Will The Circle Be Unbroken?
It's a cold winter night, the middle of the week, and the Triple Rock is half empty. It's the sort of lonely scene that invites blues ballads and country dirges. All the requisite details are present: the crack of the pool balls, the buzzing neon, a cigarette in the ashtray, a beer in your palm, the jukebox playing your favorite song. The people milling around are old friends, or they're keeping to themselves, having always depended on the indifference of strangers.
It's a scene that's likely to dampen a lesser band's spirits, but these conditions are home to Missing Numbers, a band forged in the icy winds and dark nights of Minnesota winter just over a year ago. At that point, Jimmy Peterson, guitarist for the now dormant alt-country outfit Bellwether, had a weekly Wednesday-night gig at the 400 Bar. He enlisted a few of his friends to join him in a jam session, friends who, like Peterson, were no strangers to the Twin Cities' bar rock scene. Which is the primary reason Missing Numbers, the group that evolved from those sessions, now appear so comfortable here, in a bar full of the same stories you might hear from the leagues of folks bellying up at corner pubs all over town right now: a few successes, sure, but mostly untold tales of lost hopes and fruitless toil from the thousands of local bands that went--tragically, inevitably, justifiably--nowhere. Missing Numbers have been doing this a long time. They have a few of those stories themselves.
John Crist, the band's bookish drummer, is telling one now. A decade ago he played in Athens, Georgia's acclaimed Dashboard Saviors. They'd worked themselves to the top of the Athens scene and were touring the country, with a few European forays under their belts as well. The band's largest following outside their hometown was in Minneapolis, where they sold out the Uptown Bar every time they came through. By the time they disbanded, Crist had made such a name for himself in Minnesota that he decided to move here and launch the next phase of his music career. His plans changed, as plans will, and today he and his wife are raising a daughter while he works in patient transportation and wheelchair repair at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.
Crist points a forefinger into the tabletop where we're sitting, and in the greasy residue he makes a spiral, starting from the middle and working slowly outward. "Bands always think this is how their careers will be," he explains. "You play long enough, and you keep getting bigger and bigger. Even if it's very slow, you still get bigger the longer you play."
His finger stops. "But it isn't like that," he says. "It's like this." He looks me in the eye and slowly begins to move his finger in a closed circle, around and around, tracing the same line over and over. "You play and you play," he says, "and you never get anywhere."
Crist laughs when he says this. He might be bitter, he tells me, but then again an excessive rock 'n' roll lifestyle is no way to live. "We're just playing now because we love to play music. We don't give a fuck anymore." As he says this, the rest of the band finishes a sound check and joins our table. Each of the band's members is in his 30s, and all but bassist Mike Derrick have children. "I give many fucks," Derrick counters with a grimace. Peterson, a 38-year-old with bright eyes and graying hair, is wearing an easygoing smile that comes so naturally that it's rare to ever see him without it. He flashes it now at Derrick and Crist. "Now that we don't give a fuck, it's more fun," he says. "Everything's easier and looser."
That easy looseness comes across on the group's eight-song EP, recorded last summer by Ed Ackerson at Flowers Studio. Peterson originally saw the project as a break from Bellwether and an outlet for his more experimental tendencies. "After a while [playing in Bellwether] felt like clocking in," Peterson says of playing with the band. "Like gettin' up early, makin' the doughnuts." If that's the case, then Missing Numbers is like stayin' up late, drinkin' the whiskey. It has elbow room to spare, full as it is of bluesy, down-tempo guitar rock, shimmering like a red streetlight through the raindrops on your windshield. Like Crist's career circle, Missing Numbers' dark songs turn slowly, taking listeners to nowhere in particular, just happy to be moving. Crist and Derrick are as solid a rhythm section as you'll find in the Twin Cities, and they offer superb backup to Peterson's woeful Rhodes. Over this foundation soars an ever-present wailing guitar solo, like a screech owl in some dark, distant pine forest. This key component comes courtesy of Casey Gooby, a man who builds amplifiers in his spare time and who embodies terms like "axeman" and "guitar-slinger." Add to that Peterson's gritty vocals--the single most convincing argument against the smoking ban I've heard yet--and Missing Numbers reveals itself as one of the better local records of the year.
Of course, that's nothing new, either. These guys have all made great records in the past, and they'll do it again. That's the thing about spinning in circles like a top: as long as you're moving, you're up. And so, around midnight, Missing Numbers are up, taking the stage in front of a modest but eager crowd. It's the same as it ever was. And Peterson's still smiling.
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