A few Saturdays ago, Al Church had to make the kind of last-minute, between-gigs wardrobe change that reflects just how much of a mover and shaker and maybe even a superman he is in the Twin Cities music scene.
“I realized it probably wouldn’t be safe for me to go into the Terminal Bar wearing a suit,” he said.
The versatile, affable Minneapolis musician had gone straight to the gritty, aromatic watering hole to rock out with the Rupees after opening for the Decemberists at the Palace Theatre, where he served as guitarist for childhood friend Gaelynn Lea.
If you didn’t catch Church at one of those gigs, you may have also seen him playing keyboards with Actual Wolf or drums with Andy Cook in recent months. Or perhaps you saw social media clips of his “bowling league” all-star band, BB Gun, finally working on a second album.
And then there was his Mortimer’s set a couple weeks ago singing with Private Oates, a Hall & Oates tribute act that gives it up for the lesser-known guy in the band.
Church himself is a very Oates-ian music hustler who also happens to have Hall-esque frontman charisma and vocal chops — not to mention a discernibly ’80s pop sound — all of which shines through on his new solo album, “Night Games.” Lea said she recently joked to Church about becoming his manager to get him to focus on his own music instead of everybody else’s.
“His record is so fun and poppy and completely different from what he does with me,” she said. “It just goes to show you how versatile and creative he is. He’s such a proficient sideman, but he should be doing his own music as much as he can.”
“Night Games” caps off a 15-year run that also includes stints with the Umbrella Sequence, Al Church & State and his teenage punk band, Islero. He started the latter group in his native Duluth, where he’s hosting an album release party Saturday at the Red Herring following Friday’s shindig at the Turf Club in St. Paul.
In more ways than the Red Herring show, this album takes Church back to Duluth, where he grew up the youngest of a fireman’s four sons.
“I was the one who didn’t become a big outdoorsman,” he conceded.
Church, 33, has no complaints from his childhood, though. In fact, the title track of “Night Games” is pretty much a love song to his youth, growing up in a city and an era that allowed kids to stay outside after dark with nary a parent in sight. The song is nicely complemented with a Maya Khaira-directed music video showing gawky tween boys making prank phone calls and playing flashlight tag.
“We were fortunate in Duluth to have lots of woods to roam, and a strong sense of freedom from a young age,” said Church.. “A lot of what got stuck in my head on this record is remembering all the firsts in my life, and the excitement that goes with becoming who you are.”
The record’s other nostalgic tunes include the breezy, cruising-themed opener “Night Drive” and the sax-smooth pop gem “Waiting for the Chorus,” which recounts a road trip to the Badlands listening to tapes in Church’s old Toyota Camry.
That Church would heavily rely on fond memories in his songwriting underlines details of his personal life nowadays in Minneapolis: He’s happily married (to a Star Tribune staff writer, full disclosure), loves his day-job teaching music to kids and doesn’t have much strife in his life. This is pretty bubbly stuff.
“A lot of the nostalgia also has to do with my love for music,” said Church, whose own musical lessons started with his mom on piano. “I go back to some of these memories because that was also the age when I first started learning to play guitar and drums, and it’s probably all wrapped together in my head.”
Sonically speaking, though, the album’s ’80s vibe actually pre-dates Church’s youth, and he points to two of his chief collaborators on the album for helping craft the vintage pop-rock sound: Keyboardist Ryan Rupprecht (his Umbrella Sequence mate) uses a Ryan DX-7 synthesizer used by a lot of old new wave bands, while saxophonist Cole Pulice (also of Black Market Brass) plays a very “All She Wants to Do Is Dance”-type prominent role in the music’s melodies. A lot of times, Pulice’s sax parts are parts usually saved for a guitarist.
“Those guys mostly write their own parts and do what they do, and I try not to get in their way,” Church said, sounding very much like the sideman again instead of the frontman. He says he’s content in either role.
“Whether it’s my music or someone else’s, it’s all collaborative, and we all learn from each other. That’s what makes playing music so fun.”
More big happenings in Duluth: The city’s beloved (and highly recommended) Homegrown festival kicks off Sunday and lasts through the following weekend, with nightly sets by Twin Ports-area acts including Gaelynn Lea, Mary Bue, the Fontanelles, Feeding Leroy, Sam Miltich, Aimee Tischer, the Dames, Low and at least one big surprise gig I can’t mention. Details at DuluthHomegrown.org. …
A similar big takeover of a smaller city, the MidWest Music Fest takes place in downtown Winona again this weekend. Performers there Friday include Reina del Cid, Bad Bad Hats, Charlie Parr, Twilight Hours, Adam Levy, Tabah and one of my favorites from Red Wing’s Big Turn fest, the Ultrasounds. Saturday’s lineup features PaviElle, Lady Lark, Dosh, General B & the Wiz and Frogleg. The $25-$50 wristbands can be had at MidwestMusicFest.org. …
Art-A-Whirl weekend in northeast Minneapolis is shaping up to be the most rocking one yet, with the clear lead in the music lineups being Grumpy Northeast’s 20th-anniversary bash with Superchunk and some other big names TBA on May 19. Other highlights will include Happy Apple and Black Eyed Snakes at Indeed Brewing and local neighborhood rep Har Mar Superstar with Shredders at Bauhaus. Pray for no snow. … Grumpy’s NE. also hosts a food-drive benefit show this Saturday with the tribute bands Pleezer, Trompe le Monde and others (1-8 p.m., free with donation). …
Ashley and Ed Ackerson are back with their fuzz-rock band BNLX to tout a 10th EP Friday at the Ballentine Uptown VFW with pals Two Harbors, the Rope and Robosapien. A great quadruple bill (9 p.m., $8-$10). … The Turf Club hosts the XTC tribute show “Senses Working Overtime 6” to benefit women’s cancer research on Saturday (8:30 p.m., $20). … And Dan Israel plays a free Electric Fetus in-store set Wednesday at 7 p.m. to tout “You’re Free,” his 14th album (!), also on tap for a May 9 release show at the Cedar.