As somebody whose job it is to describe live music, I often tussle with an appropriate theme or hook for the review. It’s not always easy. As The Posies unleashed a wall of sound across The Turf Club floor, the light bulb clicked on. Sunday capped a personal three day weekend of great music. Three days filled with screaming guitars, remarkable musicianship and wonderful songs. Good things really do come in threes.
I’m a big Posies fan. I overlooked the band during their early 90’s MTV heyday. However, over the last handful of years the music of Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer has sunk some deep hooks into me. There is still something of that sense of newness and discovery that happens whenever I attend a Posies show. It helps that whenever they come to town, their focus or configuration changes. It’s still the Posies but the show itself is never a re-run. Their history is testament to talent, longevity and songs that can sing themselves.
It isn’t that my musical tastes have changed over the years. Many of my favorite bands are bands I fell in love with a half century ago. New ones have been added regularly over the years. It’s getting crowded in my head. The point being, that I’m not much for a single catchy tune. I never got invested in what the charts say is worthwhile. History is chock full of one hit wonders and record company creations that now litter the desert roadside ditches.
I quickly tired of MTV. To me, it smacked of mass consumption, image driven and mostly disposable pop songs. So I missed a lot of bands like The Posies first time around. Jon Auer’s windblown rock and roll locks and brooding looks didn’t really trip my trigger. I can understand how they enamored a legion of teenage girls. In hindsight, my closed mind likely kept me from a lot of cool stuff. It’s just that some of us prefer to wander off into the musical jungle without a map. It may not have been the most efficient musical journey but it’s been my own.
Most bands that broke during that early visual, MTV era, are gone. It was too much exposure, way too soon. What we saw was record company product. It wasn’t real and destroyed a lot of artists who couldn’t reconcile the image with themselves. Guys like Stringfellow and Auer managed to survive it. They wrestled their own demons, break ups and challenges along the way. They managed to ground themselves (or the world grounded them). The Posies continue to get better and remain relevant. How many can say that after 30 years?
This tour is focused on working out the kinks and audience testing a pile of new music. A new Posies album is slated for completion and delivery next year. The songs introduced last night were every bit as good as those early hits that went screaming up the charts. Stringfellow and Auer are about as far away from the cruise ship circuit as one can get.
That said, let me get back to the theme of good things in threes. There were three dynamite rock bands on that bill at The Turf last night. All three classic power trios. (A shout out here to DJ Jake Rudh who was there to spin the discs and offer old videos between sets. He always makes things better. How many times have I walked into a club, found myself in no hurry for the live stuff to begin before the light bulb goes on? Then I look for the striped shirt. Jake is in the house. He has an unerring sense of finding the music that fits the occasion.)
That blend of acts was just about perfect. Well, perfect if you love smart, melodic vocal harmonies over huge crunching guitars. Perfect, if you think rock and roll is better as a tsunami than babbling brook. That, and if you enjoy your guitar players airborne. Last night, if you carried a guitar you jumped. Admittedly, we’re not talking about Nils Lofgren’s back flips off a trampoline or Low Cut Connie’s James Everhart launching off an upright piano. The Turf’s ceiling wouldn’t allow for that. But if you imagine jolts of electricity animating those players, you get the picture. An electric guitar is a powerful vehicle. Watching and listening to somebody who knows how to ride that amplified beast is exhilarating.
Ryan and Pony are one of the best local rock bands you may not know. Speaking of 3’s, this was my third time catching them. The band is the side project of Ryan and Pony Smith of The Melismatics. Ryan also spends a lot of time on the road as lead guitar player for Soul Asylum. Pony, in her multi-hued wigs, thunders along on bass. She’s a phenomenally talented multi- instrumentalist and singer. In Melismatics configuration, she handles a six string or the keys. I’ve written before that if there’s a woman in the scene who should occupy the Iron Throne, it’s Pony. I’ll leave it to those who know her to decide whether she’s more Cersei, Daeynarus or Sansa. Pete Anderson was planted behind the kit. He’s the go to drummer for local rock royalty.
I’ve always viewed the Smiths as the bridge between the Twin Cities fabulous Jay’s Longhorn, 7th Street Entry early punk scene and another wave of fantastic young bands currently percolating around the scene. Ryan, in particular, connects with both. On one side, he’s playing with Soul Asylum. On the other, he’s mentoring the likes of young teen buzz band Loki’s Folly.
I was standing with a guitar player whose band poster graces the Turf wall of fame. As Ryan and Pony churned through their set, he exclaimed. “Every time I see these guys, my mind just goes…” and mimed his brain exploding. That about captures it.
Directly in front of the headliner was The Shackletons, a raucous band of brothers hailing from Stillwater. When they initially claimed the Twin Cities as home, an audience member was quick to correct that notion and claim them for the Valley. The Shacks are as loud and brash as any band to break out of the Minnesota scene in a number of years. Front man Colin Campbell, backed by brothers Cameron on bass and Evan on drums (both of whom also sing) matched blistering lead lines with lyrics that ran the gamut from witty to emotionally close to the bone. The band hit the stage with turbos spooled and opened with “Genevieve”, a favorite of The Current. They rarely lifted their foot from the gas peddle. Like The Posies, a lot of new music is coming down the pipe. About half their set was comprised of these songs. Turf patrons roared their approval.
Near the end of the set, during a brief moment of quiet between songs, I heard someone behind me explaining them to a friend enjoying them for the first time. “These guys have that classic Minnesota rock band kind of thing going. They push it like Soul Asylum and Husker Du!” The Shacks proved the man clairvoyant a couple of minutes later. The band closed the set with their only cover. A slamming version of The Replacements’ Can’t Hardly Wait. That, too, about captures it.
We were all there, however, for The Posies. They delivered. These guys are unique and their sound is unmistakable. If one were to go back and try to identify that moment when punk, pop and power melded and became something entirely new, they’d land squarely on The Posies. They are one of those bands whose influence has been felt for decades. Not only for the signature sound they created but for the impact they also had while playing in other hugely respected bands. How much they’ve contributed became evident later during the encore.
In retrospect, you could clearly hear the Posies formula in the opening bands. Step one, it’s a rock show. Bring the huge guitars. Drive it like a freight train. Step two, add beautiful harmony vocals over the top. Like a couple faeries riding a dragon. It pushes things toward pop and introduces an accessibility hard rock does not often afford. Make sure the music is smart. You don’t have to rely on some repetitive hook or pitch songs to the lowest common denominator to make people sing with you. Cut a vein. Give us a glimpse of the trials and tribulations of the person behind the performer.
And be kind. Stringfellow and Auer have a remarkable ability to come off as anti-rock stars. They engage the audience; interact and laugh with them. We feel appreciated. It’s clear the agenda is more than play some hits, get paid and move on down the road. It’s about a communion. And that works best when artist and audience connect on a personal level. When a Posies show ends, the work begins. Towels in hand, Stringfellow and Auer remain until every autograph is signed, every picture is taken and every question answered.
Maybe it’s just me. I never call myself “just a fan”. We are an integral part of that communion. Sometimes our role gets overlooked. Without us, the best musician is just another wannabe noodling in his or her basement. No doubt we can be fickle. We’re human beings, after all. Not just faces in a crowd; our love is not unconditional. Respect the emotions and expectations we bring to the floor in front of the stage. Appreciate the time, effort and money offered up to attend and applaud all of your hard work. Show us some love (even if it’s nothing more than patience and politeness). And we’ll love you back. Then we will always show up when you’re on stage because we feel like we are supporting a friend and their art. There is a humility and grace in that understanding which I respect tremendously. Ken Stringfellow does that as well as anybody in the business.
If ever you wanted proof of how that connection works, look no further than the second song of the band’s four song encore set. Drummer Frankie Siragusa exited the stage while Jon and Ken stepped in front of the monitors. Ken announced that the next song (You Avoid Parties from 1990’s Dear 23) was a quiet one It would work better if everyone came in close. Mind you, it was late and the Turf by this point was only two thirds full. Everyone immediately complied and moved to the front. Jon chuckled: “Well that worked pretty well, didn’t it?” The song was done without the benefit of microphones. Didn’t need them. You could have heard a pin drop. The vocal harmonies soaring and heartfelt. Parties is a song about a couple young men, still working through childhood traumas, who exploded onto the worldwide pop stage, wholly unprepared. They lost their way as they discovered fame doesn’t change who you are. Only how other people perceive you. It’s about how the things you think you desire during youth can destroy you.
And now you’re finally on your own
You draw your choices from the voices you despise
You find you’re drawn to tighter and tighter circles
Flashbacks, flashes forward
You are insane though you have gained such wide appeal
This is the anti-rock star thing personified. The intimacy with the audience. The willingness to bare a soul. A break from the crashing guitars. A moment of communion. Beauty and suffering stirred together. I turned to a friend and opined: “They can end it right there.”
As usual, I was wrong. There was one final chapter. As Stringfellow explained: “A desire to close the circle.” To play a couple from bands into which they’d migrated, individually or as a pair, in the wake of an earlier Posies’ break up. REM’s Man On The Moon and Big Star’s September Gurls. Sublime stuff.
And in those brilliant covers I came upon that final “good things happen in three” revelation. Three great rock bands. All power trios unleashing a formidable wall of sound. Each deciding to close their shows with brilliant renditions of classic songs. Ryan and Pony with Prince’s I Would Die For You. The Shackletons with the Mat’s Can’t Hardly Wait and The Posies’ Man on the Moon and September Gurls. Talk about going out on the right note!
The Twin Cities is up to its ears in musical choices and summer festivals these days. Sunday night at The Turf was about as good as it gets if you are a rock and roll fan. Few things rival walking out of a venue exhausted and satiated. Three nights in row will do that to you. Good things really do happen in threes.