Jellybean Johnson seems surprisingly relaxed about his upcoming shindig.
Jellybean’s Super Bowl Week Kickoff Party—although not part of the “official” entertainment lineup for the hordes mobbing the Twin Cities to drink, spend, drink, annoy commuters, drink, and generally rub Vikings-flavored salt in the wounds of every hometown football fan—might just be the week’s can’t-miss event, bringing together a crew of funk/R&B/soul all-stars at St. Paul’s Minnesota Music Cafe. It screams “big deal.” But you wouldn’t know it by talking to Johnson.
“We’re just going to get up there, throw some music at the people, and make ‘em dance,” he says. Then: “God willing, if everything all goes smoothly.”
Johnson has spent more time in a recording studio than most people have spent even listening to music. A founding member of the Time, long-time colleague of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and fundamental component of the “Minneapolis Sound” that Prince made world famous, he’s produced hit singles for the likes of Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat,” New Edition’s “Crucial,” and Mint Condition’s "Breakin' My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)." He plays drums. He plays guitar. He’s got great taste in top hats. Yet, he makes his January 28 show at St. Paul’s Minnesota Music Café—featuring Johnson’s Experience, Time guitarist Tori Ruffin’s Freak Juice, and a selection of musicians ranging from all-star to unknown talent—sound like a house party in the heart of the East Side.
If there’s an X factor that makes something distinctly rock and roll, it’s unpredictability. You can find it in dirty South Minneapolis basement punk shows, where sheer ear-bleeding bravado (and cheap beer) reinvigorates the most basic chord progressions; at underground hip-hop shows where freestyling and DJ breaks toss curveballs you won’t catch on mixtapes; even on some back porch with four guys and their fiddles. Unpredictability isn’t necessarily something you’d expect from a respected producer and a host of professional session and live musicians.
Yet while Johnson’s a part of the highly financed Super Bowl Live events on Nicollet Mall curated by Jam and Lewis—he’s performing with both the Time and Flyte Tyme, and he even suggested some local artists for the lineup—he doesn’t see any reason to leave the week’s entertainment up to an official committee.
“There’s tons of stuff going on in Minneapolis, but I play every Tuesday night at Minnesota Music Cafe,” he says. “They’re the only place in St. Paul that has music every night of the week, I have a great working relationship with them, and I want to give St. Paul some love.” It’s precisely this sort of freewheeling expect-the-unexpected vibe of Johnson’s that makes the whole thing so damn rock and roll.
Organized by Johnson, his longtime manager/partner Marty Bragg, and Time guitarist Tori Ruffin, the lineup is a loose, flowing get-together, leaning heavily on a diverse host of guitar talent. This isn’t surprising given what Ruffin calls he and Johnson’s mutual “deep love of the guitar—not just R&B and funk and soul, but Hendrix and jazz.”
“Growing up in Chicago I had black radio,” Johnson says. “When I moved to Minneapolis that changed. Black radio here was very limited to the north side and never 24 hours. So I learned to listen to rock radio as did most of us and that is where you get the Minneapolis Sound—R&B and funk with a rock edge.”
Johnson and his Experience—pure Minneapolis Sound—co-headline with Ruffin’s Freak Juice, which is more reminiscent of that guitarist’s stints with Fishbone than his work with the Time. “We take all of my influences, throw them in a big pot, and make something original,” says Ruffin. “People seem to like it,” he adds humbly. “It’s my labor of love.”
Tracey Blake, a Quad Cities transplant who’s spend years honing his own brand of funk/blues/soul rock guitar, has the first full set the show. But even before that a variety of younger, mostly unknown names, will perform short sets to showcase their talents and get the show going. Bragg’s son Regal and his associate Jesse Zaske connected their elders with these up-and-comers.
“Cloud is a hip hop artist making his debut,” says Johnson. “Baby Shel is a Minnesota Native American rap artist, Seismic City are a great alternative rock band, Crest Redux are blues in the vein of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Her Wave are more modern folk with a standout lead singer songwriter named Dex, and Corey Medina & Brothers hail from Northern Minnesota and have a following there with a blues/rock sound.”
“These are artists who play real instruments and write their own music plus perform,” adds Bragg. “And they’re all Minnesota based.”
So can you expect some Very Important Special Guests at the show? Well, yes, but Johnson, Bragg, and Ruffin aren’t in any hurry to get specific.
“I’m sure some of the guys who are currently in the Time,” says Johnson, when asked about potential performers. “I’m going to invite some former members, see who’s there.”
“I don’t want to tell you all the names, and have you hold me to it,” says Ruffin with a laugh. “But everyone we’ve played with and toured with, they’re all invited, I’ll put it like that.”
“I have a reputation for supporting every act in this town, because I like to show love,” says Johnson. “So we’ll see if they show me some love.”
Jellybean’s Super Bowl Week Kickoff Party
With: The Jellybean Johnson Experience, Freak Juice, and many more
Where: Minnesota Music Café
When: 9 p.m. Sun. Jan. 28
Tickets: $15; more info here