The crowd started filing into Nye's just as the first set of the night wound down -- the "non-lubricated" set, as singer/songwriter Molly Maher puts it with a shrug. Turns out, she prefers her band of not-so-merry gentlemen to be lubed up. And apparently so do the patrons.
You could spot the regulars one of three ways at a recent Wednesday show: They were either musicians themselves, including the singers from Trampled by Turtles and 4onthefloor; they stopped to talk to the so-called Stella Sisters, who are neither sisters nor Stellas, and who generally do most of the talking when you stop to talk to them, or they inquired about the whereabouts of Mikey, Nye's Wednesday-night bartender, who'd just had "another round of heart surgery."
Legend has it that Mikey is the one who talked Nye's management into keeping on Maher and Her Disbelievers when, about a year into their weekly residency, they still weren't filling the long, skinny, darkly wooded, trolley-car-like Polka Room. Even a year at Minneapolis' famously dated postwar Polish supper club is a long time to stick by a band.
Stick they did, and, five years later, there's probably not another weekly gig in all of the Twin Cities that means more to its participants than Nye's on Wednesday night for Maher and Her Disbelievers. Why else would she have kept up the weekly regimen at Nye's when she spent most of last year enduring radiation and chemotherapy?
"It's about the only place I could come in week in and week out and not feel self-conscious about wearing a wig," Maher cracked.
In a more serious moment away from Nye's, though, she added, "It's exactly the sort of thing that you don't want cancer to take from you. You don't want to give it that kind of power."
A decade-plus veteran of the Twin Cities scene and one of the more knowledgeable guitar players in town, Maher, 39, got her first inkling she had breast cancer in the damnedest of places: onstage at First Avenue in front of a sellout crowd at the Current's fifth-anniversary bash.
"I looked down and saw this cyst on my chest in the stage lights," she recalled, "and had this very real and very wicked feeling that everything was about to change."
She knew it was for real a few days later when she heard a long, quiet pause at the doctor's office. For the next 10 months, she underwent six chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments, plus daily doses of medicine. She lost her hair 18 days into the chemo, again with a First Avenue tie-in: She remembers her hair started falling out in the restroom there when she was opening for Trampled by Turtles.
Through it all, Maher rarely missed a Nye's gig. "Some weeks I just couldn't do it," she said, "but even the shows that were hard to get through were therapeutic in a weird way.
"Nye's is just such an absurd place. And I mean that in a good way: You just have to laugh and lighten up when you're there. And playing with my buddies is a great distraction -- from cancer or anything."
Cancer-free for almost a year now, wig-free Maher is quick to emphasize that her new album, "Merry Come Up," is "not a cancer record." A line or two references her illness, she said, "but mostly the down-and-out songs are just the usual old-boyfriend stuff."
Rather, Maher's third record is more a showcase for her bandmates and the chemistry they've developed at Nye's. Standout tracks include the almost rap-like, organ-pumped romp "Free to Go" and the shaken-and-baked rocker "Chicken, No Bone," while Maher still shows off a softer, more songwriterly side in "Cry Baby" and a few others. She and the Disbelievers will celebrate the release of the CD on Friday at the Cedar Cultural Center (actually a twofer CD party, also marking folk/blues picker Jon Rodine's new "Last Star").
"There are a few dark parts on the record, but mostly I think it has the same kind of spirit as the Nye's shows," said Disbelievers guitarist Paul Bergen, also Maher's workmate at Willie's Guitars in St. Paul, her day job. "Even when Molly was at her worst, if she did show up at Nye's she still sounded good, and we still had a good time."
The Disbelievers have as much know-how and rock-steadiness as Maher does. In fact, the main reason so many musicians come to their gigs is to see the rambling, seemingly effortless interplay between Bergen (also of the Hillbilly Voodoo Dolls) and fellow guitarist Erik Koskinen (Dead Man Winter). It's jamming for people who would take a country or blues act over a jam band any day.
The other core players are bassist Frankie Lee and drummer Noah Levy, although Levy's touring duties with Brian Setzer and the BoDeans often allow JT Bates, Richard Medek or Matt Novachis to fill in behind the kit. Koskinen is actually the band's leader and divides singing duties with Maher, usually with one of them leading a whole set, then switching for the next set. He writes songs with the same twangy style and lament-filled, wiping-the-dust-off charm as Maher.
"We did OK playing without Molly the weeks she couldn't make it, but it wasn't the same," said Koskinen, who believes she "toughed it out" most weeks at Nye's just because "it's somewhere she could go and just be herself."
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