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From Minnesota to Mexico and back: How Todd Clouser kept the Lakeside Guitar Festival alive

At this weekend’s festival, more than 15 acts offering a diverse range of styles, demographics and cultural backgrounds will grace three stages around the Pavilion free of charge, including headliners Charlie Parr on Friday and Marc Ribot on Saturday on the Pavilion stage.

Todd Clouser
Todd Clouser: “I think that in the process of beginning recovery, I rediscovered a more empathetic side to what we are doing here. I could relate to other people in a way I had maybe given up on.”
Courtesy of the artist

Few musical events are more transporting than a telepathic jam band. Consider the magic conjured by a trio comprised of guitarist and spoken-word vocalist Todd Clouser, keyboardist John Medeski and drummer/percussionist JT Bates during their annual gigs at the south Minneapolis club Icehouse.

The trio compensate for their lack of familiarity (Icehouse is the only venue where they have played more than once) by sharing kindred and adventurous musical instincts, a broad and flexible stylistic palette, and a blend of aggression and restraint born of mutual respect and recognition. Over the years, they’ve buttressed their thrilling turbulence with luxuriant melodies and delicate ballads. Their legacy continues with a performance Monday night. And the next day, the group will enter the studio to lay down tracks for their first proper album.

The Icehouse gig and studio date culminate an auspicious extended weekend for Clouser back in his hometown—one that highlights his benevolent influence on the local music scene and community at-large more than fifteen years after leaving Minnesota for Mexico. Begin with the Lakeside Guitar Festival, a sprawling series of free events this weekend, many of them around Como Lakeside Pavilion in St. Paul.

“Without Todd Clouser, this festival would no longer exist. That is an easy statement to make,” said Molly Maher, an Americana singer-songwriter who has been the festival’s curator and emcee since its founding as the Lowertown Guitar Festival back in 2013.

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By 2017, beset by rainy weather that year and the imminent bankruptcy of a principal funder, the MacNally Smith College of Music, Maher was exhausted. At the end of the day, Clouser, who had come up from Mexico as a first-time festival performer, came over and offered his help in the future. “And I was so fried, I just said, ‘You take over.’ And he took me up on it,” Maher said with a laugh.

With Maher and Clouser as co-directors, the festival has moved from Mears Park to Lake Como and expanded from one to three days of activities and workshops. Clouser set up nonprofit Music Mission 501(c)(3) corporation, with a board of directors, that has been crucial to the sustainability of the enterprise. 

At this weekend’s festival, more than 15 acts offering a diverse range of styles, demographics and cultural backgrounds will grace three stages around the Pavilion free of charge, including headliners Charlie Parr on Friday and Marc Ribot on Saturday on the Pavilion stage. Some traditions started in Lowertown remain, including a guitar pedal swap and artists like Paul Metzger. But there is also a “Minnesota meets Mexico City” improviser’s stage at the waterfall near the Pavilion, and free Sunday workshops that include Ribot at El Diablo amps and Klezmerson—a Yiddish-Mexican klezmer-rock band that Clouser has played with for six years—at the Jewish Community Center.

There are also attractive “ticketed” shows with paid admission, including the recent tradition of a “Last Waltz” featuring a variety of festival performers on Saturday night at the Pavilion, and a “Lakeside Festival Afterparty” fundraiser for Music Mission at the Turf Club with a dazzling trio of acts. “Americhicana” singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez from Austin, Texas, will open, followed by a set from Klezmerson and then a first-ever duo performance by a pair of heavyweights, Medeski and Ribot.

“Todd has taken this festival to another level with his connections and capability,” Maher raved. “He just always remains positive, mellow and on the sunny side. It’s really inspiring.”

And nearly all of it was done from his home in Mexico City.

Clouser was born in Kansas City but his family moved around a lot until settling in a neighborhood around Lake Harriet when he was 12. “I was fascinated by music and creativity from the time I was very young,” he recalled in Zoom chat in late July from a hotel in Portugal, where he was on tour with his group A Love Electric. “The first time I played a guitar it was a revelation to me. I had found a way to express, rebel and celebrate in ways I think I probably needed to.”

He recounted being weaned on a typical 90s diet of grunge rock, MTV, and then hip hop music took hold. Later in his teens, he gravitated toward cutting-edge art forms, and used a fake ID to get into now-legendary weekly “Jazz Implosion” gigs that JT Bates was helming at the Clown Lounge in the basement space of the Turf Club.

“I remember that,” Bates said. “He always had an honest energy that is impossible to teach or learn. Coming from a pure place, not worrying about what is ‘correct.’ It’s a crucial element.”

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Before and after attending the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, he sought to make an impact on the local music scene, mostly notably with the band Rusty Trombone, which opened for some national acts and held down a regular spot on the calendar at the Cabooze and the Fine Line. Called a “sponge” by Bates, he also began immersing himself in the touchstones of the beatnik 50s and counterculture 60s, from William Burroughs and Tom Robbins in literature to the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and avant-garde jazz and noise in music.

He was also drinking heavily.

Speaking from Portugal, Clouser said that he was offered a teaching job at an international school on the Baja peninsula in the mid 2000s, “I wasn’t in a great space personally at the time; I needed a change, something different.” In subsequent interviews with friends he had suggested I speak with revealed regaining sobriety was a significant turning point in his life.

“I went through all that with him, struggling with alcohol, getting sober,” said drummer Greg Schutte, who played on Clouser’s first record, “Baja,” in 2006. “What I can say is that through his sobriety his true musical voice came forward. He has taken what he has learned from jazz, and rock, being a musician-poet, and his interest in the avant-garde and aggressive sounds. And through sobriety I think he realized, ‘Hey, this is where I belong.’”

Others wondered if Clouser’s phenomenal energy—workaholic is not an overstatement—is also an offshoot of getting sober. His commandeering of the guitar festival in Minnesota from his home thousands of miles away in Mexico is one of many examples.

While in Baja, his interaction with various Mexican musicians drew him into a thriving scene in Mexico City, prompting a move there, and a frenzy of activity as a conduit of musical exchanges between Mexico and the States. Signed to the Ropeadope record label, he convinced the company to open a “Ropeadope Sur” affiliate south of the border to release albums by Mexican bands he had seen and heard.

When I circled back to Clouser about his previously unmentioned issues with addiction and queried whether his phenomenal energy and organization were a means of transference, he responded in an email that is necessarily edited for brevity but worthy of ample space.

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“Absolutely true. Like a lot of people in recovery, I’ve looked for healthier ways to channel some of the wild and reckless energy we can have as addicts. Playing music all the time, getting tours together, dreaming up bands and ways to transcend what I’m dealing with, or think I am anyway, came with sobriety.

“I think that in the process of beginning recovery, I rediscovered a more empathetic side to what we are doing here. I could relate to other people in a way I had maybe given up on. Sobriety was an invitation to get off my own solitary island. It is better to hear [about his charitable activities] from others rather than claiming it myself.

“Also on the personal side, something we didn’t talk about is that I am gay. I haven’t built my work or artistry around that but it is an important part of who I am. Sobriety and embracing my sexuality were intertwined in my case, and I hope that my response to what I have gone through can be of service to others going through whatever their struggles might be.”

The record that maybe best encapsulates the whirlwind of Todd Clouser is entitled “20th Century Folk Selections,” by a version of A Love Electric that has been swollen to an octet and is full of wildly disparate cover songs. Clouser was tickled when I brought up the now-obscure 2012 disc. 

“The idea was to play with the notion of what folk music might be. All of that music felt like part of what our folklore could be—at least mine and the circle of people I was around. Another idea was to kind of, ‘de-range,’ those songs, provide angular arrangements that we could explore and have fun with,” Clouser explained.

This weekend, Clouser’s personal folklore will continue as he watches the guitar festival again bloom around Lake Como, perform a concert and a workshop with the Mexican-Yiddish klezmer band (Clouser himself is not Jewish), and again conjure magic via the rare, highly anticipated Icehouse gig with Medeski and Bates before heading into the studio with new compositions he believes will solidify the identity of the group. Vinyl copies of their 2018 show, “You The Brave: Live at Icehouse,” will be on sale at the site.

As for the future, well, here is how Clouser ended his email: “My partner is a world-class surf champion and inspired an A Love Electric record we just put out called ‘God Save The Surf.’ It’s a pretty radical time right now!”