"They kicked us out and then the lady called us back and wanted us to play her wedding," Pudas scoffs. "Isn't that weird?"
The recording studio, the Sacred Heart Music Center, really is in a former church, a century-old cathedral whose altar has been transformed into a stage. Not surprisingly, smoking and drinking are prohibited. Walking in with a case of Grain Belt beer, I wonder if lightning is going to strike me.
"Dude, our last album was made on booze," Pudas complains.
Despite the embargo on controlled substances the session goes well. The song they're recording is a Pudas-penned number called "North Country Bandit." With his understated, bluesy guitar riffs and mandolin fills, Weyandt provides the song's backbone. Pudas's full-throated yelp sounds fabulous echoing off the stained-glass windows and high vaulted ceiling.
Unfortunately he's having trouble remembering the lyrics. He flubs the vocal track twice. During the third take a cough is heard emanating from the balcony of the church. Juntunen is up there sneaking a hit of pot. He claims to have smoked dope on every stage the group has ever played. The White Iron Band exits the studio chanting "Booze! Booze! Booze! Booze!"
We arrive at the Tap Room at roughly 6:30 p.m., more than four hours before the band is slated to perform. It's a dank basement bar that smells equally of stale cigarette smoke and ammonia. Sound check is abandoned in favor of beer. "It doesn't fucking matter," Pudas reasons. "It's the fucking Tap Room." Two pizzas and a couple of dozen beers later the opening band, Del Mar, a quartet of jam-band noodlers from Wisconsin, begin playing.
Pudas insists I accompany him to a party outside the adjoining hotel, Fitger's Inn. There are probably 75 beer drinkers huddled around a fire overlooking Lake Superior. Pudas is slamming beers with what he dubs the band's "security patrol"--three six-foot-plus groupies from Blaine. One of them is actually wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "White Iron Band Security." They're "caramelizing" their beers, which involves literally sticking a red-hot poker from the fire into the brew, causing it to foam up and overflow. It also leaves ashes in the beer. Every time someone gets their beer caramelized, Pudas and the security crew chant, "caramel, caramel, caramel." Pudas is in full Keith Moon swagger: He steps through the four-foot high fire, emerging unscathed.
The White Iron Band stumble onstage shortly after 11:00. Pudas has donned a cowboy hat with a dead muskrat draped across the front. "We got here way too early tonight," he explains to the crowd, a sloppy grin spread across his face. Despite the onset of spring break--and the subsequent absence from Duluth of many of its college students--it's a decent audience of more than 100 people. The dance floor fills as Pudas howls the words immortalized by Willie Nelson 30 years ago: "Whiskey River take my mind!" Most of the people in attendance are young enough to think that he wrote the song.
The set is a pretty equal mix of covers and originals, but the difference between the two is negligible. The White Iron Band doesn't exactly write songs; they simply add new lyrics to the country-rock canon. In their hands, the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City" becomes "8 Ball at Five" and Lowell T. George's "Willin'" is re-christened "San Diego." Powered by two drummers, and Pudas's freight-train vocals and untuned rhythm guitar, the show threatens to become an exercise in bombast. The band clearly misses Johnson's tear-in-your-beer pedal-steel work. What holds the proceedings together (even for those who have not pledged their allegiance to Anheuser-Busch) is Weyandt's lovely, understated guitar play. With his scuffed boots, army-green work shirt, and matching baggy pants, he resembles a gas-station attendant in some dying Midwestern town--if not Duluth, Superior, certainly. The talented jester to Pudas's whiskey-breathing preacher, he contorts his face into goofy grimaces and flashes a wolfish smile as he riffs.
The highlight of this (and all) White Iron Band shows is "Minnesota Pride," a rollicking homage to ice hockey, ice fishing, and ice-cold beer--and a direct rip-off of "Okie from Muskogee." The midriff-baring hippy chicks are contending for space on the dance floor with dudes in nylon sweatsuits drinking Heinekens two at a time. A portly drunk kid jumps up onstage and slugs his drink as everyone chants "Ben! Ben! Ben!"
The White Iron Band close the show with the theme song from The Dukes of Hazzard. Pudas never does get his guitar in tune, but no one cares.
I wake up on a couch somewhere in Duluth at about 10:00 the next morning with a five-alarm headache and vague memories of the hours between bar close and the present. I recall a drunken paraplegic tipping over in his wheelchair and a party a few blocks away where I'd momentarily feared I'd been abandoned. The house we've crashed in has a "Liberate Iraq" sign on the porch and the front yard is littered with beer cans and cigarette butts. Most of its residents are out of town for spring break. There's a wheelchair lying on its side in the grass that Sammy apparently rode down the steps around 5:30 a.m. Fortunately it's not the same wheelchair that had been occupied by the paraplegic the previous evening.