An all-for-fun Twin Cities all-star band that started a quarter century ago as a diversion to its members’ more demanding full-time groups, Golden Smog made a surprise return late Friday night to remedy a whole new burden: retirement.
Former Soul Asylum guitarist Daniel Murphy — who swore off the music biz entirely in 2012 — rallied the troops for his 57th birthday party at the historic St. Anthony Main complex.
Run Westy Run co-leader Kraig Johnson and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris and Marc Perlman joined the birthday boy in the Hall of Kings, a private events space in the basement under Jefe Urban Hacienda restaurant. The unannounced affair turned into Murphy’s first real gig and the first Golden Smog performance in seven years, one of only a handful by the cultishly revered rock collective this decade.
A sign of how long its been: One of the last Golden Smog reunions was at a campaign rally for Barack Obama’s re-election in 2011.
Friday’s show arguably started four hours earlier, when Johnson and Murphy joined the full Jayhawks lineup for the last song of their set at the Basilica Block Party.
At King’s Hall, the fun continued with a 90-minute set that was loose, playful, ragged in parts and downright goofy in a few instances; so pretty much a quintessential Golden Smog performance. As much as ever, though, this one was blessed with the unequivocal spirit of playing music for fun instead of for a living.
Considering the long stretch between Smog gigs and the fact that one of the members hasn’t been performing at all, it actually was a relatively sturdy showing overall.
A big help in steering the ship was drummer Noah Levy, who played on the band’s 1995 full-length debut, “Down by the Old Mainstream,” when he was also a member of the Honeydogs (he’s now in Brian Setzer’s band). New York producer/multi-instrumentalist John Jackson, who now tours with the Jayhawks, also helped fill in some gaps on violin and mandolin despite never playing with the band before.
Missing from the core Smog roster was Jeff Tweedy, who had just started his band Wilco around the time he joined his Minnesota pals for that ’95 album. He became less and less involved after the last GS LP, 2006’s “Another Fine Day.”
The most high-profile member of the group in 1995, Murphy was so adamant about calling it a day when he quit Soul Asylum in 2012 to focus on his gallery and vintage print business, he even donated his main Les Paul guitar to the Minnesota Historical Society. So his involvement was the most curious element in Friday’s set.
Perlman asked the retiree three songs into the set, “How are the fingers doing?” Murphy quipped a few tunes later, “You might want to turn me up now. I’m done practicing.”
The 200 or so attendees — mostly friends of the musicians and some lucky hanger-ons — got a rather familiar Smog package, with a weird array of ’60s-’70s cover songs wrapped around the band’s original tunes.
Two of the covers were picked out from deep in the group’s past, “Easy to Be Hard” (from “Hair”) and the Rolling Stones deep cut “Back Street Girl.” Johnson helmed vocal duties on the Stones cut as well as a dark, cover of Love’s druggy dirge “Signed D.C.”
The younger of the Smog clan put out an excellent solo album last year and has been playing more regularly with Run Westy Run of late (the Westies have another gig Friday at Mortimer’s). However, Johnson remains the hidden-gem figure in this band, a point underlined Friday by his lyrically colorful and lackadaisically rocking originals “He’s a Dick,” “Yesterday Cried” and “If I Only Had a Car.”
Louris revisited many of his well-loved Smog originals, too, including “Jennifer Save Me,” “Won’t Be Coming Home” and the Johnson collaboration “V” (whose former barmaid muse from the Uptown Bar was in attendance). But the bigger treat for fans was seeing the Jayhawks frontman cut loose like the singer in a cover band.
Among the Louris-led selections were Bowie’s “Starman” and Roger Miller’s “Dang Me,” the latter one of the show’s daffier but better moments. The rather ramshackle spin through Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl” was similarly wily.
Murphy eventually stepped up in a big way near show’s end with “Corvette,” a muscly rocker with the now timely refrain: “The dream is never over.” With his backward ball cap and leaning-in power stance at the microphone, the sidelined slinger looked comfortingly unchanged. And mighty happy, too.
The party ended with a guitar-blazing rendition of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger,” for which Texas musician Miles Zuniga of Fastball fame — one more leaf on the twisted Golden Smog family tree now — suddenly joined in without any notice. Clearly, though, this wasn’t a night for introductions.
Here’s the full set list:
Easy to Be Hard
Signed D.C. (Love cover)
Looking Forward to Seeing You
Starman (David Bowie)
He’s a Dick
Do Anything You Wanna Do (Eddie & the Hot Rods)
Won’t Be Coming Home
Dang Me (Roger Miller)
The Most Beautiful Girl (Charlie Rich)
If I Only Had a Car
Jennifer Save Me
Back Street Girl (Rolling Stones)
Until You Came Along
Powderfinger (Neil Young)