In the 1970s and ’80s, Tom Lieberman was one of the highest profile musicians in the Twin Cities, as a founding member of the popular vintage jazz, blues and pop band Rio Nido and a regular on “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Although Lieberman’s public persona subsequently faded from view, his myriad projects never did. The guitarist and singer turned his creative hand to a wide swath of writing, producing, directing and idea development for the likes of “Sesame Street Live,” Disney, public TV’s “Newton’s Apple” and such corporate clients as Target and Lutheran Brotherhood.
He’s been a puppeteer. He was executive producer for the much-lauded 2006 film “Sweet Land.” He worked with children’s theater companies and came up with a talking ukulele character — Luke the Uke — that’s charmed kids and their parents for a decade at Amplatz Children’s Hospital.
With a gradual return to live performing, Lieberman essentially has come full circle. He’s just recorded a charming, eclectic album of original songs, “Common Denominator,” which he’ll celebrate next Friday at the Aster Café’s River Room with former Rio Nido bandmate and guitar wizard Tim Sparks, along with bassist Joel Sayles, percussionist Tim O’Keefe and album producer (and childhood pal) Jeff Arundel.
“I’ve been writing songs forever, since high school, and started at the Coffeehouse Extemporé playing my own songs when I was about 16,” Lieberman reflected this week. “I feel like I’m coming home in a way. I had to travel many roads to get back to where I started.”
Still, this is a new experience. “I’ve been making records for a long time, but this is the first time I’ve ever made one just singing my own songs,” he said.
‘I’ve got three parlor tricks’
Rio Nido specialized in covers of classic material. The songs on “Common Denominator,” written tangentially to Lieberman’s other work over the years, share the same stylistic inspiration.
He tried to get other artists interested in them, then just started singing them himself.
“I’ve been out playing these songs at various venues around town just to have fun,” he said. “People started asking if there was a recording. And there wasn’t, so now there is.”
Ironically, “Common Denominator” doesn’t really have one.
“Jeff [Arundel] said basically I’ve got three parlor tricks: I love the swing music and I love blues and I love the quirky stuff,” Lieberman said. “I don’t know if three is the number or what, but there are certain styles that I go to. With ‘Tee Many Martoonis’ I wanted to write a song that Louis Prima would have done. And jump blues, there’s nothing more satisfying to me.”
The album, featuring a slew of local talent (billed as “the Liebermen”), ranges from a wistful reflection on past romance (“Once in a While”) to a breezy samba tribute to the Brazilian Rio (“Obrigado, Corcovado”) and the bluesy “Guinea Pig,” whose sly delivery and witty wordplay (“My Bunsen burner’s cookin’ / How you do turn up the heat”) suggests his affection for songwriting pianists Mose Allison and Dave Frishberg.
“Actually, Frishberg, he’s sort of a shirttail relative, a St. Paul boy,” Lieberman said. “David’s been a big influence for me. He’s just so literate. And frankly, I identify with the fact that David came up as a piano player. He wrote songs to amuse himself and the guys around him, and the rest is history.”
Lieberman is a pretty decent guitarist himself, if a bit self-deprecating, and held down what he calls the “utility guitar” slot on “Prairie Home” for a decade until one fateful day.
“I like to tell people that the high point and low point of my career as a guitar player happened in the same instant. And it’s true. In the ‘Prairie Home’ days they’d been going through some personnel changes. So I’m warming up for the show one day and I get a tap on the shoulder and one of the producers said, ‘Hey, Tom, can you move over so Chet can sit down?’ And there was Chet standing there with the guitar, and the Country Gentleman is about to sit down.
“It was like, yeah, it’s never gonna get any better for me than being replaced by Chet Atkins.”
Reunion with Rio Nido mate
His song “That’s Why I Love You Most,” a swinging analysis of the love conundrum, is laced with the tasty guitar work of another ace guitarist, his old buddy Sparks.
“It was important to me to get Tim on the record,” he said. “As a guitarist, I so appreciate having another guitarist to play off of. And Tim adds so much color, he gives you so much to work with.”
For his part, Sparks is looking forward to tackling the entire album at next Friday’s show. “I enjoy connecting with him musically on our guitar stuff,” he said by phone. “It’s nice to hear a guy write songs who knows his way around the guitar. They’re very subtle both in their musical structure and in the kinds of lyrics he’s writing. This is a real personal collection of songs.”
That would include the bluesy, simmering, profoundly philosophical title track, about the essential stuff that should connect humanity.
“I had occasion to sing it recently at my daughter’s wedding,” Lieberman said. “It was a Muslim-Jewish wedding. I think I started writing it when my daughter started dating Zia, my son-in-law. I realized I was working through this idea of commonality of people — we have much more that binds us than separates us. So I was very grateful to close that loop at the wedding and to actually sing the song with Zia.”
Whether it’s examining the human condition, slurping martoonis, getting around to his long overdue album or contemplating Luke the Uke’s ambitions — he hopes to build the character into perhaps a TV or stage show — Lieberman is zeroed in on enjoying every minute of it.
“I came to a realization some years ago. Everybody’s swingin’ for the fences. And that’s great. But if I’m not havin’ a good time, then I don’t quite understand what it is I’m doing.”