There’s a very cool program broadcasting from St. Paul, featuring lots of great music and mirth, originating in one of the most stately buildings in all of downtown. No, it’s not A Prairie Home Companion, nor even its citified second cousin, the Wits series (see the Calendar page on this site for details). The program in question is the Real-Phonic Radio Hour, held monthly (except this coming June) at the majestic James J. Hill Reference library.
The purveyors of this event are a group of musicians – Molly Maher, Erik Koskinen, Paul Bergen, Frankie Lee and J.T. Bates (collectively known as Molly Maher and Her Disbelievers) – plus announcer/monologuist Thom Middlebrook. Together, they transform the cavernous J.J. Hill Reference Library space – with its soaring Greek columns, marble floors and 30′ ceilings – into an intimate 200-seat concert hall, showcasing not only the talents of the local hosts but also an interesting and eclectic group of touring musicians. The tickets are cheap (only $20, or $10 with a food shelf donation), the beer and wine selection small but adequate, and the ambience is unbeatable. Technically not a “radio hour,” in keeping with its 21st century origins, the shows are actually taped, edited, and eventually made available as a podcast on the Real-Phonic website (realphonic.com).
Molly Maher took over Thom Middlebrook”s role, handling the opening monologue on this particular night. Her comments included an “attaboy!” for the Minnesota legislature, which had just passed the Marriage Equality law, as well as a number of well-placed jibes at that soft target who goes by the name of Michelle Bachmann. Both themes would later be revisited when Middlebrook did his own commentary later in the evening.
Erik Koskinen and the rest of the boys warmed things up with a trio of selections (we’re going to take a stab at the titles), ranging from the steady rolling Americana of “Feelin’ Pretty Good,” to the country-flavored “You Didn’t Even Remember My Mama’s Name,” finishing with the rockabilly “I Ain’t Nothin’ With You.” Although deferring to Paul Bergen for most of the lead guitar work, Erik is no slouch on guitar himself, and together the two of them form a most formidable tandem.
Knoxville singer/songwriter Robinella was next up. At first glance, it would be easy to conclude that Robinella is just another country singer (Tennessee gal + guitar = country, right?). That would be a big mistake, as the lady from Volunteer State is mostly about jazz. She can scat like Ella, purr like Billie, or croon like Peggy, with a swinging combo that features Jesse Hains on the electric piano.
She opened with a nifty jazz arrangement of “This Little Heart Of Mine,” showing off her impressive range. In her short set she showcased three songs from her forthcoming album, including the tender “Lullaby for Beau,” dedicated to her son, and closing with the freewheeling “Surrender All,” with Mr. Hains stepping out for some flashy solos on the keys. It was a tantalizing taste of a talented singer, making us all hope she’ll return for a full show soon.
You’re probably saying to yourself, “How could Mr. and Mrs. Morlix have possibly named their son “Gurf”? In fact, neither is his given name (surprise!). According to an interview in No Depression magazine ( http://archives.nodepression.com/2000/05/get-to-know-him/) the name came to 14-year old what’s-his-name in a dream, causing him to awaken with a start and write the name down. No matter; he’s been Gurf for all of his professional life and will be so till the end.
And, what a life he’s had so far! He’s been a fixture on the Austin music scene for over 30 years, working with and producing albums for such Americana/roots noteworthies as Lucinda Williams, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen, Slaid Cleaves and Buddy Miller. His 10-year association with Lucinda Williams coincided with her early success, ending abruptly during the “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” sessions when he became frustrated at the pace of the project. He was chosen as Instrumentalist of the Year by the Americana Music Association in 2009, and was elected to both the Austin and Buffalo Music Halls of Fame (Buffalo being his birthplace).
In addition to his work with others, he’s released a series of well-received albums, starting with 2000’s “Toad of Titicaca” (love that name!), leading up to this year’s “Gurf Morlix Finds The Present Tense,” which, Gurf noted, “has already made Rolling Stone’s list of the top 30,000 albums of 2013!” Accompanying himself on guitar and kick drum (actually, a miked board that he tromped on for his one-man band rhythm section), his set list naturally drew heavily on the new release. “My Life’s Been Taken,” the ominous murder ballad that opens the CD, was also Gurf’s opener this night. Gurf’s sandpaper voice does not have a great deal of range, yet is surprisingly emotive and effective. The tender love song “Empty Cup,” co-written with Grant Peeples, was next, followed another dark number, “Series of Closin’ Doors,” which Gurf introduced, tongue in cheek, as having been inspired by “watching reruns of Get Smart.” The song, which deals with extricating oneself from a bad relationship, could not be farther removed from the old Mel Brooks/Buck Henry TV series.
Gurf has long been a champion of the music of Blaze Foley, a truly sad, tragic, and obscure figure in American music. In fact, the last time Gurf was in town, a couple of years back, he was promoting the movie “Duct Tape Messiah,” a documentary about Blaze Foley, who was a homeless alcoholic most of his life, yet wrote truly amazing songs that were recorded by John Prine, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. As a tribute to his late friend, Gurf performed two of Blaze’s compositions, the powerful “Cold, Cold World” (which Gurf described as “probably my favorite song – ever”) and the hilarious “Wouldn’t That Be Nice?” The latter was inspired by Blaze hitchhiking one day when the line of cars passing him by was stopped by traffic up ahead. A car driven by a matronly woman happened to stop right next to Blaze and the driver, eyeing the disheveled transient in disgust, reached over and very deliberately locked her passenger side doors. This led Blaze to compose this brief ditty, with lines like “Lock your door lady, or I’ll jump in your car / Don’t you know how nasty we are? / I’ll poke out your eyeballs and make you a scar / Make you have to walk real far.” And, it gets much worse.
Gurf then returned to the new album, for “Bang Bang Bang,” introducing the song by noting, “Regardless where you are on the gun control issue, there’s no doubt that we have a gun violence problem in this country.” Amen, brother! He closed the set with a cover of The Blind Boys of Alabama’s “This May Be The Last Time.” We hope not, Gurf!
The evening ended with most of the musicians gathering onstage to sing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” with Gurf and Robinella trading verses. Local singer-songwriter Chastity Brown (see “Hit Me Two Times!” post on this site), happened to be in the audience and joined in the fun onstage. Now, cue the Real-Phonic band to do the closing theme (“Gonna see my baby in the city of St. Paul”) while Thom Middlebrook reads off the credits, and away we go!
What a blast this was! Can’t wait for the July show to roll around – who knows, it might actually be summer here by then!