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Call her the heckler of fate. Two years ago at the Spring Street Bar & Grill in northeast Minneapolis, the Front Porch Swingin' Liquor Pigs were amiably enduring verbal abuse from an elderly woman at the bar. "After every song she'd say, 'You guys suck!'" remembers singer-guitarist Dave Babb. "Later that night she flipped us off as she left; then she went outside and fell down. That was the last time we played there."
Babb is sitting in his north Minneapolis living room, sipping Summit ales with singer-guitarist Randy Webb and bassist-singer Rusty Jones. The latter leans forward and smiles while finishing the story. "Earlier that night we were taking a break and she said to me, 'Is that all you guys play is this new shit?' And I said, 'No, most of the music we play is older than you.' Then, after this incredibly long pause, she looks me square in the face and says, 'You lying fucker!'"
Jones and the other four Liquor Pigs took the hint and relocated to the Viking Bar on the West Bank, a place saddled with some baggage of its own. In 1996 a customer fatally stabbed Viking owner Scott Nelson. "The place isn't nearly as bizarre and crazy as everybody thinks it is, just because one bad thing happened there," says Webb. In a way, the quintet restored some good cheer to the eight-decade-old bar's wounded spirit, playing Friday-evening folk-blues hootenannies that recalled the homespun West Bank acoustic scene of the 1960s. Rounded out by drummer Jim Tollefsrud (who, with Jones, plays in Safety Last) and washboard player Tim "Dr. Dog" Bradach (a West Bank fixture who plays with Spider John Koerner), the band was a godsend for fans of the old days. Slowly, Fridays at the Viking grew into an essential working-stiff stop-off. "It's a catharsis," says Webb, "A true happy hour."
Aside from a few Babb-penned originals, the Liquor Pigs remain basically a cover band, though one with uncommonly good taste, as evidenced on the new Tom Siler-produced album, Forget Your Truffles and Dance (Narnian). The disc is filled with reverent covers of such non-jug-band gems as the Faces' "Ooh La La" and Tom Waits' "Come on Up to the House," as well as the sort of old-time tunes that hang on catchy, comic phrases like "You've got the right string baby but the wrong yo-yo." Fiddle player Brian Wicklund drops by, and so does Spider John, for whimsical vocal turns on "Black Dog" and "What's the Matter With the Mill." (Both songs, incidentally, were also recorded by Koerner, Ray & Glover on their 1964 classic Lots More Blues, Rags & Hollers.)
The album may net the Pigs an audience beyond their tiny base, but it's hard to imagine a new crowd having the same fervor. In a rare Friday-night defection from the Viking last month, they played the patio of Neumann's in North St. Paul, which is billed as the oldest bar in Minnesota. As the night wore on, the increasingly well-lubricated crowd burst into sing-alongs. A few rowdies, egged on by the beginning of a wicked July night's thunderstorm, clamored for the fan favorite, "You're Bound to Look Like a Monkey." Pounding the bar with their fists, they chanted, "Monkey! Monkey! Monkey!" Then a solidly built man in a black Harley-Davidson shirt screamed, half-threatening, half-pleading, "Mon-kayyyyy! Come on, assholes!"
Seems there's a lot of love wherever the Liquor Pigs play, and it never goes unrequited. "When you hear that chamber spin," jokes Webb later, "You'll play whatever the people want to hear."
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