By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
"The sense of community and sheer number of amazing bands right now is awe-inspiring," says J. Michael Ward, drummer for this year's Picked to Click champions STNNNG, when asked about the health of Minnesota music. "Having to choose between several great shows on any given night of the week is a wonderful problem to have." Granted, being in an acclaimed band with a good draw might lead a fellow to a sunny view of the scene--rumor has it that members of White Bear Lake's seldom seen and always overlooked Joe Cocker tribute band, Cock!, have become increasingly bitter and pessimistic about local music. We tend to think that Ward is right, and this 15th annual survey offers quite a lot of supporting evidence.
Here's how it works. We asked a bunch of Minnesota music experts--DJs, writers, record-label kingpins, bloggers, talent buyers, promoters, etc.--to vote for their five favorite Minnesota music acts--bands, DJs, folk singers, rappers, zither-toting buskers, church organists--to emerge in the past 12 months, give or take. So it's a new-band poll with some flexibility. Many of the winners and runners-up played their first show or put out their debut album this past year; some have been around for a few years, but took a while to get noticed, or have been around for longer but have in some way reinvented themselves. In the end, 86 voters selected nearly 200 acts. The ranked lists were tabulated as follows: five points for the number-one choice, four for second place, and so on. With the unranked ballots, we gave each act 19.7 points, just for kicks, but then changed our minds and gave them all 3. To browse through the ballots, see the version of this article on citypages.com. To learn more about the top 10 finishers, read on. --Dylan Hicks
Picked to Click Top 10:
1. STNNNG 66
6. Duplomacy 32
9. (tie) The Blind Shake 25
Jesse Kwakenat, bass
What was the first concert you went to and what do you remember about it?
Oh man. Guns N' Roses with Soundgarden opening when I was in the ninth grade. I think it was at the Target Center. To share how awesome it was, here is a rough timeline of events:
9:00 p.m.: Soundgarden takes the stage to a 3/4-packed Target Center.
9:03 p.m.: Chris Cornell de-shirts.
9:15 p.m.: The band rips into "Outshined," and Cornell really delivers the line "Feeling Minneeesoooota" to the bewilderment of all in attendance.
9:35 p.m.: Soundgarden exits, no encore.
10:45 p.m.: In an attempt to keep all of the fans at bay while waiting for Axl to be show ready, the Jumbotron begins zooming in on ladies willing to "pose" for the camera. My 14-year-old mind is blown.
12:15 a.m.: We leave three songs into G N' R's set to meet an enraged Dad/ride who had been waiting since 11:30 p.m.
Who do you think
will be the next U.S. president?
Hillary Clinton. I really do believe she can do it. Kanye West for v.p.? Okay, I know, but how awesome would that be?
What's the strangest thing a crowd member has said to you after one of your shows?
"I like your bass parts on the record." Or, "Is your singer always like that?" To which I replied, "Yes, but usually much more sweaty."
Who's better, the Velvet Underground or the Stooges?
Velvet Underground. That's just the way it is. The rest of the band may kill me for this.
Favorite novelist, poet, or playwright: Mikhail Bulgakov. The Master and Margarita is amazing.
I don't understand what people like about: A lot of things. But calling them out never seems to pay off either, so therein lies the quandary.
Adam Burt, guitar
Which historical figure would you most like to have as a road manager?
Socrates, so I could opine with him on philosophical matters of great import during the boring parts of the tour.
What was the first non-kids' record you owned, and do you still own it?
MC Hammer's Too Legit 2 Quit, and yes, I do. On cassette.
What's your favorite STNNNG song to play and why?
"Explosive; More Intense." I use a slide to play the most annoying guitar solo in the world. I try to one-up myself on the scale of annoyingness with each performance of that song.
How do you deter people from calling the band "Sting"?
I do not deter it. I encourage it.
Favorite movie actor:
I know a lot about: Jandek. As much as one can know, that is.
J. Michael Ward, drums
What song do you most wish you'd written?
Is this like, "What's your favorite song?" Because there are a lot of songs out there. I really like "Person to Person" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins. I'll put it on almost any mix tape for a prospective girlfriend. Otherwise, probably Sicbay's "Who Wrote the Night?" or "Anarchy Burger" by the Vandals or pretty much anything off U.S. Maple's Talker album, which is hands down my favorite record from start to finish.
If you were forced to wear a hat all the time for a year (sleeping hours excluded), what kind of hat would you wear?
Something classy. Perhaps a bowler?
What's the best thing about the Twin Cities music scene? What's the worst?
The sense of community and sheer number of amazing bands right now is awe-inspiring. Having to choose between several great shows on any given night of the week is a wonderful problem to have. The worst thing about our music community right now, however, is probably the lack of opportunities for those underage to see bands, but I don't know that that's something necessarily unique to our city or point in time.
Who's one of your heroes or heroines?
I greatly respect and admire my grandfather.
Favorite painter, photographer, or sculptor: For some reason, the only thing that comes to my mind right now is Mark Fischer's painting of a head of lettuce on the cover of Cheer-Accident's Salad Days, so I'm gonna say him. I'm impressed by anyone who has any talent whatsoever in these areas, because I don't.
As it turns out, I was wrong about: Asparagus. I hated the stuff growing up, but now I know better!
Nathan Nelson, guitar
What's the most valuable piece of parental advice you ever got?
"The hood ornament on your car is for telling you where you're going. The rear-view-mirror is for showing you how good you look while you're getting there." That was either from my dad or DLR [ed.: David Lee Roth], I don't remember. I've turned to both men for chestnuts of inspiration when faced with life's many challenges over the years.
What's your favorite 2005 album and what's so great about it?
A-Frames, Black Forest. I love the sound of this record. The riffs are catchy yet grating at the same time. The lyrics and vocals are great as well.
Are you good at sports?
I am Michael Jordan.
Is the information on your driver's license pertaining to height and weight accurate?
Yes. But my picture isn't accurate at all.
Least favorite adjective: Gay. Like, "That movie was really gay" (meaning bad). Ugh.
I spend way too much money on: Food. I eat almost every day.
Chris Besinger, vocals
What's the coolest thing you ever saw someone do onstage?
Either Han Bennink playing drums with two flaming Lunds bags or the bass player from the Nerves face-planting on the Entry stage without missing a note or taking the cigarette out of his mouth.
If you were forced to listen exclusively to music from one decade, including this one, which decade would you prefer to be limited to?
I guess the '70s, since that is the decade that birthed most of my favorite records/styles: early punk, weird art rock, krautrock, free jazz, underground rock, dub, funk etc., and it seems like one of the more fertile creative periods. However, I could take just about any decade; there's always interesting stuff going on somewhere.
What do you most like about being in a band?
Playing shows, being able to play shows with bands that we like, writing songs, etc.
If you had a dollar for every pizza you've ever eaten, what could you buy?
A $10,000 dollar turntable, a set of six-foot-tall stereo speakers, and a large cup of coffee.
All-time favorite album title: Third World War 2 by Third World War.
Of all the guys in the band, I'm the one most likely to: Know the complete discography of a band no one has ever heard of.
1. None of their songs are about death.
2. Their near-death experience in 2004 came as a relief. The van they flipped in Missoula had been leaking exhaust through the floor. "Our Converse were actually melting a little bit," says guitarist Mark Schumacher.
3. Music on the stereo at the time of the accident: AC/DC's Highway to Hell.
4. Though they play pretty pop music, the Deaths love metal. "I'm obsessed with Mötley Crüe's Too Fast for Love," says drummer Tom Stromsodt.
5. The Deaths' 2005 debut, Choir Invisible (GoJohnnyGo Records), is actually their third album. Tapes of the previous two were lost, the first by a producer, and the second by a former bandmate.
6. The Deaths are originally from Fargo, and recently retrieved old posters from the legendary (and soon-to-be demolished) Ralph's Corner Bar in Moorhead.
7. "Fargo is so small that you generally know everybody," says singer Karl Qualey. "There's a joke [about relationships] in Fargo: You don't break up, you just lose your turn."
8. "Fargo is a drinking town. Grand Forks is more of a coke town. There's a saying: It always snows in Grand Forks."
9. The Deaths have not booked any of their own shows in the Twin Cities for the past year. Other bands invite them to play.
10. Being called the Deaths gets old. "Speaking for myself, I'm really tired of the name," says Qualey. "Though it's awesome trying to explain it to your great-aunt."
Stephen Lewis, the local DJ/producer known as Anatomy, reckons that "The Vultures" might be mistaken as the anthem of his group Kill the Vultures. And he's right.
The central image of the song has the group fending off the elements that would turn them into carrion, a choice of villain that adds desperation to their already-pained vocal styles (vultures are, after all, enemies only to the nearly dead). Meanwhile, they reflect on the "golden years, now viewed as stolen goods," which one can assume refers to the group's previous life as the young, commercially viable, critically drooled-over hip-hop crew Oddjobs. With Kill the Vultures' three MCs--Advizer, Nomi, and Crescent Moon--chanting "Kill the vultures/Before they dine on all of us" in urgent unison, it's hard to regard the song as anything but the mission statement of the Twin Cities' oddest rap group.
In fact, the line was written well before Kill the Vultures adopted their name. "Advizer wrote that, and I just really liked it," says Lewis, speaking outside of the Scooterville building near Stadium Village. (The group's second album, tentatively titled The Careless Flame, is being mixed at Third Ear Studio, one floor above the scooter showroom). Lewis's tight white shirt and sculpted black hair make him look like a greaser from The Outsiders. He runs his fingers through his pompadour and says, "I just love the blunt darkness of it." (The lyric, not the hair, presumably.)
Advizer (born Adam Waytz), a grad student in research psychology at the University of Chicago, finds a deeper meaning in the line. "There are people in your life who really benefit from bringing you down," he writes via e-mail. "Killing the vultures is about preempting those demons."
As Oddjobs fans nationwide have been discovering since Kill the Vultures began performing in Minneapolis, Chicago, and San Francisco (the current respective hometowns of Anatomy and Crescent Moon, Advizer, and Nomi), such dark talk is an about-face for guys once known for their throw-your-hands-in-the-air hip hop. And those are just the lyrics: Anatomy, finding himself alone at the production helm following the departure of Oddjobs DJ Deetalx, steered Kill the Vultures into new musical terrain. Gone are the ready-made backpack beats that got Jurassic 5 fans all atwitter; in their place is innovative avant-rap that sounds a little like walking through a tool shed in the dark while carrying a boombox blaring free jazz.
A case in point: "Blue Collar Holler," Oddjobs' highest-charting single (number six on the CMJ college chart), was a feel-good fanfare to the common cats, themselves included. "We just a crew doin' a job/And it's an odd, odd job," went the chorus. Compare that boosterism to this line, from Kill the Vultures' "Behind These Eyes": "Scum of the earth, gathered are we/Numb to work for manufacturing/Assembly line, running so smooth/Faster than a wartime economy boost."
So what happened?
"We could have written the perfect Oddjobs record," says Lewis of the time following the final Oddjobs release, 2003's The Shopkeeper's Wife. "But we weren't into that kind of music anymore. I wanted to use more raw materials. Raw vocals. It wasn't about making 'quality hip hop' anymore. I was more titillated by dark, psychedelic stuff."
"Even when [Oddjobs] tried to make basic indie hip hop, we never really got it right," adds Alexei Casselle, a.k.a. Crescent Moon. "We're just weird dudes."
Curiously, Kill the Vultures wasn't created during one of those endless Minnesota winters that have given rise to so many disconsolate local records. It is, in fact, the product of sunny California. After emigrating from Minneapolis to Brooklyn in 2002, Oddjobs eventually relocated to Berkeley, where they resorted to covering their windows with black garbage bags to escape the easy-breezy vibe. It was then that they started to record what was supposed to be another Oddjobs record. It didn't take long for the four longtime friends to realize that part of what they were documenting was Oddjobs breaking up.
"Those were the truly dark days," Waytz says. "All of us sort of had personal breakdowns early on in our time out in the Bay Area. The angry or bitter tone of the album probably comes from that period of time."
Lewis agrees. "It helped that we were really unhappy there," he says.
Kill the Vultures erupted from that morass. Waytz says recording the record felt like "screaming with a purpose." Casselle, having blamed the crew's former woes on "business polluting what we really wanted to do," found therapy in turning his focus away from his audience.
"I just love these songs, 'cause I don't give a fuck who likes them," he says, accenting the "fuck" with a punch to his palm. "If you're up there and you're trying to get a room full of people to put their hands up and sing along, and you fail, that's really hard to deal with. We're not even trying to do that anymore. It's our guts on the stage, and it ain't always pretty."
Nor is it very popular, at least with their former fun-loving fans. Casselle fondly recalls the Kill the Vultures release show, when they billed the group as "formerly Oddjobs." "A lot of people just didn't get into it," he says. "And why should they?"
In the backward chronology of a group that writes its theme song before establishing its theme, Kill the Vultures' magic shrinking fan base seems almost natural. Then again, while lines like "The last look she gave was a circling vulture/The kind that waits till you're dead to insult ya" aren't exactly a party, they're not inaccessible, either. Given an adjustment period, crowds are likely to be shouldering their way to the front of a Kill the Vultures stage. And they'll have their hands in the air, singing along to "The Vultures," knowing the song by heart.
No, not the song. The anthem.
In May of '05 this paper named Chariots "Best Local Punk Band," partly because "Best Local Indie/Punk/Metal/Do These Distinctions Really Matter? Band" seemed cumbersome. See, they've got a frenetic energy that's bona fide punk, but they're not shy around metal guitar tones--then again, most metal bands don't truck in the choppy, drum-heavy squall of Chariots' "The Laundry Room in This Building Is Equipped with a Burglar Alarm." Which song title skews toward the art-punk wing of indie, as does the group's look and wit, except nothing about them is nerdy-college-boyish. They're menacing, actually, both in their live show and on their debut CD, Congratulations, which obliterates all the categorical divisions you can muster like hacksaw through crepe paper.
The title track is just one example: Though we've heard the pleasantry laced with sarcasm nearly as often as we've seen it misspelled with a "d," it never carried the threat it does as contorted and distorted by singer Travis Bos. On "Twister Party Fails to Get Dirty"--should the band thing fizzle, there's a future for these guys at the Onion--Bos's keyboard becomes a haunted-house organ and the background vocals seem to come from the depths of hell (or some other dark place where erotic youth games are completely forbidden). "Nouveau Riche" has the band angry and quite worked up, with sawing guitars (and maybe an actual saw) backing sputtering, echoing screams. And while "Silver Tongue" finds a fast, punk tempo led by Matt Kepler's drums, "Number One with a Bullet" at times plods pleasurably at Sabbath pace.
All of which would argue for not changing a thing, but of course that plan never works out. While the band remains a four-piece (it took four horses to pull a chariot), they have been mutating a bit as of late. In June, Blain Finders replaced Arthur Gandy on bass. Then, just over a week ago, guitar player Eric Odness moved to New York. Bos says the band will continue with the current personnel, long distance, with a tour looming in November, which will also be when their next local show takes place.
So where would Bos file Chariots? "I wouldn't categorize us as punk, necessarily," he says, referring to the previous CP award. "But of course it's flattering and nice to get any of that kind of attention." (Next year: Chariots as Best Bluegrass band by a mile.) And while he admits that "some of the band" may have been influenced by metal, they certainly don't fit in that pigeonhole. "I think of us as more of a rock band, really," he says with a laugh. Exactly.
All-Time Greatest Sibling Acts:
3. Big Quarters
4. The Shaggs
Five Fun Facts About My Brother (Michael Gaughan):
1. He was the speaker at his MCAD graduation
2. He's vegan
3. He broke his arm lip-synching
4. He has a pet chameleon named Charles
5. He rode around in a golf cart with Mike Ditka
Five Fun Facts About My Sister (Katie Gaughan):
1. She is an amazing Irish step-dancer
2. She loves kayaking and being in nature
3. She can speak Spanish
4. She was an extra in Bill Murray's Groundhog Day
5. She's vegan
Someday We Hope to Perform at the Following Venues:
1. In a world with no wars or poverty
2. On a half-pipe made of mirrors
3. Atop the highest tower of Amp Castle
4. As the musical guest on SNL
5. At a party
Five Greatest Men with Moustaches:
1. Our father, Thomas Gaughan
2. Both our Uncle Mikes
3. Frank Zappa
4. Freddie Mercury
5. Wesley Willis
Five Favorite Albums of the '90s:
1. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Brother for Sale, 50 Cents (Lightyear)
2. Hulk Hogan and the Wrestling Boot Band, Hulk Rules (Select Records)
3. "Weird Al" Yankovic, Off the Deep End (Scotti Bros.)
4. CB4: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (MCA)
5. Slaughter, Stick It to Ya (Capitol)
If Yo La Tengo has it, as their name implies, Duplomacy wants it. The dream-pop quintet, helmed by singer/songwriter Andy Flynn (formerly of Valender), specializes in the same brand of nodding guitar lullabies that turned Hoboken, New Jersey's favorite band into mix-tape mainstays and college radio legends. And like that group, which Flynn himself cites as an influence, Duplomacy demands attention not with high-octane live shows or osten-tatious compositions, but with deceptively simple songs.
Each of the five tracks on Duplomacy's self-titled debut EP, for example, is barely more than a single sweet riff, which the group turns over like a candy in its collective maw. Only through layering and sheer repetition does it grow larger, into the kind of song that sticks in your head (or at least your teeth). It's from this songcraft, in fact, that the group takes its name. "I had this idea about writing songs where all the pieces were simple and equal and together would make something big," says Flynn. "It reminded me of Duplo blocks."
These days Flynn's building those blocks higher than he ever intended. Duplomacy, he explains, began as a bedroom recording project and "was never really meant to be a band." It was all but forced to become one, once Flynn's lo-fi tapes caught the ear of T.W. Walsh of Pedro the Lion, a cat of Duplomacy's stripe. Walsh was impressed enough to invite Flynn out for a recording session, and the results became the Duplomacy EP, released last year on 2024 Records.
The warm reception received by the EP has snowballed in 2005 into flat-out impatience for a full-length, which is already several months behind schedule. Flynn promises it's on the way. Here's hoping he's right.
Picked to Click history has shown that some top finishing bands quickly disintegrate or less quickly fade into obscurity, while some runners-up go on to reshape the scene. In other words, you'd be wise to watch out for the following acts, all of which nabbed a handful or more mentions from this year's voters:
Shut-Ins, the Gleam, Birthday Suits, Dessa, Digitata, the Pines, Planes for Spaces, Story of the Sea, the Alarmists, Action vs. Action, Aphrill, Gay Beast, Jazz Is Now! Nonet, Mute Era, hand
For emerging musicians, record label reps, and gaggles of college radio staffers, New York's CMJ Music Marathon is a great (if expensive) opportunity to network. They talk shop, swap business cards, and push demos. They charm. They schmooze. And where is the Twin Cities contingent? Cloistered away in the cramped upstairs lounge of Mo Pitkin's, a restaurant in the Village. We're watching the Plastic Constellations and milling around tables where an intern from the Current offers free stickers. It's like being at the Turf Club if it had a smoking ban; it's like--Minneapolis.
Escaping this home away from home, Chris Koza finds a table downstairs, next to a wall strewn with caricatures of the restaurant's celebrity regulars, including a mysterious bearded man nicknamed "Bimbo." Koza isn't a natural-born Midwesterner but retains honorary status, having pinballed between the Twin Cities, New York, and Portland since graduating from St. Olaf in 2001. The night before, he performed at the Alphabet Lounge, a terracotta-colored shoebox on the Lower East Side, with few preconceptions.
"It was really nothing more than performing at an out-of-town gig where most people have no clue who you are," he says. "I didn't have any expectations or delusions of a freak discovery, a suit in the back with an expense account and a town car, or some local star looking to christen something new and unknown."
It's a shame that some indie label bigwig (if there is such a thing) wasn't in the room. He would have discovered a singer with the rare composite of elements that frequently paves the way for folk-pop success. Songwriting that touches on Dylan, Simon, and, to grab that key college demographic, Smith? Check. Cute, spectacled, and nonthreatening? Mmhmm. Catchy name? Could be. Z's a hot letter, although Jason Mraz may have already ruined it. A music industry Svengali would also have to accept that Chris Koza is not a singular entity but a group of musicians who Koza emphasizes are all equally important to the act. As recently as last year, Koza played slightly heavier art-rock in the Channels with Luke Anderson, Justin Blair, and Peter Sieve. When Koza decided to record a solo album, the rest of the band graciously accepted backup duty, helping Koza create Exit Pesce (self-released) in the hallway of his old Dinkytown apartment and now working on a follow-up at Pachyderm Studios.
Koza's occasional female accomplices steal the debut album's title track, starting with a sample of Caroline Kent's innocuous la-las and building to the gale force of JoAnna James's spectral howl. James and Koza started collaborating last year after she asked him to play her CD-release show, and now they tease each other like siblings. She wanders downstairs during the interview and they're soon engaged in a staring contest. When her phone starts vibrating, James cries foul, and Koza taunts, "Oh, is it someone calling to say you lost?"
Most of the album stays grounded in traditional acoustic songcraft. Sparse percussion and solemn guitar accompany "Chicago Avenue," commemorating Koza's time as a resident at 38th and Elliot, an area that grew on the hesitant singer: "Just maybe I'll stick around longer than I intend/Just maybe I'll miss this place like a wish." But the album's best tracks are the ones that bounce; "Tired Eyes" and "Winning the Lottery" are bright spots that demand repeated listens. The former, with its bursts of trumpet bleats and plunking piano, chugs along like one of the less morose tracks on Elliott Smith's Figure 8. Koza only occasionally steps into overly folksy territory. "South South Dakota" sounds like a lost Woody Guthrie tune that pleads for more states to break apart and secede, if only to produce work for those long-unemployed flag makers. While Exit Pesce is riddled with wistful references to sand, ships, and saltwater, "South South Dakota" is the only track that comes right out and says it: "My heart is not alone in longing for the colors of the distant shore."
When I question his allegiance to the coastless scene that just voted him one of its best new artists, he laughs nervously. "I'm a Midwesterner by choice, sometimes by determination or obligation. But the beach is nice," he says. "Right now there's a lot going on in the Twin Cities and I have a lot of friends there. But that's not to say I'm going to stop writing lyrics about the coast."
Fair enough. With his show out of the way on the first night of the conference, Koza has plenty of time to enjoy the country's east side, including its greasy sidewalk pizza ("My body feels like a bloated sponge. You don't want to shake my hand right now") and neighborhood basketball ("While waiting for a friend on the Lower West Side, I got into a couple pickup games. Since I wear glasses, I have this little elastic activity band I have to wear. I get a lot of Kurt Rambis shout-outs"). He's also excited about the Rhymesayers showcase, Atmosphere and Brother Ali in particular. Hundreds of musicians from all over the world are at his disposal, and he wants to check out the locals. Maybe he's more Midwestern than he thinks.
Zimmerman's Dry Goods, in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul, is a rather eclectic shop. Their merchandise includes rucksacks, flags, winter hats, Che Guevara T-shirts, and other items primarily aimed at Macalester College students.
On most Friday afternoons it's also the makeshift practice space for the Get Up Johns. This means that shoppers--when there are any, which doesn't seem to be often--are likely to hear knee-buckling versions of such classic country songs as "Cash on the Barrelhead" and "I'll Fly Away."
The Get Up Johns are Joshua Wenck and Jake Hyer. They've been playing gigs around the Twin Cities for about 18 months and have recently completed their first album. They are in the final stages of working out the details for a co-release by local labels 2024 Records and Mercy Recordings. Wenck plays guitar; Hyer plays mandolin and fiddle. Their repertoire is composed largely of old-time country and gospel tunes, with a heavy emphasis on songs recorded by the Louvin Brothers.
Such material could very easily descend into hackneyed territory. It would be reasonable, for instance, to assume that the world needs another version of "Blues Stay Away from Me"--a song that's been recorded at least three dozen times, most famously by the Delmore Brothers--like it needs a Billy Ray Cyrus revival. But the version performed by the Get Up Johns, with Wenck and Hyer's voices blending together as naturally as cheese-garlic grits, is so relentlessly brutal and beautiful that such thoughts are immediately discarded.
Hyer's claim to this musical turf is pretty straightforward. The 26-year-old grew up in West Virginia (albeit the college burg of Morgantown) listening to bluegrass and old-time country music. A Dwight Diller tape, which Hyer received as a present from his dad when he was a teenager, is the source of several of the band's tunes. "My dad lived outside of a town of 400," recalls Hyer, whose voice still retains a lazy mountain drawl. "He was just, like, in the general store and he picked up some tapes for me and brought them back." Hyer's been playing violin since he was a kid. He attended Wheaton College, in Illinois (where he majored in the financially dubious fields of philosophy and German), and then continued west to the Twin Cities. He works as a clerk at Zimmerman's and also at a used-book store.
Wenck's appreciation of traditional country music is a little more unlikely. The 29-year-old grew up in the western suburbs of the Twin Cities. At Bethel College (now university) in St. Paul, he studied theology. He went on to Yale Divinity School and recently was hired as a pastor at the House of Mercy church in downtown St. Paul. Wenck pinpoints his fondness for this music in the historical roots of the songs, noting that many of them were written during and immediately after the Great Depression. "There have always been and there always will be floods, but it seems like at one point more people realized that we all have to get into the same boat," he says. "But it's also a lot of songs about heartbreak. These songs get at heartbreak in a way that is just so beautiful and poignant."
For a recent Friday-night gig at the Nomad World Pub, the Get Up Johns, dressed in matching black suits, take the stage around 11:30. Despite some early scuffling on the mandolin by Hyer and a mid-set busted guitar string, it's an inspired 45 minutes of sin, salvation, and heartbreak. Hyer plays the stone-faced straight man to Wenck's garrulous carnie barker. The shtick succeeds in the sense that when Hyer announces that he's going to tell a joke, the statement on its own is quite funny. (The joke itself, naturally, is bad.)
"Cluck Old Hen"--a much-covered traditional song ostensibly about a hen that mysteriously quits laying eggs--showcases Hyer's driving fiddle and Wenck's sweet tenor. When the latter throws back his head and wails into the night on the chorus, people pause mid-sentence and set down their drinks. "I'll Fly Away," the Albert E. Brumley classic, is another standout, inspiring a trio of alcohol-happy patrons to perform a freeform jig on the dance floor.
During the set someone fires a gun out on the sidewalk. This somehow seems appropriate. Nobody is injured. The Get Up Johns continue playing, unfazed.
Yet another sibling act, the Blind Shake have been compared to the deranged '90s Midwestern post-punk of the Cows and the Jesus Lizard. They've released only one single, 2004's "Old Lines, Sore Bones"; their forthcoming debut on Learning Curve Records, Rizzograph, is due October 8. We recently asked guitarist Jim Blaha about a few of his favorite things:
Favorite AmRep album: Hammerhead's Duh, the Big City.
Favorite thing about being in the Blind Shake: My brother Mike plays a baritone guitar, and at first that would kill off 90 percent of the songs. It was just so weird to work with. But once he kind of got it down, it became really fun to use.
Favorite road story: On our last tour, we made it out to New York City and our van died in front of our gig in Manhattan, at Siberia. The club was cool, and the bands were really nice to us. But a big promoter moved in with the Zodiac Killers, and the show was going to be lame. The cool bands play downstairs, and they were going to have us play upstairs. Like, "Oh, they'll hear you when they go downstairs. Just don't play so loud, okay?" I had to hold my brother back; he wanted to fucking fight this guy.
Our van was outside, dead on this Manhattan street, cars honking at it and going around it. So we said, "Let's just take care of the van. Fuck the gig."
We called the tow truck and they're like, "Yeah, you guys can ride in the van. Just stay low so the cops don't see you."
So we're driving almost vertical through Midtown Manhattan, and we become unhitched. Boom--our van smashes into the front of the tow truck and careens off into four parked cars--k-kuh, k-kuh, k-kuh, k-kuh. The tow-truck drivers are like, "Get back in! Get back in!" They hitched us back up quick and took off. We didn't tell a soul. We're like, "We don't care. That's not on us. This day could not get any worse."
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, music is too important to take seriously. (The actual quote swaps "life" for "music," but ask anyone involved in this poll: they're basically interchangeable.) That lesson is rarely heeded here in Minnesota, where--a few notable exceptions notwithstanding--the sad sack is king, the third wave of ska rolled past to crash on distant shores, and the dance music scene is trapped in a Pan-like state of perpetual infancy. As mantras go, "know thyself" is nearly always preferable to "know thy dance shoes."
Onto this fertile-but-dour landscape stomps Fort Wilson Riot, a motley troupe of troubadours with such random and unexpected tastes--rock, waltz, hip hop, polka, bolero, Broadway--that the only discernable unifying theme in their sound is the Pooh-in-the-honeypot giddiness they emanate. The primary perpetrator of this un-Minnesotan blissed-out stage show is frontwoman Amy Hager, whose deceptively demure stage presence gives way under the weight of a hefty voice that ranges from Eartha Kitt growl to Judy Tenuta vibrato, hitting every drama queen in between. Backing up Hager's swagger is a solid base of orchestrated goofiness, most notably from bassist Joe Goggins, an inveterate crowd-pleaser and inventor of "harmono-boxing" (beat-boxing into a harmonica mounted in a flower pot).
The final impression, both from their live performance and their self-titled debut EP released this summer, is that Fort Wilson Riot will try just about anything--better music through democracy. Such playful mix-and-match, like soda fountain suicides, normally requires a bottle of Tums to digest, which is why FWR comes as a surprise. "Who cares about aesthetics/Think about your tummy," trills Hager, lashing out against fine dining in the class-warfare allegory "Heir to a Throne." Fort Wilson Riot, it turns out, care about both.