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You can tell they're a sister act because they're wearing matching dresses, pink tulle things that they bought secondhand for 40 bucks. It's a Thursday in northeast Minneapolis, she of the boho and working-class bars and century-old churches. And the Tin Star Sisters—also known as two of the three Anderson girls from a small dairy farm outside of Spring Valley, Wisconsin—are setting up on the tiny stage at the 331 Club. It's cubbyholed near the back of the bar, an apparent afterthought to the jukebox.
There are no amps or drums in sight. The dark-haired one, Ivy (Marvel is her married surname), is fiddling with her lone percussion instrument, a high-hat cymbal. Satisfied, she straps on her accordion, the instrument at the core of so much of this region's most original music, be it the Wallets' art-funk or the myriad polka bands of the Midwest, some of which still take up residence in Nye's Polonaise Room down the road. (Go to the river, take a left).
The light brown-haired one, Kim (Anderson—she is not married, and she and her sister wonder why any of that is germane), cradles her xylophone mallets in tattooed arms that testify "2006" as much as the rest of her get-up nods "1936." She checks the heel of one of her tap shoes. As they get ready to rock (or not-rock, as the case may be) the Sisters exchange the night's first grin, of which there will be many and many variations. This one is the grin of two siblings who have played games and music together all their lives, a grin that says, "here we go again" and "can you believe we're getting away with this?"
The accordion wheezes-lilts, the xylophone pretty-plunks. The high-hat simmers like a caged thing. Tuning up. To the casual chronicler, the Sisters do not look like any classmate in the storied rock 'n' roll high school that is Minneapolis/St. Paul, some of whose iconic photos adorn the walls of the 331. (You can find more of them a few blocks down at the Minnesota Center for Photography's "Musicapolis" exhibit.)
No. Tonight, as with most nights, the Tin Star Sisters look like a song-and-dance trapeze act.
From the '40s.
In the Catskills.
The Sisters have done the State Fair and burlesque shows, so the prospect of playing to a tough crowd of potential shruggers doesn't phase them. They make their way through their first few numbers, expertly traversing the high wire of their own making. And when Kim hops out from behind the xylophone to do a slip-n-slide tap dance near some bemused stool-sitters at the bar, the joint erupts into giddy applause. Ice, broken. Crowd, won.
But how, exactly? Plenty of campy acts have wowed 'em on cutes or charm alone. But the Sisters have songs—both their own and the covers they make their own: a screeching, heartfelt reading of Prince's "The Beautiful Ones." A herky-jerk version of Looking Glass's '60s AM radio hit "Brandy," during which Ivy magically becomes the voice of the forlorn sea wife, waiting for her man as she sings, "my life, my love, and my lady is the sea." A Ramones medley, sung in—mais, bien sur—French. A medley that could pander to karaoke culture's cheap seats with its inclusion of Bob Seger's "Night Moves" and Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," but instead ends up a thing of weird power.
"We're really sincere," says Ivy later. "We only play songs we love. We don't really do things for kitsch."
Over the course of the 45-minute set, newbies and vets alike fall under their spell. As the clapping swells at the cusp of the last song, Kim hastily whispers something to Ivy. It's obvious to anyone who's been around the concert biz what she's saying: Yank the hook while the suckers have their mouths open; tell the crowd to belly up to the merchandise table. Ivy complies, and puts on her best huckster hat. Into the microphone she says, "Oh, yeah. We're the Tin Star Sisters. If you want, we have buttons for sale."
ne of the most reliable pop-cult signifiers of the moment is Myspace's "Top Eight Friends" feature. A glance at the Tin Star Sisters' "friends" (www.myspace.com/ivymarvel) reveals a few local musicians in the top spots, including wry country medicine-show man Mike Gunther & His Restless Souls, and Amy Buchanan, the gregarious grande dame of Cirque de Rouge burlesque. (The Sisters have performed with both of them.) But perhaps the most telling photos are those of Chico and Harpo Marx.
"We don't love the Marx Brothers because they're a family, necessarily," says Kim, nestling close to her sister in one of the 331's back booths before a recent show.
"But they do function in a way that's intertwined and supported," says Ivy. "Like, this guy starts it, but this guy finishes it. And I think that's something that's unique to families, the way they can finish each other's sentences or pick up where somebody else left off."
Kim (who is 32 years old) and Ivy (23) are the middle sisters of five siblings born to Barry and Mary Anderson. Their family farm abutted a woods that the kids would escape to at all times of the year, a beach they'd loll on during summers, and a barn where they'd build hay forts.
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