My buddy Tom passed out at the sold-out Cabooze a few weeks ago, while hearing The Belfast Cowboys kick off the “Last Waltz” tribute show. The paramedics took him away in an ambulance and he spent some time in the hospital, badly dehydrated and getting fluids while the band played on, which led to the suggestion that Tom score a version of the Hold Steady T-shirt that goes, “The Belfast Cowboys Almost Killed Me.”
Tom’s fine, but not as fine as seven-month cigarette-free Adam Levy was Friday night at Mayslack’s, performing to a packed house with Hookers & Blow and strumming his guitar, smiling, and singing soul chestnuts like “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” a few weeks after his son Daniel committed suicide.
Both men’s survival stories have taken on a heroic quality for me in these macro and micro hard times, when parroted opinions are louder than good ideas and great music, and debt, doubt, death, and the GOP fight club chorus of “White Punks On Dope” is enough to bruise even the hardiest of spirits.
Luckily, we will always have new music to tame the times, and to that end, it’s unlikely you’ll hear a more inviting opening to a long-playing CD, not to mention a better balm to life’s rollercoaster, than when steady-as-she-goes Dana Thompson trills at the start of The Minor Planets’ new 11-song masterpiece “Shadow in the Water,” “Take my hand/Walk a while with me/Understand/It’s not too long a journey/That we’re traveling on/Soon these days will be gone/Gone before you know it.”
And just like that, Thompson and her fellow Minor Planet, Eric Christopher, make like Eckhart Tolle and bring the worried listener into the present while simultaneously reminding us that everything is and is going to be OK, even if it’s not, and that’s just the first song.
From there, built on an exquisite down comforter of mandolin, fiddle, guitar, strings, drums, and the occasional banjo and accordion, Thompson and Christopher provide a spiritual joy that feels timeless and decidedly Minnesotan (the duo’s chosen musical genre is “country and northern.”) Duluth native Thompson’s girl-from-the-north-country roots and Christopher’s august bluegrass chops make for an earthy sound befitting Depressions Old and New, and not a moment too soon.
Along with Ray Bonneville’s “Bad Man’s Blood” and the Pines’ “Dark So Gold,” “Shadow in the Water,” The Minor Planets’ follow-up to their 2001 debut, has been my go-to listen the last few weeks. All three recordings are of a piece — well-crafted works of art from veteran songwriters and musicians who’ve obviously worked hard to sequester themselves from the chaos of the outside world in order to maintain inner vision and strength. It’s plain to hear that they’ve weathered all sorts of storms, and the grace that all three mete out is positively instructive.
To that end, Craig Finn isn’t the only 40-something songwriter finding something like solace in Jesus these days, but The Minor Planets do so with spare-but-lush arrangements and Everly Brother and Sister harmonies. New country hymns like “Out on the Water” could’ve been sung by the Carter Family in dustbowl days, or at this Sunday’s House Of Mercy service, while “Forsaken” and “Lonely Days” are the sort of dead reckoners that Lucinda Williams mines so well.
Like Williams (or her sister-in-chirp Iris Dement), single-mom Thompson possesses a beguiling soul-woman voice that demands immediate attention. It’s a lived-in calm-amidst-the storm voice, in other words, and its warmth provides the sort of late-night and early-morning sustenance that, again, only artists who have truly been baptized by fire are capable of rendering.
Maybe that’s why The Minor Planets have been relegated mostly to being chatted over at happy hours at the Amsterdam Bar and Grill these days (they perform tonight, and every other Thursday, 5-7 p.m.), but if there’s any justice or ears left in the Prairie Home Companion empire, songs like “Harry Dean Stanton in the Desert Alone” and “Didn’t Shed One Tear” will be everywhere come springtime, along with Christopher’s should-be anthem “Come on Over to St. Paul.” Take us out o brother, as only a soul survivor can:
I used to set my sights on the beautiful life
I used to be like you
If I didn’t read it in The Talk Of The Town
I didn’t believe it was true
There’s a life out here in the interior
Though it runs a little small
So if you’re finished with the big time
Come on over to St. Paul
If you’ve had enough disappointment
And the try and try and try
If you’re tired of building up your dreams
Just to watch them fall
If you’re ready to get real
Come on over to St. Paul