spank on the rump. Dickson promptly tells him to fuck off--she's in control of the debauchery level here--and her would-be suitor is escorted away by Bedlam staff.

Finding a category to describe this band's music isn't easy; Dickson herself once pitched it as a "folk explosion" when trying to book an all-acoustic gig. Tonight the ensemble is more souped up and electrified, dabbling in new wave on "Tattoo My Name on Yer Ass" before segueing into the rumba-driven Western tune "I'll Go Insane." The constant for the group is a fondness for thespian flare, and Dickson's dominating presence in the starring role.

Despite her goading, the crowd doesn't appear to be in a streaking mood. Dickson seems to internalize this as a thwarted chance at passion, only to spit it back out in comedic rants about tainted love, stomping her feet in disturbingly realistic tantrums, and turning occasionally to slap the China cymbal behind her. Eventually she cools down, crouching to sing the haunting theme to Rosemary's Baby. Then she sprawls out on the floor to croon a Sweet original, "Goodnight Parents," a lullaby sung in the voice of teenagers wishing to lull mom and dad to sleep in order to sneak out of the house for a night of revelry.

 

Several days later, as Sweet and company sit around a booth in the Turf Club's cozy Clown Lounge, bass-player McCormick points to a picture of his friend, neo-vaudeville singer Randall Throckmorton, whose likeness is hanging on the wall among the club's photo gallery of regulars and performers. It's through him, McCormick remembers, that the band members first met one another two years ago; soon thereafter they were playing regular gigs in this same room. Much has happened in that time, with Dickson moving to New York City for a year, only to have her band pull her back to Minneapolis this past spring to record a CD that's due in September. Together they act like a sort of vagabond family, remembering late-night liquor runs to Wisconsin and the many shows they've played around the country--at children's festivals in Texas, clubs in NYC, even at local rest homes and psych wards. Soon, hopes Siler, the band will tour the prison circuit, just like Johnny Cash.

When the singer leaps up to demonstrate a childhood game of "horsy," which entails clutching her hands between her legs as she gallops about the room, she looks like a nymphet gone awry. "I think a lot of my songs have a bit of an ominous sexual energy," she says. "I want people to fear me a little bit. So I write songs about women who would say, 'I'm gonna go crazy on you.' I really like the idea of a woman losing her mind, when the chick freaks out on a cute guy and he gets his fucking ass kicked because she goes nuts. That's a persona I like to take part in. It turns me on."

Her bandmates laugh in appreciation: They seem to take Dickson's current lyrical obsessions as a natural extension of childish muses like unicorns and kissing trees. Her face flushed from the excitement of the game, Dickson finally sits back down. Her impish blue eyes look gleefully wicked. "One day, I really hope I'm released into madness," she says with no trace of irony.

McCormick replies with all the mock seriousness of a prophet, "You shall be released."

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