Mary Jane Alm: A Star In A Barroom Crowd
Originally published in the Twin Cities Reader's Nightbeat , vol. 1, Number 16 (July 23, 1984)
For the most part my ignorance of prime-time TV is prodigious, so last week it was with shock of the totally alien that I happened across a re-run of a TV show that you're all probably familiar with already - The Greatest American Hero. Supported by no laugh-track, the hour-long show nevertheless seemed a more painfully contrived comedy than adventure as some bumbling blond Californian displayed super-powers put to the clumsy service of rescuing a struggling young rock band from a German meanie named Hydra, who intended to douse an outdoor rock festival with nerve gas. The festival represented the rock band's shot at the big-time, playing to a crowd "bigger than Woodstock" that had been drawn by a bill headlined by the Rolling Stones. Goofy strains of Altamont.
Well, that TV image of the retributions of MOR rockers surfaced again for me that night at Nib's as I watched the Mary Jane Alm Band run through its three sets. Not that it's anything particularly unique, God knows - probably any TV show that survives its first season these days eventually gets around to using some rock band scenario, just as they all get around to "dealing" with topical problems. In fact, my first impulse was to draw a comparison between Mary Jane Alm and Diane Keaton of Annie Hall, the vulnerable singer who plugs away at through initial indifference at grimy dives to work her way to the top, or something like the top, with the aid of slimy Paul Simon.
But after four years of playing Minneapolis and St. Paul bars, and with four Yammies to her credit, Mary Jane Alm hardly plays to indifferent crowds any longer. "Because we're making a living playing in bars," she explains, describing their sound, "we play a lot of different things. I love all kinds of music, so we scatter our approach and use my voice to pull it all together. I don't want people to be bored."
Their approach works - the dancefloor was packed and the applause sincere and spontaneous throughout the night. But, perhaps not so paradoxically, a distorted echo of Abraham Lincoln haunted their songlist: You can amuse some of the people some of the time. I found myself going for the funk-tinged numbers, when Brian Peter's guitar assumed pale shades of Jimmy Nolan, Bryan Rossi's keyboard fills provided unexpected textures, and the rhythm section (Scooter Nelson on drums, Dik Shopteau on bass) drove the numbers. I also liked the sweet country inflections that cropped up when Alm donned an acoustic guitar and Peters switched to pedal-steel.
Alm, who writes the band's original material, says she likes to stick to a country-pop style, and points to Lee Greenwood, Michael McDonald, and especially Joni Mitchell as her key influences. Cover songs by these artists as well as songs by James Taylor, Little Feat and others were among the evening's crowd pleasers. Alm's songs tended to fall roughly in this vein, more often reminiscent of the Doobie Brothers, yet validated by her strong vocals, which are most impressive when she swoops and hits the high notes. That she hits them every time is no small accomplishment for someone who plays every night.
Nib's, the south Minneapolis (2609 at 26th Ave.) bastion of boogie bar bands, provided a good forum for her. Amply filled with table-seating that gives a good view of the stage, Nib's layout is generally preferable to that of clubs which shunt the stage into one corner or furnish only enough seating for a fraction of the crowds they draw. Although the low ceilings tends to cause minor sound problems (hard to keep those bass notes from thudding), the red-walled ambiance friendly and comfortable. Two separate bars and legions of barmaids keep patrons serviced quickly, and the game room (featuring pool, pinball, and video) is well-located far away from the stage. Once the inappropriately opulent venue on the block, it's ironic that the next-door Norma Jean's (formerly Duffy's) - with its downtown disco glitz and dress code- served to make Nib's the cozy spot to drop in for a drink and a set of live music.
The difference was inadvertently brought at the second set in the song, "Dancing in the Street," when Alm sang: "Doesn't matter what you ear/just as long as you're there." The unpretentious atmosphere of Nib's complements Alm's democratic approach - hometown spot for a hometown band. Doesn't matter that the band members hail orginally from Mankato and Rochester; they've made the Twin Cities their own.
"I've been to Los Angeles and New York and all over," Alm says, "But I like Minneapolis and St. Paul the best. It's great to be able to do what I what I love and make a living from it. I don't think I'd ever leave the area." Which means we may never see the Mary Jane Alm Band on an insipid TV show - isn't that a relief for everyone?
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