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Ashtray Hearts w/ Walker Kong (Saturday, May 7th, 2005, Turf Club, Minneapolis)
The Ashtray Hearts at the Turf Club Saturday night celebrate the release of Perfect Halves (Photo by David de Young - click for larger version.)

By David de Young

Walker Kong

“Now here’s a band that doesn’t play out nearly enough,” said Jason Nagel referring to Walker Kong last week on his Minnesota Music program. Well, one reason the band is making fewer live appearances in the Twin Cities lately is that band leader Jeremy Ackerman recently moved up to Ashland, Wisconsin with his wife and bandmate, bassist Alex. Jeremy teaches art there. Alex, an artist herself, did not attend the show tonight because, as Ackerman’s dad informed me, she is due to give birth in a matter of weeks.

Saturday night at the Turf Club, Ackerman mentioned that it had been a while since the band had opened a show (last time we saw them in March of 2004 them they’d headlined the Turf with the Owls and Best Friends Forever.) Ackerman said he would take advantage of the opening spot to play some of the band’s newest material.

During a break between songs early in the set, Ackerman deadpanned, “I know a lot of you are here to see the Ashtray Hearts. I’m sorry to tell you they had to cancel, and we’ll be playing all their songs for them.” Obviously, this was a joke. As anyone could see The Ashtray Hearts were indeed on hand, milling around by the merch booth at the back of the club. But apparently someone believed it, as when another local music journalist arrived on the scene she told me someone had said the Ashtray Hearts had cancelled.

Saturday’s Walker Kong show featured favorites like “Battleship of Thieves,“ and “Neutral Kids” (which tonight was a long drawn-out jam.) Overall, this show, though still good, was less of an all-out hootenany than past Walker Kong shows have been. The dance party never quite got going.

The Ashtray Hearts

The Ashtray Hearts swear they didn’t name themselves after a Captain Beefheart song. Okay, but they’ll have to get used to fielding that question from music critics and DJ’s. It’s almost as if a band called themselves Bojangles and said they didn't mean it as a reference to a Jerry Jeff Walker song.

But anyway, the reason for this big gala on Saturday night was that The Ashtray Hearts have just released their beautiful new album Perfect Halves on Free Election Records, an album they recorded at Sacred Heart Studio in Duluth last winter, and one that’s been getting a lot of play in my CD player.

Their first full length disk Old Numbers (Free Election Records, 2002) consisted of many songs that existed before the band did, said main songwriter and lead vocalist Dan Richmond on the Current Saturday afternoon. (Listen to the “in studio” with Bill Deville on KCMP here ) In contrast, the new album, he says, was “built from the ground up,” all songs being written since the band formed, which allowed the individual members to finish the songs together.

Though I’ve enjoyed the Ashtray Hearts wonderfully down-tempo and melancholic songs for several years, their new material has a new bite to it that’s more emotionally charged and effecting than their past work. In a similar way to how Beck’s Sea Change is also “pretty” listen, but moves you in such a way that you come out the other end changed, surely more sunk into yourself than you went in.

Saturday night the band started out by showing their new video for the song “Rules” by Minneapolis filmmaker and painter Wyatt McDill. Then they opened up the set proper with “Anyone’s Guess” from “Old Numbers.”

During the set, continuing with the cinematography theme, the band projected the 1973 Terrance Malick film Badlands starring Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen on the screen to stage left.

Aaron Schmidt stepped up to the microphone to do backup vocals on “Valentine” (new song) with his trademark longneck Budweiser bottle, causing me to remark to a fellow patron that if a bar didn’t serve bud the Ashtray Hearts actually would have to cancel a show.

They were back to the old album with a short “Still Shaking” featuring Schmidt’s beautiful and mournful “anti-trumpet,” and “Disaster” with its hammer down guitar start by band leader Dan Richmond. The song also featured the Wurlitzer accordion of Brad Augustine.

Then they were back to the new album with “English.” Schmidt stood looking out at the audience with a near “thousand yard stare.”

I overheard the guy next to me say, “Do they ever rock out?” which reminded me of their radio appearance Sunday when Bill Deville had asked Richmond the same question. “In a subtle way, we are rocking out, Bill,” Richmond replied. And if you’ve attended an Ashtray Hearts show you’ll know what he means. And tonight, Jody Fox noted that it was the loudest he’d ever heard the band.

Other songs in tonight’s set included “Brother” which the band just wrote in the past two weeks, and “Exits” which Dave Campbell of KQ Homegrown called their “slow jam,” during their KQ appearance this past Sunday. Speaking of Exits, the Ashtray Hearts entire new album is a like a great, giant freeway song. The only drawback is, it’s the kind of music that may make you feel like staying on road and continuing to drive on, long after the sign marking your exit has disappeared in the rearview mirror.

Somehow the band timed it’s show to hit the cool groove in “Flowers,” the set and album closer, right as the credits to Badlands started to roll. (Could it really have been a 95 minute show? No way! But, if so the band is to be credited with it seeming like a lot less.) “Flowers” has about 2 minutes 30 seconds of actual verses before going into a gorgeous 5+ minute coda that grows and grows and never gets old. It’s the kind of groove that makes you notice stuff. It came on at the end of my commute today and I had to stop the car and sit in the work parking lot just looking at the trees and the traffic for a while until it ended. Music doesn’t create reality, but it sometimes makes you notice what’s already there. In that sense it’s a transcendent meditation, and that’s possibly one of the best things about this album.

The Ashtray Hearts toured England and Scotland for two weeks a couple years ago after “Whisperin’” Bob Harris BBC2 DJ also known for his program The Old Grey Whistle Test responded well to their record and generated enough interest that the band was able to book a tour of 12 dates in 2003. (Harris was also a founding co-editor of the listing magazine Time Out.)

Harris mentioned the Ashtray Hearts in a Guardian article here.

The band hopes to get back to Europe to support this new record.