The revamped Soul Asylum: Justin Sharbono (joined 2012), Michael Bland (joined 2001), Dave Pirner (cofounder in 1983) and Winston Roye (joined 2012)/ Photo courtesy of Red Light Management
Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner showed up at jam-packed First Avenue 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 tennis shoes 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 long-lived 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 he didn’t assert his personality, this reserved left-handed guitarist with the poor boy cap, black-and-white checked shirt and brick-red skinny jeans. Heck, a couple of times he took guitar 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 from First Avenue
Set 1: Gravity/ Into the Light / The Streets/ By the Way/ Pipe Dream/ Take Manhattan/ Leave This Town/ Oxygen/ Lately/ Can’t Ever Tell/ I Will Still Be Laughing / Misery/ Just Like Anyone/ Made To Be Broken
Set 2: Somebody To Shove/ Black Gold/ Runaway Train/ Keep it Up/ Homesick/ Get an Out/ New World/ April Fool/ Without a Trace/ Growing into You/ 99%/ The Sun Maid