Soul Asylum: Revamped band or just a brand?

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 29, 2012 - 6:11 PM

The veteran Minneapolis rock group played First Ave, with only one original member left in the lineup.

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Soul Asylum: from left, Justin Sharbono, Michael Bland, Dave Pirner and Winston Roye.

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Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner showed up at jam-packed First Avenue in Minneapolis Friday night wearing the usual badly torn jeans, the same "Aqua Man" T-shirt he's worn the past three times there and same Converse tennies he's worn the past 90 times there. What was missing was the same old guitarist standing to Pirner's left.

Dan Murphy, co-founder with Pirner of Soul Asylum, retired from the celebrated, enduring Minneapolis rock band this summer. Friday was Soul Asylum's first gig in its hometown without Murphy. The music sounded good (drummer Michael Bland always elevates a band) but the evening felt oddly strange.

This didn't feel like seeing the Jayhawks after co-lead singer Mark Olson left because Gary Louris and the remaining members forged a different sound. This felt like seeing the BoDeans without co-lead singer Sammy Llanas. This felt like seeing a brand, not a band. Would Mick Jagger press on with the Rolling Stones without Keith Richards?

On Friday, Pirner was engaged and chatty, often animated and occasionally passionate and consistently professional. He's an unstoppable performer. But he seemed lonely up there. He didn't have a foil. No one to share a microphone with, no one to share a knowing smile with, no one to share an inside joke with.

Pirner danced by himself, as he often does when he's into it. But only once -- on "Black Gold" when he played guitars face to face on their knees with newcomer Justin Sharbono -- did he seem to have rapport with the 31-year-old Cambridge, Minn., native, who has about 10 Soul Asylum gigs under his belt.

Sharbono, who has played with Owl City and the Christian band Superchick, acquitted himself solidly musically. He knows the guitar parts. But the reserved left-handed guitarist didn't assert his personality. Heck, a couple of times he took solos with his back to the audience.

The always self-deprecating Pirner, 48, joked that he couldn't remember Sharbono's name. The guitarist is the second new addition this year; bassist Winston Roye signed on because of Tommy Stinson's commitment to Guns N' Roses. Drummer Bland has been on board about a decade. For the First Ave gig, veteran Twin Cities keyboardist Tommy Barbarella and percussionist Ken Chastain sat in as well.

Sharbono's Twin Cities debut also was the only time that Soul Asylum has played its hit 1992 album, "Grave Dancers Union," in concert.

Friday's 55-minute first set was heavy on material from this year's mixed-bag album, "Delayed Reaction." Pirner dedicated "Lately" to "all the kids from Sandy Hook" school in Connecticut. Highlights of the opening segment were the sing-along "Misery" and the closing punkabilly "Made to Be Broken," the 1986 title track of Soul Asylum's second album.

The challenge of playing the 3-million-selling "Grave Dancers Union" in its entirety is that the best three selections come first. What a 1-2-3 knockout punch of "Somebody to Shove," "Black Gold" and "Runaway Train"! A few of the numbers -- including the rocker "Growing Into You," the chamber pop "Sun Maid" with a French horn and string section and the noisy "99%" with mechanically manipulated vocals -- sounded dated. But "Without a Trace," dedicated, as always, by Pirner to Soul Asylum's late bassist Karl Mueller, sounded as spirited and moving as ever.

However, during his nearly two hours onstage, Pirner never once alluded to Danny Murphy -- as if he'd disappeared without a trace.

Set list: startribune.com/artcetera Twitter: @jonbream • 612-673-1719

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