There were good reasons not to go out on the town this past Wednesday. For one thing, being Wednesday, it meant that there were still 2 more 5:00 a.m. wake-ups ahead, before the end of the working week. Also, our Minnesota Indian summer had just come to an abrupt end, with cold drizzle and a brisk NW wind encouraging a bunker-down mentality. So, settling in on the couch, I began thumbing through the local A & E rag, when a club listing suddenly leapt off the page at me: Kevin Bowe was playing that night at Cause Spirits & Soundbar, in Uptown Minneapolis.
Bowe has a solid reputation in this town, having been an early supporter (and producer) of “Kid” Jonny Lang. He’s also produced albums by Shannon Curfman, Renee Austin, Tommy Castro and The Meat Puppets. He co-wrote four songs for Etta James’ Grammy-winning album, “Let’s Roll” and, at one time, was hired as a staff writer by the legendary songwriting team of Leiber & Stoller. A longtime collaborator of former Replacements leader, Paul Westerberg, he played guitar on several of Westerberg’s post-Replacements tours. In short, the man has cred.
I had recently purchased Kevin’s new CD, “Natchez Trace,” and was digging it immensely (one of his songs is plugged on the Heavy Rotation page on this site). The CD garnered a rave review from fellow blogger Karl Leslie, who called it “masterful” in his post on nodepression.com. The local major daily’s music scribe also hailed its release, and even Rolling Stone jumped on Bowe’s bandwagon, choosing “Everybody Lies” as its free Daily Download on September 28. Reading the club listing more closely, I spotted the magic word: “Free.” “Grab your coat, Sweetie,” I told The Missus, “we’re going out!”
Apparently, not everyone in the community shared my enthusiasm for this gig. The small crowd of youthful hipsters in the front bar pretty much stayed there all night, content to chat in groups of 2 or 3 while the muted big screen TV broadcast the Giants’ beat-down of the Tigers in Game 1 of the Series and the house sound system blared old Bee Gees tunes. Of course (?). In the back room where the stage was located, I could count the number of fans in attendance on the fingers of both hands – including Kevin’s wife, and the 3-person band that was booked to follow him. Bowe and his fellow Okemah Prophets – drummer Peter Anderson and bassist/harmony vocalist Steve Price seemed unfazed by the small turnout. One got the distinct impression that this gig was, in effect, a dress rehearsal for their upcoming – and better publicized – show on November 9, at the Dakota Jazz Club, where they’ll share a bill with Freedy Johnston (of “Bad Reputation” fame) and local songstress Allison Scott (Kevin is also her manager, producer, guitarist and collaborator). As dress rehearsals go, it might as well have been opening night.
The band hit the ground running with their cover of John Lennon’s “I Found Out.” Stripped down to the bare essentials of guitar, bass & drums – the DNA of rock ‘n roll – this garage band workout was the perfect opener. From there, the band moved into the very Westerberg-like “Gutters of Paradise,” part of the trilogy on “Natchez Trace” that Bowe calls “The LA Suite.” Lest you conclude that this is some sort of paean to the idyllic SoCal life, guess again. Bowe makes no bones about his utter disdain for the whole artificial Los Angeles scene. A more appropriate title for the trilogy would be “The LA Sucks Suite.” The set list was drawn almost entirely from the new CD, with the exception of an obscure Dylan track, “Seven Days,” recorded by Bowe several years ago. For the most part, the songs came off very well, even in the absence of the many high profile collaborators who appear on the album – including Scarlet Rivera, Nels Cline (Wilco), Freedy Johnston, Chuck Prophet, The Meat Puppets, and Mr. Westerberg. “Fallen Satellites,” minus the pedal steel, was even more spare and wistful than on the album. “Waitin’ For The Wheel” came off as more rocking, less country than the original, also for lack of a lap steel in the mix. However, for want of Scarlet Rivera’s soaring, haunting fiddle work, “In Too Deep” lacked the emotional depth of the album cut.
Kevin and the Prophets closed out strong, catching their breath with a slower cut (“My Favorite Pain”) before rattling off song # 2 of the LA Suite, “Devils Garden,” another garage band number (“Just Restless”), and another Westerberg-influenced punk rocker, “Never Don’t Stay.” Shifting gears to finish their hour-long set on a more subdued note, Bowe & Co. offered up “Haven’t You Heard?” a kiss-off song to a former lover. Unfortunately, the 10 of us in the audience couldn’t muster up enough applause to coax the band back onstage for an encore. Probably just as well; 5:00 a.m. comes pretty early.