Soul Asylum's return to the stage

class=img_thumbleft>"Thank you; thanks," Dave Pirner told a half-full First Avenue Monday night; "(I've) been saying that a lot lately."

Pirner has been through the sort of year that forces a guy to either quit or count his blessings. June saw the death of his friend, Soul Asylum bass player Karl Mueller, and August saw the probable destruction of Pirner's home in New Orleans. He will see the damage first-hand next week, but first he and the revamped Soul Asylum took to the stage for the first time since Mueller's death.

In November of 2001, Mueller told the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "Our first show was Friday, Oct. 13, 1981. It was in the old (7th St.) Entry. The old layout. We opened for Husker Du. I was 18 years old, wasn't even old enough to be in the bar, and I was playin', and it was really fun, and (the Huskers) were in their early glory."

I suggested to Mueller that Soul Asylum might be like the Ramones, who named one of their albums "Too Tough To Die." This is what he said: "I think it might be that we're more stubborn than tough. It's something that we all got comfortable with at some point. That took over 10 years, probably. We just enjoy it. There are a lot worse ways to make a living, and we've been lucky."

Soul Asylum showed their stubborn streak Monday, playing a 80-minute set that incorporated new songs from a forthcoming album with old hits, including an especially poignant "Runaway Train" and "Closer To The Stars." On bass was Tommy Stinson, the former Replacement; on drums was Michael Bland, and on guitar was Dan Murphy.



Missing was Mueller, and everyone in the place felt it--even though Pirner gamely tried to conjure him with a chant of "Karl, Karl," and suggested that his spirit was alive and well and in the house. But it was Murphy's body language that reflected the gig's surreal nature, which caromed between survivor's guilt and workmanlike epiphany.

While Pirner and the animated Stinson did their best to whip up energy, goof around, and go on with the show, Murphy spent much of the night with his eyes shut tight, concentrating on his playing, and avoiding eye contact with his bandmates and the audience. Near the end, Murphy tried to muster some enthusiasm by climbing on top of his amp riser and bouncing to the front of the stage, but it was clear that he dearly missed his friend.

He wasn't alone. Even though the band in question would blow away most comers, and even though Karl was buried months ago, many found themselves saying goodbye-to both Mueller and the band he started-because on that stage last night there was a hole in the Soul.