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Spider John Koerner / Mike Gunther and His Restless Souls / The Crush Collision Trio/John Wills (Wednesday, January 5, Fine Line Music Café, Minneapolis)
Mike Gunther performs at the Fine Line on January 5th. Photo by Steven R. Wolf of

By Cyn Collins

The night the West Bank took over the Fine Line Music Café with its notorious raucous music and dance lovin’ ways was not only surreal but breathtakingly fun. As the night progressed, the Fine Line, seldom frequented by much of the West Bank in these times of the corporate takeover of music, was filled with Hard Times Bike Club members, punks, West Bank musicians and hipsters of all ages, the Northeast Dusty’s/Mayslacks crowd, and a miscellany of Viking Bar and Turf Club music regulars. The fantastic lineup of musicians known and loved for their theatrical performances, and legendary on the folk/blues circuit must have caused a temporary exodus out of the bars of the West Bank into the nether regions of downtown Minneapolis via light rail. The sheer camaraderie alone of all of us shaking up a usually mild-mannered place with our composite rowdy wildness and vast thirst and ability to drink, (in spite of exorbitantly priced drinks in plastic cups) made us laugh and share huge pleasure in our “takeover”.

The theme of the night might’ve been Fields, Rags, and Hollers, the title of Spider John Koerner’s earliest (1969) recording with Dave Ray and Tony Glover. “Whomp bom” music it was called by Ray because of its unique foot-stompin’ rhythm.

The music began with The Crush Collision Trio (formerly Lonesome Dan Case). Featuring nostalgic scratchy covers and new songs harkening back to the early Charlie Poole/Dave Macon/Leadbelly days complete with hollering, call and response and jugband instruments like a refrigerator door, washboard, banjo, mandolin, and more, Lonsome Dan, Matt Yetter and Mikkel Beckman got everyone riled up and ready for more with their ballads of tragedy and woe. If you haven’t seen Crush Collision Trio, you oughtta.

Next up was John Wills. Unfortunately I garnered neither band member names or set list, but enjoyed the music that sounded, as one listener noted, “like Bob Dylan electrified.”

Then came the moment we were all waiting for . . . Spider John Koerner took the stage with his cohort in banjo crime, Doug Anderson, a West Bank musician of a few decades and numerous configurations and restless rebel spirit. Though the room was filled, everyone hushed as Spider John did his a cappella Rattlesnake, Days of ’49, and Dodger. On his rare modified 12-string Gretsch accompanied by his occasional harmonica, and always his foot for percussion, he sang out classics like St. John’s Infirmary, What’s the Matter with the Mill, Phoebe Bird, Running, Jumping, Standing Still and many more, some very political. Many songs were from the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, the songs of laborers, and Union members and protesters, still timely today. Koerner cites influences such as Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonsey and Lightning Hopkins, and also writes his own commentaries on society and politics with a wry humor. We were delighted by the stories and humor between songs and the chance once more to see one of the most compelling performers of the past several decades.

Bob Dylan’s notes in his self-penned personal history Chronicles on the legendary Koerner--who along with Ray and Glover--was cited by John Lennon and Bowie as major influences--while complimentary, don’t do justice to seeing and hearing Koerner live. People stomped, whooped sang and danced bringing life to the Fine Line, then grew sad as Koerner closed with his customary cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene”. Koerner plays most Sunday nights at the Viking Bar when not on tour.

Last, but definitely NOT “sweeping up the floor” was the brilliant vaudevillian/medicine show/Baptist revival-esque show of Mike Gunther and His Restless Souls. To their credit, none of the West Bank or Nordeast music-lovin’ diehards left. In fact still more people arrived to see Gunther’s show even though it was midnight on a Wednesday. Suzanne Scholten, from Vermillion, South Dakota played trumpet and numerous forms of ancient and modern percussion with characteristic fluidity and sinuous sensuousness. Right. I know you don’t normally think of fluidity and flow as attributes of percussion, but if you see her play, you’ll know what I mean. At times appearing possessed, Scholten contributed greatly to the theatre of the show without ever seeming campy or contrived. Not to be missed is her use of a bundle of chains that she bangs in slow driving rhythm on a 50-gallon oil drum.

Upright bass player Dave Meier plucked and spanked that thing with extraordinarily talented showmanship and grounded attention, while guitarist Aaron Larson sang great harmonies and contributed no small amount to the rhythms and vibe of this event.

Mike Gunther, ordinarily kind of a quiet guy, becomes an old-time troubadour on stage, singing of dark matters of the heart, battling the demons of desire, drink, guilt, loneliness, and jealousy. He is oft-compared to Tom Waits and Nick Cave, and it’s easy to see and hear why; but he and his band really are in a class of their own. Using his versatile voice -- at times gravelly, at times smooth and longingly plaintive, at times the voice of a medicine show barker – Gunther uses religious iconography in the song “Have Mercy” and lyrics “turning water into wine” and evokes dark and sometimes nightmarish images of sex, murder and mayhem. With the aid of ‘20’s or ‘30’s revivalist preacher suits and kerchief, it began to feel hot as hell on a mid-summer day even though it was 0 degrees outside. Not only does the high theater and performance , which is like none in this town, make the show worth seeing to be believed, but the skilled instrumentation and Gunther’s and Scholten’s songwriting is worth hanging on every word. Incorporating sorrowful flamenco guitar, and playing slow torch songs such as the heart-wrenching, “Hard Hearted” by Scholten, followed by even slower sadder "Outside Dutchtown" might have made more than a few of us feel like slashing our wrists or at least drinking an entire 5th of bourbon, but just in the nick of time they pull us out of our malaise with the rousting fast, "Revolution #4." Another favorite is "Vermillion" which I suspect is not about the color only but that strange little college town from whence Scholten came. I knew it too well. Another, “I Don’t Want to Know What I Don’t Want to Know” was one example of twisted and true way Gunther and His Restless Souls examine and tell the story of the human heart. Many were converted that night, one saying, “That’s how I expect a show to be, but never see!”

Mike Gunther’s website is:
Spider John Koerner:
Lonesome Dan Case and the Crush Collision Trio