Oh, what a couple days can do! I spent a lot of time down at MWMF last weekend cold. And a little wet. Last night was glorious spring. Sun was out and downtown was laid back. Just the way I like it. No Twins. No Wolves. No Mainroom. Just that fabulous little room called The Entry.
Let me qualify that sentiment just a tad. There has to be Somebody downtown to make it work. When I walked into The Entry 15 minutes before the opener, the place was as empty as I’d ever seen it. Uh oh. I found myself rooting for Trupa Trupa. That people were just a bit late in arriving. Coming all the way from Gdansk, Poland to Minneapolis to play to an empty house would be a bummer of bummers. Thankfully, once the music began at 8pm, a steady flow of patrons slowly brought the venue up to a healthy population.
Local “Sludge Gaze” purveyors Another Heaven (aren’t labels fun?) began by announcing that earplugs were available at their merch table. I’ve employed ear protection about as many times as I have fingers. Dumb. I know. But it is what it is. I hate the muffle. After a single song, I sauntered over and grabbed me a pair. This band is Loud! Maybe the bass player’s 8×10 speaker cab should have been my first clue.
Another Heaven has this remarkable ability to really work the edges of the sonic spectrum. Most music comes at you from the middle of the road. The focus is on melody and vocals. Delivered in the mid-range. These guys don’t spend much there. Musically bass heavy, the falsetto vocals seem to float above that heavy dirge. Combined, it’s something unique. Physical.
By this point the Entry was half filled. Yet, most people were hanging back on the upper level. Was it that early reticence to jump down on the floor? Or people literally be driven back from the stage by sheer volume? The exception was a pair of young women who parked themselves right in the pit. Emily from Minneapolis seemed one of those people who plug directly into the music. They can’t help dancing when the music starts any more than when the doctor taps your knee with a mallet. The cool thing about dancing is that it’s contagious. Like a yawn, it takes just one to get it started. The patrons ringing the pit began to move.
My main reason for being downtown last night was to catch Saint Small. One of my favorite things about covering shows is that I have a great opportunity to track the arc of local bands. I love watching their development. The chops get better. The interpretations get crisper. They begin to establish an identity. One of the hallmarks of a good band is you know what you’re going to get when they hit the stage.
First and foremost, Saint Small is a smart band. That comes from being on the plus side of 50. They’ve seen things and have some perspective. They are built with players with established musical pedigrees. Frontman Jim McGuinn is wordy. Literary. Loves an image as much as alliteration. Conveys a story more than asking you to sing along with a hook. That’s a double edged sword. I’m an active listener and English major; I love words. That approach is in my wheelhouse. By the same token, most people are there for the hook. They find a lower common denominator to bond with a band. Saint Small refuses to pander or take the low road.
That doesn’t mean you don’t offer up a cover or two. A song everybody knows and connects with. The high road means you don’t take the obvious choice. You surprise people. Wet Leg’s Chaise Longue is that kind of surprise. What the hell are a bunch of hockey dads doing with a modern teen, pop punk hit? Killing it, I’d say.
The focus is on McGuinn. He’s the one teeing up and singing the songs. The guitar/bass combo of Steve Burnett and Bill Muller is about as locked in as you can get. That comes from playing together for 25 years, going back to Twin Cities punk heavyweight Superhopper. Drummer Jimmy Olson is one of the really underrated drummers around town. He brings a lot of jazz sensibilities to what is essentially a post punk pop band. Watching Olson on drums is like listening to somebody singing in the shower. It’s authentic and watching him off in his own world is a guilty pleasure.
I wrote earlier about bands evolving and finding a voice. Newest member Larry McDonough on keys really helps in that regard. Musically, this band really covers the waterfront. But if one was to try to point to a style or sound that defines them, it’s easy to settle on Elvis Costello’s Attractions. That sound, that era, really demands a synth, organ or piano. Adding it has gone a long way in helping the band deliver the goods.
After the set, an audience member asked me what my favorite Saint Small song was. After thinking for a minute, I confessed that it was one they didn’t play last night. Isn’t that a good thing? One of the hallmarks of a band making serious progress is getting to make those tough calls. What great song doesn’t make the setlist tonight?
Trupa Trupa was a complete mystery to me. In preparing for the review, I did some listening; watched some videos. But don’t ask me what it was. I can honestly say it was a brand new experience for me. How often does that happen?
Here’s a bit of background on the band. About 5 years ago, established Polish poet Grzegorz Kwiatkowski sent an email to The Current which simply asked: “What do you think of my band?” Thus began a friendship with Saint Small’s Jim McGuinn that included consultation on things like English translation. They met in Austin at SXSW where the band played one of the day parties. According to McGuinn, their showcase slot was sparsely attended. However, in that room were musical heavyweights from NPR, NY Times and Rolling Stone. The word was getting out that there was an utterly original band out there.
If you’re looking for somebody to adequately explain to you what Trupa Trupa does, I’m not that person. All I can do is try to provide some impressions because I really don’t have anything to compare it with. It’s bits and pieces. It seems chaotic but you always feel a structure. It can be aggressive. It can float and dream. It can do both in the same song. There really aren’t any rules going on here. It’s kind of like trying to define what Syd Barrett was doing with Pink Floyd before he went off the deep end.
My sense is the band is painting in the air. The lines are not concise. Instead it’s a sprawl of colors and swirls, some dark some bright. Each song feels as though it’s spontaneous and being created out of whole cloth. But it’s not. All you need to do is watch front man Grzegorz Kwiatkowski. He’s hearing notes and tones, spaces between notes, that we’re not. He’s reacting to them. Pawing at them. Directing them. If you’ve ever watch The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn get animated, that’s the vibe. It’s like he’s off in his own world, only to suddenly connect with you to blast a line or guitar lick that sucks you right back into his experience. Mr Kwiatkowski is one of the most interesting frontmen I’ve ever seen.
Maybe it’s like this: 99% of the music we hear is commercially driven. By that I mean that it’s designed to be accessible. To survive you’ve got to make them like you. People like melody. They respond to hooks and choruses. If you want a hit, you come up with a song that essentially sings itself. In other words, you deliberately make art which will please your audience. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s a sell out or compromise. It’s just reality and the way the vast majority of successful artists survive.
Trupa Trupa is that 1%. They’re painting soundscapes and we’re all welcome to witness the process. They make you work for it. I found myself constantly surprised and challenged. Isn’t that one of the things that makes a great piece of art? The artist creating impressions and leaving the interpretations to those who relish the challenge.
This was a lot of band in that room. Few, if any, in attendance were established fans. It was more a curiosity. But the band owned the joint and left everybody buzzing. Reactions ranged from: “I have no idea what that was but it was really cool!” to “I wonder if what they do is as out there in Poland as it is here?”. Maybe it was best described by two of the music nerds in the house, Saint Small’s Jimmy Olson and Larry McDonough, who brought their jazz pedigrees to bear. “Did you catch that 7/8 on the last song? How’d they do that? But it really wasn’t what it seemed. Did you feel that 4/4 going on under the beat?”
Well, the short answer is No. I didn’t. I’m not that sophisticated. All I can say is that I heard something I’d not heard before. It was a mental challenge but had this remarkable attribute of drawing me in. It was sonic art more than commercial music. Done without pretense. Delivered with delight.
One wonders whether Trupa Trupa will gain enough commercial success to return to the Twin Cities. I hope they do. Next time, you can be sure there will be a lot of word of mouth ramping up the audience. One day, I’d expect to see them on major festival stages rather than intimate little clubs like The Entry. If you ever find yourself a bit bored with the same bands coming through town, the same genres/styles rocketing up the popularity charts, remember Trupa Trupa. It’s Alice’s rabbit hole. And it’s worth the trip.
Photos Courtesy of Brenda Piekarski