When acoustic guitar maestro Dean Magraw and tabla player Marcus Wise first collaborated 30 years ago, they were idealistic young men settling back home after years abroad learning their instruments -- and pretty much operating on a life-is-limitless mojo. When they reunited in the studio in 2009, the scenario was quite the opposite.

"I was facing potential death," Magraw bluntly stated, explaining the spark behind his new album with Wise.

"I was going down the list of all the unfinished things I wanted to get done."

Titled "How the Light Gets In" and newly issued on St. Paul folk/roots label Red House Records -- whose second release ever was 1985's Wise-Magraw debut -- the new album is an intimate affair born out of extraordinary personal circumstances. Its makers will revisit the CD's largely improvised, Western-style instrumental pieces for a release party Saturday at the Cedar Cultural Center.

The old friends had actually reunited in the studio a few years earlier but never finished another album, in large part because of Magraw's battle with lymphoma. The guitarist, now 57, then found out he faced a potentially fatal condition called MDS (aka pre-leukemia) that required a bone-marrow transplant. That's when he called Wise.

"He only had this small window of time, and I felt incredibly fortunate to be in it," Wise recounted. "Imagine a great dancer or painter or poet having to write or perform what could be their last piece. That's what it felt like."

Wise recalled carrying Magraw's guitar up the stairs into Wild Sound studio because, he said, "He looked orange and pretty weak." Studio operator Matthew Zimmerman created what Wise called a "sarcophagus of comfort," and once they started playing, he said, "It just flowed. We didn't talk about what we were doing. We just did it."

Magraw said proudly, "From the very start, our music has always sort of just played itself. It's never strained. I've worked with a lot of people, and it's rarely like this."

They first met up right after the guitarist returned from studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Wise had just come back from several years studying in India, where he mastered the harder-than-it-seems art of playing the tabla, a 500-year-old percussion instrument made up of two hand drums. (Said Wise, "It's not just hitting a drum. It's very sensitive to pitch, and the left hand works completely separate from the right hand.")

Since then, Magraw has indeed played with a lot of people, everyone from Greg Brown and Peter Ostroushko to Irish supergroup Altan, and he still plays with local Irish rockers Boiled in Lead and the jazz trio Red Planet. Wise, meanwhile, has collaborated with members of the Doors, Steve Tibbetts (another guitar wiz) and Minnesota poet laureate Robert Bly, who will also take the stage Saturday at the Cedar.

With his bill of health now clean, Magraw hopes Saturday's gig will be the first of many to come. "I've always gone after playing the sound I love, whatever it might be," he said, "and that will probably be more true than ever."

Clown Lounge returns

A month after its abrupt 10-day closing, the Turf Club is gradually getting back to operating at full capacity, although new manager Joshua James doesn't see its revival as slow-going.

"We're actually ahead of schedule," he said, pointing to the return of the club's Sunday-night lineups starting this week with Charlie Parr, a night he didn't plan to bring back for a few months. Perhaps an even bigger event for longtime patrons is the reopening of the Clown Lounge in the basement this Friday night, when Leisure Birds, Is/Is and more perform (including live sets downstairs).

Like the rest of the club, the Clown Lounge was shuttered for structural improvements but otherwise looks the same. However, James said he and other staffers have been throwing around ideas on reinventing the basement bar. Stay tuned.

Random mix

Seemingly less active as the years wear on and their idea for a Broadway musical wears thin, punk kingpins Dillinger Four are finally playing another show again Friday at the Triple Rock (10 p.m., $10). As with their July 4th gigs, this one is apparently tied to the date. Hey, whatever excuse is needed. ...

Former Bleeding Hickeys and Strut & Shock guitarist Christina Schmitt has a great reason for throwing Friday's Rock the Womb gig at the Hexagon Bar: She's seven months pregnant and wanted to play one gig with baby in utero. Her new band the Sweet Violets will perform along with pals the Chambermaids and Bombay Sweets (10 p.m., free). ...

To promote its upcoming Welcome to Minnesota Tour, Atmosphere dropped a new track online this week called "Minnesota Nice." Don't expect too many Minne-centric lyrics à la "Shhh," but it does feature some hot guest turns by Minnesota boys Prof, Mr. Gene Poole and Felipe of Los Nativos. ... Members of Marijuana Deathsquads will be spending much of February in Los Angeles, where they are playing a residency gig at Spaceland every Friday with Har Mar Superstar. ... Deathsquads member P.O.S. will be back near L.A. in April as part of the Paid Dues festival, which includes a Black Star reunion. ...

A young Detroit transplant who has his music instructors at the Institute of Production & Recording raving, singer/songwriter Jack Ventimiglia makes his coming out under the moniker Housepet with an EP-release party Thursday at the Aster Cafe. The five-track debut boasts a broad range, from Syd Barrett-haunted psychedelic folk to Built to Spill-frazzled rockers. ... The Aster Cafe is also where Jim Walsh is hosting his Mad Ripple Hootenannies with songwriter pals every Thursday (6-8 p.m., $5). ...

A jaunty pop/rock quartet that echoes everyone from Badfinger and Cheap Trick to Dr. Dog and Spoon, Pictures of Then is the house band for the weekly Minneseries at the Nomad Pub in February, featuring no cover and openers selected by the resident headliner (10 p.m.) ... Local music blog Reviler.org has defied music-blogger tastes and lasted more than six months. It'll celebrate its first anniversary at the Triple Rock on Wednesday with two great experimental bands, Mother of Fire and Buffalo Moon (10 p.m.). ...

Yours truly is the guest Friday at midnight on KFAI's cool late-night show "True Brit," playing nothing but U.K. records with Englishman host Simon Husbands (90.3 or 106.7 FM). ... I'm sure KFAI will have no qualms about me playing all eight minutes of the Stone Roses' "I Am the Resurrection," but kudos should go to the Current (89.3 FM) for putting Cloud Cult's "There's So Much Energy in Us" into regular rotation -- maybe the first time a radio station has made a hit out of a seven-minute single since "Stairway to Heaven"?

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658 • Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib