All Shook Down

ON EACH THURSDAY of February '97, three disparate local songwriters came together, unamplified, for Noiseless, an unlikely string of performance trysts at Bryant-Lake Bowl. On the series' first night, eccentric underdog Matt Olson--leader of Smattering and former singer/guitarist for the defunct Balloon Guy--charmed a crowd by delivering perhaps his best performance ever. Priceless storyteller Slim Dunlap took the stage and reflected on his 30 years in rock, topping off his set with a hilarious advice-column meta-tune that listed all the rough spots on a teenage fan's demo tape. ("This part/This part/This part," sang Slim, as he replayed off-key selections from his would-be understudy's creation.) Later, top draw Dan Wilson (Semisonic) offered the obligatory starry-eyed pop set. Each Thursday, the stage was furnished like a bedroom with each singer bringing personal items from his or her own home, and the packed room felt like a first hand glimpse into the ever-mystical "Songwriter's Process." All told, the combined allure of Noiseless's intimacy and Bryant-Lake's warmth was intoxicating enough to outweigh the hefty door price.

But the best part of Noiseless was the fact that it forced three deliberately mismatched performers (and audiences) to come to terms with each other in a new context--quite a feat in this cliquey town. Yet, when Noiseless returned to BLB last week for a second season, I sat alone, surrounded by no more than 20 people, in a venue that suddenly felt more like a cavern than a club. Blame it on whatever you like--a fluke, the weather, lousy long-term memories--but the lack of intimacy was pervasive and bleak.

So here's what you missed. They nixed the bed thing this year, evidently because most folks aren't comfortable sharing the contents of their bedrooms (which might not be a bad thing). Minnesota rock old-schooler Willie Murphy opened his set by asking, in mock-drunk confusion, "Where're the critics?" He followed that salvo by reviving a great song about the backlash against '60s idealism, culled from his long lost "midlife-crisis album." Between tunes he quoted Victor Hugo and The End of History, and concluded with a calypso-tinged anthem topped off by the lines "No more safety for the middle class/Better stop thinking about how to save your ass." It was clear why the grizzly old soul is still relevant: He's a living exemplar of a distinctly Midwestern roots-rock sound that's been glossed over in 20-plus years of slick (and slickly marketed) variations.

Alabama transplant Marlee MacLeod offered an equally crucial neo-traditionalist's take on the same mid-American aesthetic. There's a characteristic bitter-sweetness and an elegant Southern twang to MacLeod's vowels that will probably mark her as a country-rock singer for the rest of her life. Yet, her new album, Vertigo, maps out a variety of Amerirock topographies. MacLeod's recorded music presents a tug-of-war between defiance and reluctance, and her solo-acoustic renditions displayed a certain personality shift from her full-band renditions. "This is a lament in a major key," she announced, "because my laments in minor keys are just too sad." Still, in the virtual absence of an audience, you'd have forgiven her awkward detachment. Watching her felt more like spying on a tense practice session than lounging on the couch in her apartment.

The only performer who really made the best of the circumstances was Low's Al Sparhawk. His performance worked perfectly with the room's empty space, mainly because the music he makes (alone and with Low) is literally about the desolation and grandeur of empty spaces. There's also an undeniably spiritual, midnight-mass quality to Sparhawk's voice that inspires angry "Shhh!" choruses from Lowists straining to hear the band above the din of the bars they play. I've had a theory, though, that Sparhawk actually revels in the contradiction between Low's meticulously measured music and the smashing of beer bottles that often accompanies it. "The best advice I ever got was that the best songs only have three chords," he said. "To prove that wrong, here's one with only two." Those, weird, unsettling chords, and an eerie, mid-set, rural-blues song--sung in the most trance-inducing voice I've ever heard from a man--were enough to make this observer gloat that he was among the few to witness it.

But I'm normally the type who prefers experiencing greatness with others. And this week's installment of Noiseless promises to be the best bill of the month. Tonight, Ed Ackerson will clue us into the radical new developments currently reshaping his band Polara. Master lyricist Mike Merz will play a set of songs that smartly entangle music-biz satire and occult absurdity. But the night's most interesting performance might come from the series' only performer of color, Stokley Williams of the R&B chart-toppers Mint Condition.

February 18 will feature Lori Wray, ex-Strawdog John Eric Thiede, and a duo comprising John "Strawberry" Fields and Mike Ruekberg; February 25 will conclude Noiseless '98 with John Casey, Reba Fritz, and old wavers Chan Poling and Chris Osgood.

All in all, it looks to be a great test of the vitality of local music. But to make it work, we fans just need to hold up our end of the bargain. Translation: Show up.

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