He has probably gotten more Twin Cities residents to pay a cover charge over the past 15 years than any other rocker in town. With his Pizza Hut commercial and last year's botched fight song for the Twins' inaugural season at Target Field, he probably has been seen on TV by more Twin Cities residents than Charlie Sheen.
One thing Brian "G.B." Leighton has never done, however, is headline the Twin Cities' most famous rock club.
"It still sort of scares the hell out of me," Leighton said of First Avenue. "I'm as in awe of the bands that have played that place as anyone else."
The king of the suburban sports-bar circuit will finally take charge of the downtown rock haven Friday night to celebrate his latest album. That he hasn't headlined it before (though he has been part of other lineups there) says something about the lack of respect for one of our music scene's hardest-working musicians in its hipper, trendier circles.
Of course, the Springsteen-styled, 40-year-old son of a cop couldn't care less. He's playing First Ave, he said, "to do something that feels more like a concert than just another gig in a bar."
That goal reflects the ambition behind his record. Titled "Hope 1 Mile" -- with the highway exit for Hope, Minn., on the cover -- it was three years in the making and covers a lot of personal turmoil.
Over the course of writing the songs, Leighton battled testicular cancer (and won), fought to save his marriage (and lost) and struggled with sobriety (outcome TBA). He had to acknowledge the latter fight when he took a month off to complete a rehab program at Hazelden last year. This is not a guy who can take a month off without people noticing.
"It's a day-to-day thing, and it's really hard when you show up to work and there's a case of Bud and a bottle of Crown in the dressing room," he said. "The positive side of it is, I've had a lot of fellow musicians and other people in the business open up about their own struggles with it, which has really been encouraging."
To capture the personal tone of the new material, Leighton found a co-writer and producer in longtime friend Kevin Bowe, who has played a similar role in the career of Alison Scott. It was a sharp contrast to the rather impersonal experience of his last record, "Shake Them Ghosts," hastily made with Don Dixon (R.E.M., Smithereens).
Working off and on for many months, Leighton and Bowe spread out over several locations with numerous guests, including "Funkytown" singer Cynthia Johnson for the totally Boss-like opening track, "All Over Again." That song helps set the tone of perseverance that permeates the whole record, from the pure-country title track to the bleary-eyed rocker "Waiting for Trouble." As a companion piece to his own personal war songs, Leighton threw in "Johnny Comes Crawling Back Home," inspired by the soldiers he met while playing military bases in Iraq and Kuwait.
Leighton faced his own shellacking of sorts last year when Fox Sports North recruited him to write a song for Twins telecasts -- every Twins telecast, it turned out (its incessant rotation was part of the problem). "How do we make it stop?" the TwinkieTown sports blog asked of Leighton's "Twins Territory." Music bloggers were much more venomous in getting it benched.
"I took it with a grain of salt," he said of the backlash. "[FSN] gave me a set of certain words to use in the song. In my head, I was thinking, 'I'm not really a commercial writer,' but I gave it a shot. It was the inaugural year at Target Field, and it seemed like it'd be good exposure."
In the end, that debacle was the least of his concerns. "This record is about cancer, alcoholism, divorce," he said. "I've made it through it all over the past three years, and hopefully these songs can help raise the spirits of anyone who might be going through the same things."
Random mix Another reason to look forward to Memorial Day weekend every year, the Heliotrope Festival is changing venues for its eighth annual run, May 26-28. Look for it at the revitalized Loring Theater (the former Music Box) instead of the Ritz this year. But otherwise expect a lot of the same experimental/psychedelic acts, including Skoal Kodiak, Paul Metzger, Thunderbolt Pagoda, Daughters of the Sun, Mother of Fire and Father of Water. OK, I made the last band name up, Details at www.loringtheater.com. ... Another name on the Heliotrope 8 lineup, Votel, is the new moniker of former Lookbook singer Maggie Morrison's electronic act H.U.N.X. The name change came about to avoid confusion with the sexually confusing California band Hunx & His Punx. ...
Two of the Cities' best church-reared singers, Tonia Hughes and Sara Renner, are heading out on a joint tour dubbed "The Ladies of Gospel." The kickoff is Friday at Living Word Church, 640 N. Prior Av., St. Paul (7:30 p.m., $15). ... Roma di Luna plays its first full-band show since January's Current birthday bash at one of the suburbs' most happening venues, the quaint Lyric Arts Theater in Anoka (7 p.m. Wed., $16-$20). ... KFAI host Cyn Collins has put together a special Legacy Amendment-funded program, "Minneapolis Music 1975-1980." Part two airs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on 90.3 or 106.7 FM (the first part is archived at www.KFAI.org). ...
Bob Mould has booked another solo gig at the Dakota on June 15, same week as the arrival of his autobiography, "See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody," loaded with Twin Cities references from his Hüsker Dü days. The book opens with a story of Mould getting kicked out of a clothing-optional hotel in Palm Springs the same day he last played Coachella. Pretty blunt stuff, in other words.