Spider John Koerner didn’t want to call it a retirement party.
“It’s a misnomer. I’ve been retired for quite a while,” explained the legendary 78-year-old Minneapolis folk-blues singer/guitarist.
The folks at the Cedar Cultural Center needed a name for a program featuring local singers influenced by Koerner as well as a rare Minneapolis set by Koerner and his Boston-based sidemen.
Koerner started referring to the concert as the “conspiracy” to get him back onstage.
The Cedar settled on “Spider John’s Legacy.”
“That’s a high-flying kind of word for the way I am,” said the ever-modest Koerner, a West Bank institution who is known ’round the world. “In a sense it fits because it has to do with the young people who picked up on it.”
Ask any of the performers on Sunday’s bill and they’ll rhapsodize about the soft-spoken folk-bluesman who plays loud acoustic music accompanied by the heavy rhythm of his feet.
“Those early records he made with Dave Ray and Tony Glover were such an interesting thing to come out of this city — three teenage white boys playing country blues like they were born with it,” said Jack Torrey, 30, of Minneapolis-based Cactus Blossoms, a vintage twang duo. “The whole mystery of that was appealing to me. They kind of got rid of the rules.”
Minneapolis Americana singer Jack Klatt, 31, calls Koerner “one of the most honest performers you’ll ever see. He’s got his own style and I don’t think anyone could re-create it ever.
“As a songwriter, he’s this beautiful observer of the world spinning around. Like seeing beauty in looking at that old oak tree standing there.”
Both Klatt and Torrey have hung out with Koerner. They described him as humble.
“He’s so humble it’s like pride at that point,” Torrey said. “He won’t let you compliment him. He’s a treasure of a musician. It’s guys like that that make it seem like ‘Hey, I want to do this for the rest of my life.’ ”
One of the big attractions of Sunday’s show is a chance to see Koerner with his Boston bandmates Chip Taylor Smith and Paul Strother. They work on the East Coast together but have played only once in Minneapolis, an under-the-radar gig at Palmer’s Bar a few years ago as part of a run that included opening for Bonnie Raitt in Bayfield, Wis., and Moorhead, Minn.
“I’ve always wanted to see him with this band,” Torrey said. “I’ve always wanted to be in a band with him.”
Came for U of M
After a stint in the military, Rochester, N.Y., native Koerner came to the University of Minnesota in 1956. He was going to study engineering but ended up in the folk and blues scene, sharing stages with a newly named Bob Dylan and forming a trio with guitarist Dave Ray and harmonica player Tony Glover.
Koerner, Ray & Glover gained notice with their debut, “Blues, Rags and Hollers,” on the burgeoning Elektra Records. A 1965 Koerner solo album followed and then a duo record in ’69 with Willie Murphy called “Running, Jumping, Standing Still.”
The KRG and Murphy albums have been considered influential by the likes of John Lennon, David Bowie and Raitt. Bowie listed “Blues, Rags and Hollers” on his Top 25 albums of all time.
In 1972, Koerner quit music and moved to Copenhagen with his Danish-born wife. In their house, he came across a collection of folk music assembled by musicologist Alan Lomax. Koerner taught himself to merge folk stories with blues sensibilities and volume.
“Playing in bars meant that I was playing folk music — not twinkly-twinkly coffeehouse style but in a style that kind of punched it out,” he explained.
He developed his own style, one that Torrey admires for Koerner’s signature rhythmic syncopation with mouth percussion as well as the rhythms the singer pounds out with his work boots.
Not looking for work
A couple of years ago, Koerner cut back on his touring after his longtime booking agent died.
A regular visitor to England and Ireland as well as New England and Florida, the singer/guitarist said his health isn’t an issue. He just never really made any kind of retirement announcement.
“I’m basically retired now and not looking for work,” he put it. “The only time I enjoy playing now is with those [Boston] guys.”
While Minneapolis piano man Cornbread Harris is still gigging as he turns 90 this month and 97-year-old saxophonist Irv Williams maintains a weekly gig at the Dakota, Koerner won’t be seen on local stages. Well, at least not as a headliner.
“When Palmer’s has their Palm Fest in July, I’ll probably do a set, and it’s just little community kind of stuff that I feel I should do,” he said.
Palmer’s is the Cedar Avenue bar where Koerner takes his morning coffee and nightly drink. “It’s my social life,” he said.
While Koerner envisions his West Bank buddy Willie Murphy playing till Murph drops, he has a different outlook.
“My goal is to live for 1,000 moons,” Koerner said. “That’s just short of 81 years. My goal is to make it that far and then try to not give [a damn].”