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A Positive Rage: Ground report from Black Saturday

“This is my favorite night of the year,” said Joel Kyle, of the fecund Minneapolis-by-way-of-Belfast musical Kyle family, standing near the stage of the 331 Club in NE Minneapolis Saturday night, as the Bitter Spills roared their folk-blues to a packed but mostly indifferent crowd of twentysomethings still wondering if they’d made the right club-crawling call.

“It’s the most [messed]-up and brilliant day of the year,” Kyle continued. “Jesus has died, he’s in the tomb, you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s this beautiful [limbo]. People call it ‘Holy Saturday,’ but there’s nothing holy about it. I’ve always called it “Black Saturday.’ “

To be sure, there was something in the air Saturday night. A certain waiting-for-spring-to-fully-bloom restlessness unique to Midwestern survivors of the long cold winter of ‘09. At the Beat Coffeehouse in Uptown, Rift magazine’s  Rich Horton was conducting his latest 36-Hour Songwriting Contest, in which area songsmiths are given a theme and 36 hours to write a song around it. This year’s topic: the meaning of life.

The artists went deep and did not disappoint. (To see video of the event go here.) As if called by the spring gods themselves, Adam Marshall and his wife harmonized the refrain, “Get up off the couch/Get up off the couch/Find a place to run in the sun.” Chris Hall mused, “Are you wasting your life waiting to die/It’s easy to live/It’s easy to die,” which dovetailed with this quote from Holocaust survivor Primo Levi that I’d read an hour before heading out on the town:

“Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable.”

It’s something I needed to hear on Easter Eve, as the blues had descended in full fetal force over the weekend — until I heard the clarion call of Lucinda Williams, who sings, “maybe a little music will help.” Sure enough, at the Beat, David Brusie uncorked a soothingly sad, ruminative stream-of-consciousness riff on the duality of aloneness and loneliness; Sam Keenan confessed to recently writing “30 songs in 31 days” and sang like a madman on a mission, Eliza Blue crooned to a would-be lover who she “dances to the edge of the room” with, and Nikki Schultz introduced her song by saying, “Thanks for being nice.” Contest winner Andrew Lynch printed out the humanism symbol and passed it around for all to see before doing his quirky “Happy Human” tune.

Claire Taubenhaus proved that an intellectual exercise can result in something that comes from the soul, and her tune about feeling lost and having no answers was as raw and giving as it gets. But it was David DeYoung, the indefatigable man-about-town with an energy level and passion for music that technology has finally caught up with (dude may want to consider renaming his site HowIsTheShow.com) who nailed the moment. His tune, “Ballad Of The Rift 36-Hour Songwriting Contest,” was a meta-song; a song within a song that pulled the neat trick of being both funny and poignant while saying much about creativity, technology, community, and the speed of life.

I got my song topic at midnight
At the Green Mill in Uptown
I was just sitting there, worried sick
When Eliza Blue sat down
She said she’d just heard from Rich Horton
In a text on her cell phone
She said he’d given her the secret phrase
Now we’re on our own

The whole impressive thing reminded my sorry ass yet again why I “get up off the couch” to go see live music: to feel, and to remember, and unremember, and learn, and relearn. The night was perhaps best summed up by contest attendee and songwriter Jerry Lefkowitz, who, in regards to the fertile music scene sprouting new bulbs all around us, noted that “It’s good to be in the middle of something.”

On my way over to the Nicollet Island Inn, the Current’s David Campbell talked about how bad he felt about missing a couple of shows earlier in the week — the age-old vexation for any curious new music-seeker. Then he fulfilled a request for A Tribe Called Quest from some dudes in Hudson who were in their car and making their way to the cities. Campbell’s MADD-worthy outro: “Keep it between the lines, guys.”

Tribe was still ringing in my ears when I turned the corner of the Nicollet Island Inn lounge to hear Ashleigh Still doing a heart-rending version of “The Arms of Orion” to a couple friends. Dressed in a red evening dress, framed by red table candles, and empty martini glass at her elbow, she was the picture of the mature jazz singer she is fast becoming, especially when she did her tune “Dirty Laundry,” about a Jolene-type seductress who collects broken hearts like so many piles of whites and colors on her bedroom floor. After a short discussion on the human condition and forgiveness, the consensus between crowd and singer was that “there’s a little bit of slut in everybody.”

At the end of the night, three Irish-American brothers ended up at the Half-Time Rec in St. Paul. The youngest of the three was on stage, singing Van Morrison songs to an almost empty bar. Which, in my experience, is often when the music takes root and takes off. The kid leaned into the spontaneously penned “The Laid-Off Blues” with such verve and humor that it and the whole Black Saturday shebang was echoed by a swatch of graffiti that can be found scrawled across a dead-end barrier near the Beat off 28th Street in Uptown:

“HAVE FUN OR DIE.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dan Gjelten on 04/14/2009 - 02:11 pm.

    Jim – nicely done. We were at Andrew Bird, but I, like Joel, was very aware of what night it was. That time between Good Friday and Easter is profound and it has meaning regardless of one’s faith – because all humans experience a journey through darkness and suffering to light and healing…and tieing your experience to music is right on – I’m the same way, and find healing and hope and confirmation and blues and sadness and the trip down (soul) as well as the trip up (spirit) reflected in music all the time. And we are so lucky to be in the “middle of something” in the Twin Cities – it is really amazing how much great work people are doing around town now. Anyway, well done. dan gjelten

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