'The best drummer on the planet'

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 7, 2006 - 5:16 PM

That's what Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner says about Michael Bland, who has turned down the Dixie Chicks and John Mayer to work with hometown heroes.

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Michael Bland plays drums with his band Dr. Mambo's Combo on a Monday night at Bunker's.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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It's nearly 1:30 Tuesday morning. Drummer Michael Bland knows this weekly routine like a 4/4 drum pattern. He steps off the stage at Bunker's Bar and Grill, and the leader of the Minneapolis bar-band institution known as Mambo's Combo gives him a handful of cash for his night's work.

The Twin Cities' preeminent drummer could have made more money in per diems touring with the Dixie Chicks this year. But it's not about the money for the 37-year-old Minneapolitan.

"He was born in this band," says Combo guitarist Billy Franze, who has played with Bland for 20 years. "He's extremely loyal. He likes the music and he likes the people." And the Combo loves Bland. "You get spoiled," Franze said. "He's one of the top five, 10 drummers in the whole world."

That's not hometown braggadocio. Madonna and Michael Jackson hired Bland, who was 19 when Prince discovered him one Monday night at Bunker's and lured him for a seven-year stint in his New Power Generation.

More recently, Bland worked with two Minnesota-bred rock icons -- Paul Westerberg and Jonny Lang -- and recently joined a third, Soul Asylum.

"I thought he was out of my league," said Soul Asylum singer Dave Pirner, explaining his initial hesitancy to audition Bland with founding members Danny Murphy and Karl Mueller. Bland started gigging with the group in the summer of 2004 and recorded a new album, "The Silver Lining," due in July. The quartet will play Wednesday at the Fine Line in Minneapolis.

"He's the best drummer on the planet," Pirner said. "He can play anything. I've never heard anything like him because he can swing and play aggressively and get a little groove into the rock thing."

Again, Bland's decision to join a band that was in limbo was about the spirit and the music, not the money.

"I bonded with Danny and Dave," Bland said. "We went through Karl's death [from cancer in 2005] together."

Guitarist Murphy was thrilled by Bland's decision to become a full-fledged member of the band: "He is inspiring to be playing with. And he's much looser-wound than the rest of us."

"Michael keeps everyone laughing," added the band's new bassist, former Replacement Tommy Stinson, who doesn't get much levity on his other job with Axl Rose's Guns 'N Roses. "And he is super-versatile."

That's a key quality that has led Los Angeles-based producer John Fields to hire Bland for various recording projects, including Mandy Moore, Har Mar Superstar and Evan & Jaron.

"Michael has a full encyclopedic knowledge of the history of pop music," said Fields, a former Twin Citian who played in bands here with Bland. "If I say, 'The kind of drum sound from the second Led Zeppelin album,' Michael understands that -- and all the other stuff, too, whether it's Backstreet Boys or any hit that's been on the radio. He knows what it's supposed to be and somehow manages to get his own spice in there, too."

"He never forgets an arrangement -- even 10 years later," Franze says. "He's got a computer mind."

Last year when Westerberg began rehearsals for his tour at an Edina studio, he seemed as lost as he did during a Replacements gig circa 1980. He'd call out a song title and then turn to Bland with a "How does this start?" look.

Not only did the drummer, who had done a previous tour with Westerberg, know the opening chords but also all the lyrics.

"He's the [bleeping] best. Period," Westerberg said.

New York gig at age 17

  • related content

  • Michael Bland played his first public date with the new Soul Asylum lineup last October at First Avenue. Bassist Tommy Stinson, left, with Dave Pirner.

  • Bland On The Bandstand

    With Soul Asylum: 9 p.m. Wed., Fine Line Music Cafe, 318 1st Av. N., Mpls. $16.

    612-338-8100.

    With Mambo's Combo: 9 p.m. most Mondays, Bunker's, 761 Washington Av. N., Mpls. $5. 612-338-8188.

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