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It's the final night of his most recent tour, and Mark Mallman, dressed in a white blazer and skin-tight, tie-dyed jeans, is standing precariously atop his battered old keyboard, arms spread in a hang-10 as a crowd of Green Bay barflies looks on in disbelief.
Strands of his unruly shoulder-length hair curl and plaster themselves onto his sweaty, furrowed brow as he leaps back to the floor and punches his fists into the plastic keys. A young Wisconsinite stands a mere foot away from his keyboard and clutches her Bud Light to her chest, staring in awe as Mallman's hands become a blur of sound in motion. Her jaw is hanging agape as he hammers out a flurry of cascading octaves and then lifts up the entire keyboard from one end, pretending to fire it at the crowd like a machine gun.
Roughly 40 or 50 people have gathered in the small bar, and gradually everyone abandons their conversations at the back of the room to get a better view of the spectacle. The set list has been all but abandoned, and Mallman is shouting out song titles to his bass player and drummer with barely any warning, snapping his fingers as one pop song bleeds into the next. Each song seems to get a little faster, a little raunchier, until everyone on the floor is jumping up and down in unison and screaming for more.
"More cowbell!" an innocent-looking young woman shouts out between songs.
"I know what you need more of," Mallman says suggestively, leering at her and her friends.
Mallman has never played Green Bay, but after tonight's show the barely legal ladies in attendance and the wide-eyed booking manager will be begging him to come back for another gig. It's the kind of show every touring band daydreams about as they while away hours on the road: a spot-on performance, receptive new fans, a pleased bar manager, decent pay, free food and drinks. One would think, after watching Mallman win over a room in just 60 minutes, that his popularity is destined to grow exponentially, that if he were to tour regularly with this much intensity the stars would be forced to align and he would surely, absolutely, become famous.
But for Mallman, tonight's show is just another stop on his seemingly endless tour of the United States, which began over a decade ago. And while he has had his share of successes over the years—a star on the side of First Avenue, Pitchfork reviews, major-label offers, die-hard fans—it seems he has perfected the art of flying within millimeters of the radar, of rubbing up against superstardom but never quite hitting the big time.
In fact, Mark Mallman might be the most famous non-celebrity in Minneapolis.
OVER THE YEARS, Mallman has become something of an institution in the Twin Cities music scene. His hometown shows are renowned for their manic energy and for often including some sort of major stunt, most famously his nonstop marathon shows that have lasted as long as two days. At 36, Mallman has the look of a weathered scenester, a rock star who has played more shows that he can remember but who still knows how to be the life of the party; when his wavy, dark-brown hair hasn't been dyed, hints of gray poke out from under the curls. He dresses in vibrant, retro-inspired rock gear—tight pants, motorcycle boots, button-up shirts with the sleeves cut off—but when his shirt hugs his frame, the faintest outline of a beer belly takes shape above his studded belt buckle.
All antics aside, Mallman has established himself as a talented and prolific songwriter, favoring '70s piano rock and glam. Though he is a self-proclaimed pop songsmith, his tunes rarely border on saccharine; rather, he seems to have a knack for pairing bright, major-key piano chords with stormy, sometimes disturbing lyrics, creating an enduring complexity that is evident across all seven of his studio albums. At times, his songs are irreverent, as if they are making fun of themselves; at other times he can be devastatingly sincere. Mallman will celebrate the release of his most recent effort, Invincible Criminal, this Saturday with a CD-release show at First Avenue.
In addition to being a fixture in both the club circuit and the social circles of the local music community, Mallman also tours relentlessly. He's already completed three tours this year, spanning from a few weeks to a month-long stint, and will complete one more full tour of the U.S. before the end of 2009. On his latest tour, Mallman graciously invited me to join his band for the last three days of their trip, to get a firsthand look at his never-ending quest to bring his music to the masses.
AS WE HEAD OUT on the road from Chicago to his Green Bay gig, Mallman is behind the wheel of his minivan explaining the rules of the road. A pair of wire-rimmed spectacles is perched on his nose, and he is repeatedly checking the dashboard, being careful to mind the speed limit.
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