Bellwether is practicing at guitarist Jimmy Peterson's house. It's a warm atmosphere: Peterson's wife offers beverages for everyone, and as they unpack their instruments, the conversation drifts from folklore to photography. Bassist Phil Tippin quietly asks Peterson's wife if "there's a moratorium on smoking." And despite the fact that neither Peterson nor his wife appears to be a smoker, an ashtray is promptly provided. Dressed in the No Depression uniform--jeans, work shirt--the four band members pick up their guitars and gather around Peterson's dining room table. Tonight's session is all-acoustic, and it's the perfect introduction to this exceptional alt-country band.
Peterson and guitarist Eric Luoma started playing together in an equally modest setting. "We'd play coffee shops," Luoma explains. "There was one in Northfield we drove down to a couple of times in the winter of '95. We'd play for sandwiches. No one was there except for a few kids. But we kept doing it for the sandwiches."
Carrying their vintage guitars from one java joint to another, Luoma and Peterson sowed the seeds for a band whose sound has finally come to fruition with the help of Tippin and former Dashboard Saviors drummer John Crist. That sound--a winsome cross between the '70s folk they grew up with and the more precious roots-gathering of contemporaries such as Son Volt--can be heard on their promising debut Turnstiles. Boldly executed yet charmingly embryonic (Tippin refers to the disc as a "snapshot" of where they are), Turnstiles is a romantic record filled with tales of missed opportunities and deep longing set to honeyed, handsome folk melodies. Throughout, familiar melodies serve as a backdrop for delicate rural imagery that evokes a pastoral landscape, more idealized than real.
The album has helped push the band forward. "It's just something we had to do, ready or not," says Luoma. "And I think we did the best we could with the time, the talents, and the budget we had." Recent gigs opening for scene luminaries such as the Bottle Rockets and Slim Dunlap suggest that he's being modest.
"The sound on the CD was a surprise," Luoma says. "I think its smooth feel came from working on it through all those cloudy days in the middle of winter. But we're all a product of our parents. Mine listened to Dylan, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and the Eagles--you have 15 years of your parents playing that stuff in your ears."
That sense of honesty and heritage is what roots music is about, and Bellwether's songs are full of small-town yearnings, desire, and wanderlust. "I grew up in Virginia, Minnesota, just south of Ely," Luoma explains. And during their dining-room practice session, he leads the group through a tune called "The Miner's Song," which has become a Bellwether standard. "Eric's friends from the North Country always request it," contends Peterson, half-smiling.
"It's the first song I wrote that I liked--the first one I kept," says Luoma. At this night's rehearsal, Peterson plays on a '32 National steel guitar and Luoma plays a '62 Gibson acoustic, which Peterson claims is worth about $3,000. He should know; besides his duties in the band he also owns and operates Twin Town Guitars at 34th and Lyndale.
Like Luoma, Peterson grew up in small-town Wisconsin, and found an outlet playing in punk bands before moving to Minneapolis a few years ago. Drummer John Crist came up to Minneapolis from Athens, Georgia, on the heels of his friend and former bandmate, singer-songwriter Marlee MacLeod, and came to the band through a brief, fortuitous courtship process. "I saw him and thought, 'How am I going to get this guy to play with us? He's like a tip-hammer--you know, a really hard player,'" remembers Luoma. "I asked Johnny if he wanted to record with us--no commitment. He said 'OK,' and then he decided he liked us and wanted to keep playing."
During the dining-room session they run through a battery of neatly executed songs. Luoma and Peterson lock eyes as they go through a bridge, and Luoma feeds Tippin some new harmonies to try out. Peterson finger-picks his steel guitar and it takes on the sound of a banjo, and Tippin's bass follows Luoma's Carter-Family-style lead. The band members smile throughout.
The evening culminates in a cover of Bob Dylan's country-rock standard, "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." Luoma sings: "Strap yourself to a tree with roots/You ain't goin' nowhere." It's a fitting line for a roots band in a small town. Yet the band feels lucky to be living in what they consider a "time of rebirth" for the local music scene and alt-country in particular. Just as bands such as the Jayhawks and Honeydogs have already built a following and worked out sounds that have led to major-label success, the still-emerging Bellwether may be one day find the style that allows them to join that league. "We haven't even hit where we want to be," Luoma explains. "Sometimes when we're playing acoustic like this, we wind up in 3/4 singing dirges," Luoma says. "Then suddenly you have to play a gig and people want to tap their feet."
"Tempo is the enemy," says Peterson. "We're almost a country-type band, but because of Johnny and me it's more rock 'n' roll. Eric is very mellow, very folky. Sometimes I think he's cursed by us--but that's what gives us an interesting flavor.
Bellwether play Lee's Liquor Lounge at 8 p.m. Friday, September 4l; 822-6693.
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