A new light on roots music

The Real-Phonic Radio Hour delivers the thrill of musical discovery.

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From left, Erik Koskinen, Thom Middlebrook, Molly Maher and Paul Bergen are the brains behind the Real-Phonic Radio Hour, a showcase of top-flight roots-rock talent held at the James J. Hill Center in St. Paul. “One of my favorite things is to be there when an artist walks in for the first time,” said Maher.

Photo: JEFF WHEELER • jeff.wheeler@startribune.com,

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The last time the Memphis musician John Paul Keith ventured north, he played a small bar in Chicago with a unique drink promotion: a shot of Hennessy and a slap in the face. They call it the Ike Turner.

Next Thursday, when he headlines the Real-Phonic Radio Hour at the James J. Hill Center in St. Paul, he will perform on a stage framed by sandstone columns in a venue designated a month ago as the “greatest historic treasure” among the nation’s libraries.

While not actually a radio show, Real-Phonic is a monthly showcase of top-flight roots-rock talent pairing national artists with local stalwarts. About a year ago, its future was endangered when a yearlong funding commitment from the James J. Hill board ended. But it was revived, thanks in part to solid support from Mayor Chris Coleman, who views music as a key to rebranding St. Paul.

The mayor has been impressed by Real-Phonic’s talent, which leans to the best-kept-secret variety: “You feel like an inside cool kid because you know about Real-Phonic,” Coleman said this week.

To Molly Maher, the local roots-rocker who books the acts, Real-Phonic is a gift to musicians who’ve spent years playing tiny bars and back-yard barbecues. “One of my favorite things is to be there when an artist walks in for the first time,” she said.

The grand hall is impressive, but for Real-Phonic, the team credo is “Artistry In Everything,” and that means lighting, sound, photography, storytelling. Everything but an aural document, but they’re working on that. Then, there are the guest musicians — A-listers to the locals who select them, but largely unknown outside independent record-store circles.

Keith, 38, is a terrific guitarist, singer and songwriter with ties to Sun Records greatness. Last year, the critic Bob Mehr, author of an upcoming Replacements biography, “Trouble Boys,” called Keith’s 2013 album, “Memphis Circa 3AM”, “the best record of his life, and one of the best records by anyone this year.”

“Trouble Boys” was a Rockpile song covered by the Replacements in their early days, and Rockpile, in turn, serves as a handy reference point for Keith, combining as he does guitar fireworks with a knack for penning the rootsy three-minute gem. Fortunately for Real-Phonic, being an all-in-one threat means he also travels light.

Top-tier support

Musicians who play Real-Phonic shows are backed by local artists Erik Koskinen, Paul Bergen, Frankie Lee, J.T. Bates and Maher herself, on occasion. Thom Middlebrook, a graphic designer who befriended the musicians during their weekly gigs at Nye’s and then the Aster Cafe in Minneapolis, is host comedian.

Four years ago, Middlebrook, 56, of St. Paul, joined the board of what was then the James J. Hill Reference Library. The library, finding itself outpaced as a research tool by computers and smartphones, had to reinvent itself. The result: a venue dedicated to entrepreneurship and entertainment.

For the Real-Phonic Radio Hour, the idea was to take the collective spirit of the Nye’s and Aster Cafe residencies to a new level, Maher said. The series kicked off in November 2011 with Iowa guitarist Bo Ramsey amid worries about what effect the grand-hall setting might have on the acoustics. The library books, it turns out, act like sound baffles, Middlebrook said.

Frankie Lee was pleased enough with the results to put a live duet recorded at the James J. Hill with Haley Bonar on his recent release, "Middle West."

Attendance fell short of levels desired by the board, however, and when the funding year lapsed last summer without new action being taken, the Real-Phonic team was left to think, “We gave it our best shot,” Middlebrook said. In stepped Kevin Spreng, the board’s then-chairman, who reminded colleagues of the show’s value to the community — as represented by the mayor’s backing. Funding not only was renewed, but now is open-ended, too.

Each show costs about $7,500 to produce, Middlebrook said, so even if 200 tickets are purchased — bringing in about $4,000 — a subsidy is needed, a cost Spreng said is worth it to build a reputation for being a “place where people can come and learn.”

Looking ahead, Maher hopes to get the 26 shows recorded to date into podcast form.

Middlebrook, believing the show to be consistent enough, said it also is time to seek sponsorships.

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  • The house band, led by Erik Koskinen (white hat), took the stage during a Real-Phonic Radio Hour performance at the James J. Hill Center in St. Paul. Thom Middelbrook, right, served as host.

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