In the wild days of early-’80s punk rock, bands like Black Flag and Hüsker Dü prided themselves on rigorous “get-in-the-van” brand touring that proved their do-it-yourself dedication. Ben Weaver has suddenly made those punks look like a bunch of wimps.
Tired of touring as a musician with little to show for his efforts other than a pile of critical accolades, the St. Paul singer/songwriter looked for something to do with more meaning and impact.
In July, Weaver, 36, strapped his guitar and banjo onto his bike and rode all 1,400 miles around Lake Superior, performing in 13 stops and sounding the bell for water conservation along the way.
The tour — which he dubbed Surrounding Water — partnered him with Great Lakes Commons, a network of environmental and conservation groups from around all five of the big lakes.
“I didn’t want to get preachy about the issues,” Weaver explained. “I just wanted to talk about all the ways water connects with all of us, and connect with people on a different level myself.”
He will play a postscript tour gig Saturday at the Cedar Cultural Center, where he will talk about his summer adventures, salute the organizations and companies that helped out, and sing many of the songs he delivered on the journey.
A poetic songwriter with a stark, raw folk/alt-country recording style and a rough-hewed voice — comparisons to Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen abound — Weaver has been touring for 15 years and seemed to be doing pretty well. Two of his eight albums were issued by Chicago’s renowned roots label Bloodshot Records, and another one, “Hollerin’ at a Woodpecker,” was named the No. 3 Americana album of 2002 by England’s influential Mojo magazine.
Still, when it came time to issue his latest record, last year’s “I Would Rather Be a Buffalo,” he thought about giving up the musician’s life altogether, especially after the birth of his third son.
“I was existing in that vacuum where I wondered if I’d ever get to a point where I could sell enough tickets to make a living and support my family playing music,” he said. “I felt like I was always trying to be the exception to the rules that I didn’t really want to follow anyway.
“I finally decided if I’m going to suffer and struggle, I’m going to do it on my own terms and do it in a way that feels like I’m giving something back to the world.”
This was his second such singing and pedaling trek, after a ride down the Mississippi River to New Orleans last year that was about the same distance-wise, but he shaved down the time around Superior from 25 to only 15 days. Some of those days thus involved 100 miles or more of riding.
“A few days in Canada where it was more spread out, I showed up only an hour before I had to perform, and in that time I needed to take a shower, cook something to eat and set up my tent,” he recalled. “I tried to embrace the athleticism and challenge of it, though.”
Connecting the dots
Weaver rode counterclockwise around the lake, stopping in Bayfield, Wis., on the first night and ending in Duluth. Stops/gigs along the way ranged from Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to a campground in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park northeast of Thunder Bay, and from the Serendipity Inn in Rossport, Ontario, to (last stop) Lafayette Community Center in Duluth.
There were thankfully no mishaps along the way, although he missed being sidelined by a mislaid log on a logging truck by a few inches. He also wore out the freehub body on his brand-new Salsa road bike after only about 400 miles, which is a sure indicator he was packing a lot of weight (he never figured out the exact poundage).
As impressed as he was by the grass-roots efforts of such environmental groups as the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve and Save the Wild UP — “a lot of really humble people who’ve been working in the outdoors for a long time,” he said — Weaver also was heartened by the general warmth he encountered.
“The kindness of strangers when you’re traveling on a bike like that really hits you as a powerful thing,” he said. “Just being handed a banana out of a car window becomes a common, wonderful occurrence.”
He thinks he connected with the people along the way on a musical level, too. He also read some of the works from his two poetry books at most stops.
“It wasn’t people who came to see me because they’re friends of mine or they already know my music,” he said. “It was people who came because they heard what I was doing and were intrigued by it. In a lot of cases, they did buy my CDs and books I had with me, and they really seemed to be impacted in at least a small way by what I was doing. That felt really amazing to me.”
Others were amazed by Weaver’s effort, including one of Minnesota’s most resilient solo touring musicians.
“I’m very impressed and proud of what Ben’s doing,” said folk/blues picker Charlie Parr, who performed with Weaver at the tour’s final stop in Duluth. “I think he’s setting a good example both as an artist and as someone who is concerned about our environment, as we all should be.”
Of course, even while giving back to the environment, Weaver took plenty away from it, too — namely, songwriting inspiration. When asked what kind of biking adventure he might dream up as a tour next summer, he made it sound like he’s interested in making more of an artistic effort than athletic.
“I’ll probably spend my time working on a new album,” he said. “I have so much stuff right at the back of my throat ready to come out.”
Once a musician, always a musician.