Lonesome Midwest Blues
I'm not exactly sure what a sarsaparilla is or what it tastes like, but I want one. Unfortunately, I'm fairly certain they don't have it on tap here at Dusty's Bar. What they do have--your usual assortment of Premium, Summit, Leinenkugel's--seems appropriate for a hole-in-the-wall tucked away in a decidedly unhip part of northeast Minneapolis. But at this moment, I'm craving something different--something forgotten. Dan Kase is to blame.
"Lonesome Dan," as he likes to be called, is hunched over a beat-up Gibson acoustic guitar, stomping his black patent-leather shoes like his pant leg has caught on fire. Dressed in a three-piece charcoal-gray suit, he's dwarfed by the hulking green booth he has transformed into an ad hoc stage. At age 28, he looks like he's 19--the steady stream of cigarettes and beer that he brings to his lips haven't caught up with him yet. He looks like Doogie Howser in a fedora.
But don't let the fact that you'd never mistake him for John Lee Hooker make you doubt him: For Lonesome Dan, the only way to be a "real" musician is to play American country blues from the 1920s and '30s. Of course, the whole notion of "authenticity" is slippery when you're talking about a twentysomething white guy from Michigan who plays the blues. But somehow, Kase manages to avoid being a caricature of his heroes. His mannerisms and inflection seem to belong just as much to him as they did to the long-dead musicians he emulates. From the way he dresses to his percussive style of fingerpicking, Kase pays tribute to musicians such as Blind Boy Fuller, Sleepy John Estes, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Think of the music from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and mix in a little more ragtime and a hint of bluegrass--that's Lonesome Dan.
"When I heard it for the first time, I fell in love with it," Kase says of his favorite genre. "There's a raw intensity to that early stuff. The first guy I ever heard play country blues on the radio was the Reverend Gary Davis, and that was it," he says. "It's weird. It's not something you think would be your calling."
Thanks in part to Davis, Kase joined up with the Crush Collision Trio, who recently self-released an album titled after the group. (Crush Collision Trio is a variation on Scott Joplin's "The Great Crush Collision March.") With help from the two other members--Matt Yetter on mandolin and Mikkel Beckmen on washboard and washtub--Kase masters both original tracks and faithful renditions of classics such as "Canaan's Land," meeting the callus-making technical demands of the genre without glossing over its earthy soul. On "She Ain't No Good," the mandolin's frenetic tinkling serves as the perfect ornament to Kase's capable fingerpicking. "Salty Dog" finds Kase and Yetter trading off licks that jump over one another like excited grasshoppers. Crush Collision Trio makes you nostalgic for the gritty scratch of a needle across vinyl: The production is bright and lo-fi, and there's no attempt to hide the lack of a bass. And Kase's voice, although far from the gravel-throated bellowing of his idols, has enough of a growl to settle any sneers of cynicism.
"People tend to take you less seriously when you're young and playing this type of music. A lot of people think you have to be 60 years old and drunk off your ass to do this. Of course, that's completely ridiculous," Kase insists. "It's my goal to get good enough where people can't ignore me."
Just tell them to sit and listen, Lonesome Dan. And if that doesn't work, buy 'em a sarsaparilla.
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