Soul Asylum's new guitarist, Justin Sharbono, grew up with "Grave Dancers Union."
You don't have to tell Justin Sharbono that the pressure is on.
"No one in the band has said anything," said the guitarist, who makes his local debut with Soul Asylum on Friday, "but I'm fully aware of what this gig means to the band, and what this band means to this city."
At a mere 31 -- just one year older than the band itself -- Sharbono is faced with the unenviable task of standing in for Soul Asylum co-founder Dan Murphy. He was hired in September before Murphy's decision to quit the group was announced. Fans first got wind of it when YouTube video from a gig in Spain showed Sharbono filling in for Murphy, who, with frontman Dave Pirner, was the group's only other original member left.
Murphy's exit wasn't the only thing that belatedly came to light, either: It wasn't until the young guitarist passed his first audition that Sharbono told anyone in the band that he's actually a distant cousin of the guy he's replacing.
"Dave said something encouraging to me like, 'Playing in this band is in your DNA,' and I was like, 'Well, actually ...,'" Sharbono recalled.
Turns out his mom is a cousin of Murphy's -- which surprised Murphy most of all. His maternal grandparents bore 19 children, so no wonder he didn't recognize the family connection at first. The familial hiring was thus purely coincidental, but from Sharbono's point of view it's not entirely by chance.
"This was the band that made me want to learn to play guitar in the first place," he said, recounting a sixth-grade lesson on a "crappy nylon-string guitar" when he told his instructor the first song he wanted to learn was Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train."
A native of Cambridge, Minn. (45 minutes north of Minneapolis), Sharbono certainly was in the norm among Minnesota youths who took an extra liking to Soul Asylum when the band broke big with "Runaway Train" and the Grammy-winning, triple-platinum album "Grave Dancers Union" in 1992. The appreciation grew even deeper when his mom mentioned her cousin was the band's guitarist. Said Sharbono, "Honestly, that's when I gave up sports and focused like a laser beam on music as the one thing I really wanted to do."
Sharbono spent several years performing with one of the pre-eminent contemporary Christian rock bands, Chicago's Superchick, then was a part of the backing band behind Minnesota's own Owl City. He even had to schedule his Soul Asylum audition around an Owl City performance on the "Today" show with Carly Rae Jepsen.
"It was a great experience, but I just decided it was going to be too much," Sharbono said of touring with Owl City, citing his two young children at home in the Twin Cities.
Soul Asylum affords him the chance to only play "fly-in" dates -- two or three gigs around a weekend and then the band returns home. He has played nearly 10 shows so far with the band, which also hired a new bassist this year, Winston Roye.
"It's been really exciting playing with Dave, because I think he sort of feels like it's a fresh start," Sharbono said. "It was Danny's decision to leave the band, and it was entirely amicable. It would really be a drag if just his decision were to shut this band down, and to keep Dave from doing what he loves to do."
One more odd coincidence to throw into the mix: Sharbono's first hometown performance with the band happens to be its one and only 20th-anniversary celebration for "Grave Dancers Union." They will perform the album straight through at First Ave.
Said Sharbono, "Even if I weren't a part of this band now, I'd be excited for this show. I think people who are doubtful should at least come and check this out, and then make up their minds."