Beer-Busted Bladders & Honky Tonk Highs
Matt Pudas has to take a piss. We've been on the road for almost two and a half hours and are just entering fog-draped Duluth. Since leaving Minneapolis at 1:30 this afternoon, the lead singer of the White Iron Band has consumed five cans of Grain Belt Premium beer and inhaled enough pot to render most people catatonic--all while driving the 160-plus miles to Duluth in his wife's Chevy Blazer at an average speed of 85 miles per hour. The SUV became Pudas's default vehicle after he smashed his pickup truck into the Lowry Tunnel one night driving home from a gig at the Cabooze. I'm on beer number three; it helps suppress the panic attacks.
Right now, however, any concerns about fatal car crashes are trumped by the need to find a bathroom. Unfortunately neither Pudas nor drummer Andy Mitchell, the other occupant of the vehicle, knows the location of the studio where the White Iron Band are supposed to be recording a track for a Minnesota country-music compilation.
"Shit, I gotta pee," Pudas whines. "Let's just end our misery and pull over." Mitchell, a burly, ponytailed redhead in a Minnesota Wild jersey, insists we find the studio first, despite his own dire need to take a leak.
"We're almost there," he maintains. "Deserts, dude, deserts."
The advice is lost on Pudas. "What do deserts have to do with it?" he asks.
"Dry, not wet, dude," Mitchell answers.
The other members of the band, split between two other vehicles, have no idea where they're going either. Supposedly the studio is in a church. We finally decide via cell phone to rendezvous at the Tap Room, where the White Iron Band is slated to perform this evening.
"Ah, Jesus," Pudas continues, rocking back and forth in an attempt to stem the flow. "Pain. The fucking pain. I gotta pee so bad my fucking back hurts." We run a red light in downtown Duluth. Pudas unzips his ripped, paint-splattered jeans. "Sorry, I'm gonna pee my pants, dude. Jesus Christ."
We finally pull into the parking lot adjoining the Tap Room. Pudas slams into the first open spot. He and Mitchell both jump out and begin pissing all over the concrete.
The White Iron Band is often pissed. The core of the group--Pudas, Mitchell, keyboardist Ed Juntunen, and guitarist Sam Weyandt--started playing together during their years at Eden Prairie High School and are all in their early 20s. The present lineup also includes bass player Jan Whitehill (at 35, the band's elder statesman and its fourth bassist), drummer Jeff Underhill, and pedal-steel player Mike Johnson, who couldn't make this trip. Their music was initially laced with the stoner guitar solos and 15-minute instrumentals that define jam bands, but in recent years it's gravitated toward outlaw country and Southern boogie, borrowing liberally from David Allen Coe and the Allman Brothers. This transition coalesced two years ago with the addition of Johnson on pedal steel. The closest local reference point is probably a younger, drunker, hairier version of the Front Porch Swingin' Liquor Pigs.
"We call ourselves a peanut-butter band," says Mitchell. "We go well with jam bands." For the last three years they've been playing a weekly gig at Five Corners Saloon on the West Bank that's become the best excuse in Minneapolis to get drunk on a Thursday night--a ritual that will come to a close this week. "It's kind of like, How long can you peak out at one bar?" reasons Pudas. The White Iron Band's self-released, eponymous debut album came out last year. It's an entertaining (if poorly produced) hour of hillbilly swagger with the mass consumption of controlled substances serving as its guiding thesis. But the group is best appreciated live, and it's in dives around the region where they've laid down the foundations of local rock legend.
As best can be determined, three vehicles have been destroyed during the band's fledgling years on the road. "I know at one time they were down to one working car, between all the members of the band," says Taco Martin of E Company Productions, who has booked the White Iron Band at the Cabooze and other venues around the state. In another road-related misadventure, Pudas and one of the former bass players got in a fistfight on the shoulder of I-35 just outside Ely. Martin says he largely avoided hiring the group until all the members had turned 21 because it was impossible to keep them off the sauce. "How they can have any success is beyond me," he laughs. "But once they get up there onstage you just can't deny that they're good."
Finally Mitchell seems to have determined where the recording studio is located and we're back on the road. On our way there we pass the Voyageur Lakewalk Inn. The band is no longer welcome at the hotel. After a New Year's Eve gig they destroyed one of the inn's rooms by smashing a TV, a mirror, and a case of beer. "I haven't gotten a bill for it yet," Mitchell says. "I don't know what the statute of limitations is." Among the other places that they are no longer welcome due to similar exploits are the Fine Line Music Café in Minneapolis (underage drinking) and Norm's Beer and Brats in Superior, Wisconsin (shattered toilet seat and wrestling).
"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.
"Dude, how the fuck did we get here?" Pudas wonders aloud as he and Jan sit on a ratty couch, finishing off the last two Budweisers in the house. Pudas doesn't know where his keys are.
We pile into Juntunen's truck, head to the Tap Room, and load up the gear. Pudas discovers his keys under an amp, but now he can't find his vehicle. Last he remembers it was parked in a handicapped spot near the bar's entrance. He fears it's been towed--the fact that it's filled with empty, crumpled beer cans seems unlikely to win any legal sympathy. Pudas finally discovers the Chevy Blazer farther down the ramp. Apparently Mitchell had the foresight to park the vehicle legally.
We head to the Green Mill for burgers and bloody marys. "I'm hungry, but I think I might puke," Mitchell says, speaking for all of us. The general conversation flow at the bar goes something like this:
Sammy: "North Country was good last night."
Pudas: "Which song?"
Sammy: "North Country Bandit."
Pudas: "We played it?"
I sleep during the ride home, only to be awakened by Pudas and Mitchell screaming "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." They're drinking cans of Grain Belt. I give up on sleep and groggily join them. The dope is gone, but Pudas tries to squeeze a last hit out of the pipe. "When you've got a hangover there's nothing better to do than catch a light buzz," he instructs. "Get a light buzz and go from there."
At a a gas station, he's purchased some oversized sunglasses with lenses the color of whiskey and he now looks like some washed-out remnant of the '70s. I spill my beer on the floor of the truck and wipe it up with Mitchell's Wild jersey. The windows are open and the digital thermometer inside the truck reads 70 degrees--the first beautiful weekend of a false spring.
"A lot of bands are all about the pussy," Pudas muses. "We've always been all about the drugs and the alcohol."
We enter the Twin Cities 27 hours after departing. Pudas has to piss again.
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