Best Of :: People & Places
Sunday nights at the Hexagon are a throwback to the halcyon hours of country music in the Twin Cities. Back in the day, the Flame Bar and Café on Nicollet Avenue was a national destination for big-time country stars: Hank Snow and Roy Acuff were among the country luminaries who took the stage at the storied venue. But the Flame lost its liquor license and closed in 1978. By then it had become a destination for prostitutes and tramps, who may have represented the hard-luck spirit of country music, but not its choicest clientele. No venue ever really filled the void left by the Flame, but the Hexagon has been hosting a boisterous open-jam session for the past four or five years on Sunday nights from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Two years ago the Country Doctors took over as the house band. Guitarists Dan Gaarder and John Griggs, bassist Regan Swedeen, and drummer Keely Lane provide the core of the lineup, but everyone is invited to take a swing at a couple of numbers. One fellow showed up recently with an old washtub bass and plunked out a few tunes. "We call it the big Sunday whatever," laughs Lane. You'll find stoop-shouldered septuagenarians filling in on bass and boomer mechanics from the suburbs taking the vocals. The talent level for this free showcase is a mixed bag, but the Country Doctors keep all the vital signs in order and the toes tapping. Women old enough to have caught Bob Wills live at the old Flame are liable to hook your elbow and drag you out on the dance floor. And when Gaarder lends his sweet-as-honey voice to a Harlan Howard or Marty Robbins classic, even the least sentimental sap will feel a twang of nostalgia.
On February 21, the state legislature attempted to deliver a new budget to Gov. Jesse Ventura, only to find that he'd headed for the hills. In typical nostalgic Minnesota fashion, reporters dredged up the tale of Joe Rolette: In 1857, Rolette, a territorial legislator, absconded with a bill that would have made St. Peter the capital of our fledgling state, rather than St. Paul. The way the story goes, Rolette hid in a downtown St. Paul hotel for a week, drinking and playing poker, and didn't emerge until it was too late to get the bill signed into law. As University of Minnesota historian Hy Berman opined to the Pioneer Press, in classic "You shoulda been here when" mode: "[Ventura]'s certainly no Joe Rolette."
Curtis & Loretta are as good an argument as any for the preservation of a space within the current acoustic scene for, you know, folk music. Not that there's anything wrong with coffeehouse singer-handwringers or collegiate rockers with mandolins. And not that space shouldn't also be made for Indonesian gamelans, Nordic roots, or anything else. It's just that the perfect, ringing Celtic harmonies of Loretta Simonet and Curtis Teague represent one of the purest and most accessible pleasures in local music. And the duo's latest album, Sit Down Beside Me (Haymarket Music), provides a perfect showcase for the lyricism that a longtime couple can discover with vintage traditional instruments (Teague on mandocello, Simonet on Celtic harp). Forgoing the duo's fine originals, Sit Down is a collection of traditional songs from the British Isles, sung with confidence and feeling. The tunes are restorations as surely as the vintage instruments upon which they're played, but if subjects such as whales or heartbroken maidens don't particularly speak to you, the voices recalling them will.
SexWorld is still the multilevel adult-entertainment giant in the Twin Cities, offering everything from naughty cakes to plastic wind-up toys with unexpected, and sometimes appalling, surprises. Their rental selection is enormous and meticulously organized, as befits such a giant, and offers up what old-time street barkers for adult theaters might have called "a bounty of pernicious pulchritude for your perusing pleasure." There are the various big production houses represented here: Vivid Video, Sin City, VCA, etc. So, too, there are all sorts of specialty racks: bondage, ethnic-specific, and the still-popular "pro-am" genre, in which the stars of adult films couple with--well, just about anybody who has never appeared in an adult video before. A two-day rental is $4.28, and with 20,000 feet of merchandise, you're not likely to run out of naughty options anytime soon. But we would like to recommend SexWorld for an additional reason, one that stretches the definition of "rental" slightly (but then, when dealing with adult entertainment, it helps to be flexible): its circus-colored booths several floors up, where, for mere quarters, you can rent dozens of channels of titillating adventure. The staff's film picks for these booths are often unexpected and hilarious, from erotic cartoons to outrageous costumes. The result is that it is growing increasingly common for clusters of friends to take over a row of booths, calling out to one another their discoveries: "Channel 23! Look at those fingernails!" "Channel 11! Is that even physically possible?"
There are plenty of bands who have listened to just as many obscure British new-wave records as Valet singer Robin Kyle, but they lack his unforgettable melodic phrasing. You really can't teach or imitate these things, any more than you can explain why such dead-on-paper Valet choruses as "I hear Zurich's beautiful this time of year" become mental mantras for listeners after only a few plays. If anything, Valet's debut album The Glamour Is Contagious is a demonstration of pop's unconscious power. It works best if you put it on and don't quite listen to it, letting Kyle strum the acoustic guitar and run on about "cultivating blanker stares" as the bass-drums-keyboards tap away in a minimalist style. Eventually, the pattern takes hold. Kyle is an expat Irishman, and the sarcastically titled Glamour recalls the sound of European postpunk (the Auteurs, Miaow) after the anticipation of commercial success wore off. The mood may seem defeatist at first ("It would be nice to clean the kitchen," Kyle muses at one point, "but what would the mice eat?"). Still, there's a palpable anticipation of something larger and more personal in this album's shimmering beauty. And that's contagious, too.
Who would think that finding places to host shows for underage kids would be so difficult? With the end of live gigs at St. Paul's Eclipse Records and Bon Appétit in Dinkytown, this song is getting really tired. That's especially true for the crew that used to run the Bombshelter, the former basement venue now remembered for the 1997 clash between Minneapolis police and punk rockers. Those folks have resurfaced in the Bloomington-Lake area and are now working to secure a legitimate space whose address can be safely printed in the paper. Also new this year, St. Paul's Fireball Espresso Café is bringing the bands to the kids. One of the best local showcases around is In the Garage, hosted by KFAI's the Dan One every Sunday at the Dinkytowner Café. The kids come down to this basement bar on alcohol-free Sunday afternoons to shoot pool, look cool, and embrace one of their first chances to experience live rock outside the confines of the Target Center. If that isn't a worthy endeavor, then we don't know what is.