Stairway gone to heaven

Twin Cities music fans might notice something big missing the next time they attend a show at First Avenue. On Tuesday, a construction crew began removing the iron staircase that leads from the dance floor up to the two restrooms. This is the staircase that blocks the view for anyone standing in the rear ground-floor corner over by the bands' merch tables. "It's all about improving the sightlines," general manager Nate Kranz said of the makeover. The new layout -- to be finished about mid-February -- won't add to the club's 1,500-person capacity, he said, "but a lot more people are going to see the stage better." --CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER

Beating back hunger

How many drummers does it take to end world hunger? McNally Smith College of Music teachers Marv Dahlgren and David Stanoch are hoping to drum up fellow timekeepers around the world to perform the same rhythmic pattern Saturday at 2 p.m. (Minnesota time) in the so-called Hunger Beat-Down, benefiting UNICEF and locally based They're asking everyone to play "Three Camps," a military beat that dates back to Valley Forge (one participating location in Saturday's event). "It was one of the ways the different camps would communicate with each other from a distance, so it seems fitting in this case," said Dahlgren, longtime Minnesota Orchestra principal percussionist. McNally Smith will host drum clinics and performances Saturday (1:30-5 p.m.). Drummers can also gather at MacPhail Center for Music to participate, or play along via, where donations can also be made. --CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER

Our rockingest mayor

So much for Gary Burger's whole "obscure rock legend" thing. The singer/guitarist in the Monks -- American GIs based in Germany whose lone 1966 garage-rock album was reissued to raves in 2009 -- Burger had fans lined up at a packed 331 Club last Friday. KFAI-FM's show "Freewheelin' " pulled a record-geek coup in talking Burger into driving down from Turtle River, Minn., where he happens to be mayor. With local rockers the Spectors as backup band, he sounded a little rusty in the vocal department but nailed his freak-plosion guitar parts. To get things started, he asked the crowd for a "German welcome circa 1966." Turns out, that's a loud boo. Fans kept booing through the 14-song set, which featured the topical/war-torn "Monk Time" and "Complication" and the more playful, party-centric "Drunken Maria" and "Oh, How to Do Now" later on. Said Burger: "We did have fun, too." --CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER

Rap or recipe?

Common used it for a diss song. Brother Ali found it better suited for a love song. This week, Ali hijacked the beat from Common's recent track "Sweet" -- which roasts crooning rappers such as Drake -- and released a free song dedicated to his favorite homemade holiday dessert. "Sweet (Potato Pie)" is no throwaway, though. Ali transforms the tune into a lyrical exercise with some nimble internal rhymes: "No disrespect implied, but your great grandmama's recipe she made for Sunday suppertime ain't [messin'] with mine." As is characteristic of the Minneapolis rapper, Ali has a message to tell in the final verse: Love sweet potato pie, but eat healthy. "Maybe just take it out of regular rotation," he raps, "save it for a special occasion." --TOM HORGEN

Good girls and bad

Dressed in an ethereal white sheath, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham opened her Schubert Club recital this week with a Henry Purcell cantata in which the Virgin Mary frets operatically about her pre-teen son who has wandered off, prompting Mary to berate the angel Gabriel for deserting her. Then it was on to Ophelia and some lovely Goethe poems. After intermission, Graham vamped back in silver sequins for a murderous turn in Joseph Horovitz's "Lady Macbeth" and some elegantly gloomy Poulenc songs about lost loves, beautiful death, weeping willows and a corpse that's "as limp as a glove." (It sounds better in French: "Mon cadavre est doux comme un gant.") "We've come a long way from the Blessed Virgin Mary," Graham laughed before encores about a two-timing gal, a ravishing physician and a sexy lady. --MARY ABBE

Chilly thriller

I.W. felt a cold coming on recently, so we stocked up on reading material to see us through, including "14 Degrees Below Zero." The 2005 "novel of psychological suspense" is by Quinton Skinner, who was a Twin Cities theater critic and magazine editor before joining the Guthrie Theater as director of communications last fall. Skinner shouldn't let his PR job keep him from the writing desk, as his book is a very satisfying read about a young single mom and her creepy dad, who majorly disapproves of her older BF. Deep winter weather and Twin Cities locations are used throughout, and there's even a Bob Dylan walk-on in a hospital room. --CLAUDE PECK

Will he lose his strength?

Actor Harry Waters Jr. and director Gary Gisselman were working on a show together in the recent past when the subject of "Ragtime" came up. Gisselman was tapped to direct the epic musical at Park Square Theatre, so he and Waters were discussing the central character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician. Waters, who has worn dreadlocks for more than 10 years, said, "I'd cut my hair for that role." Done and done. Last week, stylist Andre Jenkins at Lockstarz in Minneapolis took a lawn mower to Waters' head -- and did an awfully nice job. Waters reportedly was able to save the dreads and may weave them back in after the musical's run. "Ragtime" opens Jan. 27. --GRAYDON ROYCE

Howler at last

From 47-year-olds using fan support to make albums to 19-year-olds doing it with one of England's most fabled indie labels of all time ...

After months of international buildup and a couple weeks or so of actually being recognized in their hometown, the young, baby-faced Minneapolis kids in Howler finally have a full-length album to show for all the hoopla. "America Give Up" arrives in stores Tuesday via Rough Trade Records, and the local release party is Saturday at the Triple Rock (10 p.m., $8, and still not sold out at press time).

So how close does the record come to living up to the hype? Close enough. Dare it be said the dueling, snaky, wiry guitar parts are more impressive than those on the Strokes' "Is This It" (to which this debut is being compared)? Especially scorching are the as-yet-unheard songs "Pythagorean Fearem" and the surf-rocky opener "Beach Sluts." Meanwhile, "Back of Your Neck" and "Told You Once" -- the latter from the prior EP -- show off whippersnapper frontman Jordan Gatesmith's whip-smart writing style, with clever word twists and classic melodies.

The record's one big shortcoming is Gatesmith's rather puny voice. A guitarist by trade, he sounds as if he's still growing into his rock-frontman vocals throughout much of the album. He starts off with a forced-sounding husky tone in "This One's Different" and comes off like a post-pubescent version of the Jesus & Mary Chain's Jim Reid in "Too Much Blood." This will be easy enough to remedy as the band hits the road right after Saturday's show: Just turn up those beautiful guitars. --CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER

Random mix from Chris Riemenschneider:

One of the more promising new dance-rock bands of late, Still Pacific takes over the Hexagon Bar on Friday to tout a new Jacques Wait-produced 7-inch single. The quartet is new, but its members are no spring chickens: It features longtime Northern Lights record-store geek Brad Weller and his wife, Tracy Tayberry-Weller, channeling vintage synth-pop à la Depeche Mode and Information Society. Not so coincidentally, InSoc's Paul Robb will DJ the show (10 p.m., free.) ...

Mint Condition was in Atlanta last weekend performing alongside honorees Earth, Wind & Fire at the Trumpet Awards (for African-American achievement). Next Friday, the band plays a hometown gig at the Fine Line. ... The Jayhawks will play their first local theater gig since reuniting Feb. 18 at the State. ...

Cinemaphile musician Jeremy Messersmith is hosting Wednesday's installment of "The Defenders" at Trylon Microcinema, a "secret film" series where the guest picks an unsung flick. Details at Next month's host is Keri Noble. ... Rapper Nicky May plans to help a cause unfortunately close to his family, the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, with an upcoming album as well as his show Thursday at Hell's Kitchen (10 p.m., $5). ... The date of this year's Record Store Day was wrong in last week's column. It lands April 21. ...

Music fans headed to St. Paul for the big Red Bull Crashed Ice giant skate-slide competition can catch a free DEMO showcase afterward on Friday night at Wild Tymes' Palace stage with Cooker John, As It Is, Hillary Howard and Duluth's Gallus (8 p.m. start). And if you aren't going to that crazy Red Bull thing, check your pulse.