After a lot of debate, the Cedar Cultural Center landed on the right billing: Spider John’s Legacy.
It was sort of a retirement celebration for legendary Minneapolis folk-bluesman Spider John Koerner on Sunday night at the jam-packed Cedar on Minneapolis’ West Bank. But he’ll tell you he retired a while ago without any fanfare.
So the Cedar compromised: a taste of Koerner and then a parade of younger Minnesota musicians inspired by him. It added up to a low-key, engaging evening – kind of like Koerner himself.
Whether he played solo, dueted with his former partners harmonica god Tony Glover or piano man Willie Murphy, or worked with his two Boston sidemen, Koerner, 78, was his usual casual self. He seemed more intent on telling entertaining stories – either in conversation or song – than on making sure his 12-string guitar was in tune.
To hear Koerner collaborate with Murphy on “Running Jumping Standing Still” and “I Ain’t Blue” (which Bonnie Raitt recorded) was a treat even if instruments were out of tune and the musicians under-rehearsed. It was a nod to Minnesota music history, a 1969 album that inspired Raitt to come to Minneapolis to record her debut album.
Most Minnesotans had never heard Koerner play with his Boston buddies, fiddler Chip Taylor Smith and bassist Paul Strother. They gig together only on the East Coast. Koerner definitely feels more comfortable in the trio context. Accompanied by them, he was the loose but the bass kept him steady and the fiddle (and spoons) added seasoning.
After an intermission (during which a good portion of the standing-room-only crowd exited), the youngsters took over. Jack Klatt walked the line between country and folk, landing safely in Americana. Baby Grant Johnson and Dave Babb teamed up a la Koerner and the late Dave Ray in an overlong homage that didn’t transcend their influences.
Lonesome Dan Kase spoke glowing about Koerner’s effect on him but he’s forged his own style, especially playing New Orleans piano-inspired tunes on his acoustic guitar.
The Cactus Blossoms, a pair of tall, twangy brothers from Minneapolis, sound like the Everly Brothers doing country-inclined material written by Buddy Holly. Their voices had a gorgeous blend on “Powder Blue” and “Adios Maria.” Four songs are never enough from the Cactus Blossoms.
Of course, the last song of the night had to belong to Koerner. The choice was obvious: “Goodnight, Irene” with the two Boston boys. Frankly, on this occasion, the oft-performed Leadbelly encore seemed more retiring than rejoiceful. Maybe that was fitting.