The dreamy orchestral pop of "Good Night," a song John Lennon wrote as a lullaby for son Julian, soars out of Curtiss A's stereo as we talk about his upcoming 31st annual John Lennon tribute on December 8 at First Avenue. "Good Night" is Curtiss A and the Jerks of Fate's version of their contribution to the Minnesota Beatle Project Vol. II, which is also being released that evening.
[jump] "Goodnight" clocks in at 4:20, a signature Curtiss A joke. "Its a rockestra," he chuckles, then somberly adds: "It's supposed to be a lullaby, but for me, it's a good night to earth."
Curtiss A was fated to perform his epic musical tributes to John Lennon from the very beginning. It was February 12, 1964. The Beatles had just arrived in America when Curt Almsted took to the Moorhead Armory stage to perform a half dozen Beatles songs for a Valentine's Day Sadie Hawkins sock hop. Then, as the band Whirlhouse, Almsted and friends did their Beatles act on the road throughout the rural upper Midwest. Rand Levi, State Theater booker at the time, told Almsted they should do a Beatles show in Minneapolis after seeing his act in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Spiral ahead to December 8, 1980, the ill-fated night when John Lennon was shot and died. A grief-stricken Almsted wandered in and took over the 7th St. Entry stage and performed his first (unofficial) John Lennon Tribute.
Now in its 30th year, the John Lennon Tribute is the stuff of legends, a magical mystery tour lasting four to five hours and spanning over 50 songs from Lennon's vast and varied musical career. Almsted is known as Curtiss A -- nicknamed such by fellow '70s rocker Robert Wilkinson of the Flamin' Ohs, in retaliation to Almsted's naming his band as such in a friendly prank. Curtiss A performs the tribute with the Jerks of Fate, a band of friends he's performed with for nearly three decades, some with his pivotal mid-1970s band, Thumbs Up.
Curtiss A continued performing Beatles covers through the years. In the 1970s, he also began writing and performing original songs over the decades with his bands Thumbs Up and the Spooks.
Thumbs Up were one of the earliest Minneapolis bands to perform original music, during a time when there were hardly any underground rock bands performing original music, nor hardly a place to perform it. During 1974 and '75, Thumbs Up performed cover songs at the CC Tap (now CC Club in Uptown Minneapolis) every night except Mondays for at least a year.
It was one of these nights at the CC Tap that Thumbs Up caught the ear of Minneapolis tastemaker Peter Jesperson, a manager at the Oar Folkjokeopus record store across the street. He went to the CC one night to get sandwiches for the record store clerks and heard a live band performing "Tell Her No" by the Zombies and "I Wanna Meet You" by the Crying Shames, both obscure favorites of Jesperson's.
"I was really impressed by the group," Jesperson said. "The leader was Curt Almsted, and the guitar player was Bob Dunlap, who later was nicknamed Slim and joined the Replacements." Jesperson later worked as the Replacements' manager for several years.
"That was a pivotal moment for me," he says. "I suddenly went 'Wow. There actually is a local music scene here in Minneapolis that caught my ear.' While they were cover songs, Thumbs Up put their own stamp on it, and we began to follow them around, all over town. The people at the record store became a fan club/posse of Thumbs Up. That's really where my interest in the Minneapolis music scene began, was with Thumbs Up." Jesperson cites Almsted as his "raison d'etre" for becoming one of the three Twin Tone record label founders.
"Curt could really belt it out," he continues. "We likened him to the singer Mitch Ryder, a white guy who could sing soul music really well. But there was also that blend of British Invasion music. But he had a unique approach. To see Curt and Bob play together was really exciting. When we were coming up on the time we started Twin Tone, I thought there needed to be records made of Curt. He was such an important figure on the local scene. We like to say Twin Tone was forced into existence by the great bands on the scene, which included Curt Almsted and Thumbs Up, the Suicide Commandos and Flamingo/Flamin' Ohs."
Slim Dunlap, who Curtiss A fondly refers to as "The Edge before there was the Edge," also had a pivotal moment when he first saw Curt Almsted perform at the CC Tap. In the '70s, "I kept hearing about Thumbs Up, so I was looking for him," he says. "I saw them one night at the CC Tap. The minute I heard their band . . . I just had such a great time that night. I used to go see them at the Tempo Bar; there were jam bands with long organ solos. Thumbs Up were such a breath of fresh air because they played pop songs that I'd heard and liked. And they had harmonies. With the luck of the draw, I got the guitar spot when I auditioned. I enjoyed immensely playing for him the years that I did." Slim Dunlap may be rejoining Curtiss A on the stage for the tribute.
Curtiss A said he appreciates getting to represent the Beatles in town. Yet, he also enjoys changing his music to keep it interesting. This year, the John Lennon Tribute will be different: "Maybe we'll remove chord structures that repeat," he notes.
Dunlap says changing up the songs is nothing new for Curtiss A. "It was fun to play with Curt because he was always in a state of adapting things to the band," Dunlap says. "You didn't have to do it the same way every time, because he didn't do it the same way every time. It fostered a feeling of 'there's no one way to do this song.' You always felt you were on pins and needles playing with Curt. He kept you on your toes." He chuckles softly. "And I admire that. To dare to change things in front of a live audience is something that most bands don't do. He had the Beatles cover band while the Spooks were going on. Curt gets a lot of credit for generating that scene, right up there with the early bands to take the plunge wholeheartedly."
Over the years, since Thumbs Up and The Spooks, many musicians have come and gone. But The Jerks of Fate are friends that Curtiss A has played with "off and on" since 1970. "Everybody's been together 20 to 30 years. Having friends being together in bands is a real fun thing, like this weird little gang you have. I'm lucky. They're all pretty much still alive. At some point we're going to lose our sparkle and verve, but we've still got it for the codgers we are," Almsted quips, in his typical offhanded humorous fashion.
"I don't know anybody who does four to five hour shows, and we just 'slam, slam, slam, slam, SLAM!' And we take a break for 20 minutes, I have some Gatorade, and then, POW! And they stick right with me. I know the next day they hurt. But that's what people do, when they go out and pick cotton. The next day it hurts. Then you go out and do it again. I feel like they are my 'working class heroes,' to paraphrase John Lennon."
Contrary to his big commanding presence onstage, the tall, blonde Curtiss A is a gentle soul, a musician's musician, who has seen and done much through the years, some of which he regrets. But life and time have honed him into what he is today -- a big man with a deep impact on the Minneapolis music scene, that arguably would not exist as it does without his influence. "If you plan for stuff it won't happen. But every once in awhile cool things do happen, and I've been the recipient of hundreds of those things. I'm still having fun."
CURTISS A performs "With a Little Help From His Friends" at the 31st annual JOHN LENNON TRIBUTE and Minnesota Beatle Project, Vol. 2 release show tomorrow night, WEDNESDAY, DECMBER 8, at FIRST AVENUE. 6:30 p.m./18+/$13.