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'First couple of the banjo' make very homey companions in St. Paul

Posted by: Jon Bream Updated: February 26, 2015 - 3:58 AM

A few thoughts after seeing Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, the first couple of the banjo, in concert Wednesday at the O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul.

  • Calling Fleck a virtuoso doesn’t do him justice. His technique and expressiveness in a variety of styles – from bluegrass to Malian to hair-band rock – were stunning.
  • Washburn is a gifted banjo picker, too, and the way their instruments interweaved seemed effortless but was obviously meticulously and smartly conceived.
  • The repartee between husband and wife was priceless. Washburn, an Edina High School grad, was a chatty charmer, infusing the evening with all kinds of Minnesota references to choirs, weather and her grandma from Sanborn, Minn. Fleck, a native New Yorker, was a wonderful counterpoint, adding a dry (or sarcastic) quip here and there. After she complained about some little thing in her early life, Fleck gave her flak: “It must have been tough growing up in Edina.” Her earned a fist-bump from his wife for that zinger.
  • Washburn manifested striking versatility as a singer, covering everything from spirituals and old-time to murder ballads (loved her original “Shotgun Blues”) and a Chinese tune. She also did some nifty clog dancing.
  • The banjo players offered several instrumentals, including fiddle tunes on banjos, blues from Mali and Tanzania, and “The Final Countdown,” the 1980s hair-band classic by a band known simply as Europe. For said cover, Washburn got into the spirit by putting on a headband and Fleck donned a shaggy blond wig that could have qualified him for the fourth runner-up in a Dee Snider look-alike contest. 
    (See below)
  • Although on the surface the concert threatened to be heavy on bluegrass and old-time music (as heard on this year's self-titled joint album), Fleck and Washburn deserve a "Bravo" for the diversity in the repertoire. Who knew so many special sounds would be shared with just two banjos?
  • Given the chemistry, spontaneity, humor, and killer musical chops between the two stars (not to mention Washburn’s deep understanding of Minnesota essences), the two-hour, two-set concert could be taken for an audition for Fleck and Washburn to become the new host of “A Prairie Home Companion” if Garrison Keillor decides to retire soon. The idea of replacing him with a married couple would certainly avoid comparisons between him and a singular new host – and he’d probably be flattered that it took two people to fill his shoes.  

Ex-Current DJ Barb Abney joins Go 96.3 FM

Posted by: Colin Covert Updated: February 13, 2015 - 11:04 AM
Abney helped host a Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota fundraiser her daughter Alex at the Cedar in 2011. / Star Tribune file

Abney helped host a Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota fundraiser her daughter Alex at the Cedar in 2011. / Star Tribune file

Well, that didn’t take long. Just two weeks after she was abruptly fired from 89.3 the Current due to a “programming decision,” Barb Abney has already landed a new gig at competing station Go 96.3 FM. The former mid-day host at 89.3 will be on from 8 a.m. to noon on Go starting Monday.

“I’m super excited about the brand new team,” Abney said. “I've always wanted to be around for the beginning of a new station. And here I am!”

She just tweeted that she will be on air this afternoon with Jason Nagel, one of the station’s two on-air staffers held over from Go’s predecessor, K-TWIN (the other is Nagel’s fellow Cities 97 alum, Brian "BT" Turner).

Launched in early January without any on-air staff, Go 96.3 FM is playing a modern-rock mix similar to the Current’s playlist, with a little more slick mainstream rock in the mix. The brand manager for the Pohlad-owned station, Chris Rahn, said Abney “will be a perfect fit for us. She’s smart and she’s funny, and she connects with people and is connected to the community.”

Abney won’t be the only new Go staffer to take the air Monday. The station has also hired Twin Cities musician Linnea Mohn of the bands Rogue Valley and Coach Said Not To to be part of a late-afternoon on-air team with Thorn Skroch, a former jockey and program director at both Cities 97 and the Current. Their show will air 4-8 p.m.

As we reported amid the surprisingly large wake created by Abney's firing, Go 96.3 had talked to certain Current staffers about jumping ship to their station. However, Abney reportedly did not talk to Go until after the Current let her go.

KFAI raises $4,000 with a vintage lineup at Turf Club

Posted by: Tim Campbell Updated: February 8, 2015 - 8:01 PM

Chris Osgood, right, of the Suicide Commandos joined Ernie Batson and the rest of the Mighty Mofos at the end of Saturday's show.

Chris Osgood, right, of the Suicide Commandos joined Ernie Batson and the rest of the Mighty Mofos for some "Complicated Fun" Saturday. (Photos by Tim Campbell, Star Tribune)

It almost could have been a scene from 1978, when community radio station KFAI was launched in a church in south Minneapolis.

Facing a hefty deficit, the station rallied many of its oldest supporters Saturday for an old-school “Benefit With Friends” concert at the Turf Club with a bill of 1970s-vintage heroes: the Mighty Mofos, the Flamin' Ohs, all-star band the X-Boys and guitar innovator Michael Yonkers.

Michael Yonkers

Michael Yonkers

Yonkers looked and sounded vital despite being absent from the stage for nearly three years because of a rare spine/nerve malady. Some had warned that his set might be cut short, but he played 10 songs -- ending with a jaw-dropping psyche-out instrumental -- then hung out in the crowd for most of the rest of the show. 

After a roaring set by Robert Wilkinson and the Flamin' Ohs, the X-Boys -- a side project of the Suburbs and Suicide Commandos -- took the stage, with frontman Casey McPherson inciting a "Disco Inferno." Suburbs drummer Hugo Klaers was out sick, but the all-star covers band generated more than enough energy with the fiery work of Commandos Chris Osgood and Dave Ahl, famed studio engineer Steve Fjelstad on bass, and the 'Burbs horn section of Max Ray and Rochelle Becker. McPherson had the crowd pogoing to an epic version of Ike & Tina Turner's "River Deep Mountain High," then segued into the Mofos' closing set by bringing up Bill and Ernie Batson for the Minnesota garage-rock classic "Action Woman."

This was a rare headlining appearance by the Minnesota punk vets, who grabbed the night by the throat. Their full-throttle set culminated with yet another Minnesota rock classic: the Commandos' "Complicated Fun," as scene MVP Osgood reappeared on stage for a guitar joust with Ernie Batson.

It was a reminder that, in the days before the Current and Radio K, the only place on the radio dial that played these songs with any regularity was KFAI.

This crowd didn't need reminding, though. By the end of the night, KFAI board president Patti Walsh had collected about $4,000 from tickets, donations and a silent auction. The station promises more events to come, including a weekend-long celebration at the Minneapolis Eagles Club April 17-18 with a roots-oriented lineup the first night, and another garage-punk bill the following evening.

Sax-playing spouses Max Ray and Rochelle Becker.


Barb Abney is permanently off the air at 89.3 the Current

Posted by: Chris Riemenschneider Updated: January 27, 2015 - 5:43 PM
Abney came to the Current in 2006.

Abney came to the Current in 2006.

One of the more prominent on-air personalities at 89.3 the Current, midday host Barb Abney, was let go from the station Tuesday for reasons not made clear. The news hit social media just a couple hours after she got off the air.

The Current’s morning show producer and frequent late-night jockey Jade Tittle will replace Abney in the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. slot, the station reported.

“There's just not much to say, sadly,” Abney responded via email. “I was let go and that's pretty much all I know. I loved that job so, so much.”

Minnesota Public Radio publicist Jen Keavy said the dismissal of Abney was “a programming decision made by the Current's management.”

Keavy provided this statement on behalf of the rest of the Current’s staff:

“We are sad to see Barb go, and we sincerely thank her for her contributions to and passion for The Current. At the same time, we're excited for what we know Jade will bring to her new role as midday host.”

The timing of the staff change presents a sharp contrast to the high spirits and communal attitude displayed at the station's 10th anniversary celebrations, which culminated over the weekend with two shows at First Avenue. Abney was featured on stage at First Ave and served as the main host for the station’s “Purple Rain” tribute at the Fitzgerald Theater last week.

The news comes amid growing competition against the pioneering station, as the Pohlad-owned Go 96.3 FM hit the airwaves at the start of the year with strong echoes of the Current's modern playlist. Clear Channel also launched Alt 93.3 last summer, offering a heavy dose of '90s alt-rock.

A native of the Cincinnati area -- as she proudly noted nearly every time she played the Afghan Whigs (which thankfully was often) --  Abney came to the public radio station in 2006 with a more commercial FM background. She previously worked at Cincinnati alt-rock station WOXY.

At the Current, she was known for her “Cover 2 Cover” and “Tonal Recall” segments, spotlighting cover songs and ‘90s music. A mother of two teenagers, she also helped steer Wonderground Radio, Rock the Cradle and other kids-music efforts at the station.

Caroline Smith steals Current concert from Messersmith, Wilson

Posted by: Jon Bream Updated: January 19, 2015 - 2:49 AM


Dan, Caroline & Jeremy do their Peter, Paul & Mary bit

Dan, Caroline & Jeremy do their Peter, Paul & Mary bit


It was probably the smallest event in the 10 Days of Random Musical Kindness to celebrate 89.3 the  Current’s 10th anniversary.

The Bryant Lake Bowl theater holds about 89.3 people. For its most exclusive win-a-ticket-on-the-radio concert, the Current on Sunday night turned to Jeremy Messersmith, who has pretty much become the station’s musical mascot, and Dan Wilson, who was the first interview subject taped for the station before it went on the air in January 2005.

But the show ended up belonging to Caroline Smith, a newer local kid in the Current stable.

She stole the evening with her pluck, presence and personality. The least famous but the most unguarded of the three, she hit the stage first, working solo, and announced that backstage she had just done her impression of Creed’s Scott Stapp and did the audience want to hear it. Suffice it to say, Smith had the crowd at Stapp.

Seeing her without a band was a revelation. She sparkled throughout the night, whether telling stories (one was about a date with whom she was splitting a slice of piece and he wanted her to pony up $1.75 for her share), singing her songs about her complicated life (clearly inspired by Mary J. Blige, the songs, not her life) or providing backup vocals for Messersmith and Wilson.

Dan, Caroline & Jeremy do their Peter, Paul & Mary bit


Smith tells it like it is in conversation and song. She dedicated “Child Moving On” to her mom (who was in the audience) who “taught me to keep moving on no matter how many assholes you marry.”

When it came time for the encore at the end of 90-some minutes of music, Smith took charge and requested :"Closing Time," the smash hit Wilson had enjoyed with his band Semisonic.

When the three singers tackled “Someone Like You,” which Wilson wrote with Adele, Smith took the low harmony part and let the boys take the higher parts. When it came time for Messersmith and Wilson to be her backup singers on “Bloodstyle,” she insisted on giving them some of her bling (a bracelet for Jeremy, a sparkly ring for Dan) and called them her “girls.”

This girl has got it.

Messersmith, the headliner if there was one, seemed a little lethargic after just returning from two weeks in Mexico. In his three-song solo set, he answered a shouted request for “Steve” and performed “Tourniquet,” his big Current hit. He also debuted a new song, possibly titled “Fire Flower,” about a woman in winter. 

Wilson, the former Minneapolitan who now has a flourishing songwriting/producing career in Los Angeles, offered three tunes from his two solo albums, including “Brighter Days.” When joined by the others, he played “Disappearing,” the sing-along  “All Kinds” and the Everly Brothers’ “Don’t Forget to Cry.”

The song-swapping trio segment, which took place after intermission, was intended to be free-wheeling but it got a little awkward at times. Current DJ Steve Seel served as kind of an unnecessary moderator, providing commentary and asking questions of the singers.

Said Messersmith to Seel: “You’re like a mellow but informative hype man.”

Who needs a hype man when you’ve got Caroline Smith?


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