Very much living up to a man-of-constant-sorrow stereotype, Charlie Parr said he just doesn’t like to be away from Minnesota in the dead of winter.
“I toured Australia in January twice, and I felt like something wasn’t right, like I had a hole in my body,” he said.
The Cactus Blossoms, by contrast, would love to head out on tour at this time of year. But “when you live in Minnesota, just driving to a gig anywhere out of town in January can be dangerous,” singer/guitarist Page Burkum said.
In either case, staying close to home — and settling in at a music venue that feels like home — are the main reasons the beloved roots-music acts have returned to the Turf Club this month in what has become an annual residency. Not that any excuse is required (or the gift horse’s mouth needs to be examined) for the best thing about being a Minnesota music fan in January.
The Blossoms and Parr have each booked weekly stints at the historic St. Paul watering hole for four and five straight Januaries, respectively, a warming trend that continued with their kickoff dates this week.
Parr’s performances are every Sunday night through the end of the month. Half the crowd this week was still marveling over the Vikings’ playoff victory before the Duluth acoustic folk/blues hero took the stage.
The Cactus Blossoms’ gigs are every Monday in January, the same night the neo-twang harmonizers held down year-round at the Turf for about four years before becoming hard-touring national stars opening for the likes of Kacey Musgraves and JD McPherson. This week’s installment felt like a welcome holiday reprise as patrons faced the glum reality of resuming a normal workweek.
The appeal of these gigs extends far beyond simply getting out of the house, however.
“The shows are all different from week to week, and there’s always a laid-back, comfortable vibe,” said Linda Harrison of Minneapolis, who bought tickets to all four installments of Parr’s run with her husband, John. “There’s nobody uptight here, especially this time of year.”
For the Turf Club, these residency gigs fill the house — and the calendar — during a month when non-Minnesota acts steer clear of tour dates here. Dead Man Winter and All Tomorrow’s Petty each held down weekly Turf gigs in December while another local twang hero, Erik Koskinen, will take over the Monday slot in February.
Other venues around town are following suit. Icehouse is hosting a Tuesday series by blooming Nordic folkie Humbird this month. 7th St. Entry followed up last month’s Gully Boys series with a Sunday night Gigawatt series this month hosted by Radio K. The Aster Cafe has Honeydogs leader Adam Levy’s folky new trio Turn! Turn Turn! playing every Wednesday in January and country tunesmith Becky Kapell on Wednesdays in February.
For Parr and the Blossoms, though — both of whom can easily fill bigger venues than the 350-capacity Midway-area music haven — the Turf residencies aren’t so much about good business. They’re more about having a good time and sparking creativity. Winter’s deep lull is traditionally an incubatory time for Minnesota songwriters.
“Booking this gig sort of forces us to stay home and write songs, which is a good thing,” said Cactus Blossoms co-leader Jack Torrey.
Parr also plays a residency gig every Wednesday in January at the Cedar Lounge in Duluth. Asked if the shows keep him from going nutty during the shut-in months, he said, “I think they’re more about going a little nuts. On stage, I mean.”
Why the Turf Club? “It hasn’t changed a whole lot, which I like,” said Parr, who dates back long enough to have played the “old stage” (a smaller one, set more in the center of the room). Playing there nowadays reminds him of seeing Willie Murphy and the various members of Koerner, Ray & Glover in weekly gigs at the Viking Bar and other defunct saloons when he first moved to Minneapolis in the late 1980s.
“You never knew what you were going to get with those shows and those guys,” he said. “I really responded to that and miss that, so I try to do a little of that here.”
What’s the game plan this year? The folk/blues picker just dropped his 15th album, simply (and humorously) titled “Charlie Parr.” So he plans to spotlight songs from it most weeks. Next Sunday’s show will hew closely to the largely acoustic and rather classically Parr-style album. Look for more electric outings the last two weeks, with his drone/experimental unit Portal III even making an appearance Jan. 26.
Who are the openers? Sunday’s warm-up act, Todd Albright, is a 12-string guitar wiz from Detroit, so Parr plans to bring along his own 12-string. The Jan. 19 gig features Al Scorch, a punky banjo picker from Chicago who records for Bloodshot Records. And the Jan. 26 finale brings in Duluth’s own Ingeborg Von Agassiz, an experimental/electronic artist whom Parr called “one of Duluth’s best-kept secrets.”
How was Week 1? It started rather conventionally with just Parr and regular percussionist Mikkel Beckmen and a montage of songs highlighted by a cover of Turf Club regular Grant Hart’s “2541,” which is featured on the new album. But things soon got nutty. Four more musicians joined in, one by one, “who’ve never played together,” Parr proudly noted, including violinist Amanda Standalone and Pert Near Sandstone’s Adam Kiesling on banjo.
The results were at times surprisingly elegant (“Cheap Wine”) and unsurprisingly rowdy (“God Moves on the Water”). Then Parr encored with an a capella version of “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Bones” that heated up patrons’ hands and feet before they headed out into the cold.
THE CACTUS BLOSSOMS
Why the Turf Club?: After their year-round Monday gigs at the start of the 2010s, sibling singers Burkum and Torrey are now literally enshrined at the club. Their likenesses can be seen in a mosaic mural on the east side of the club. The Blossoms repaid that compliment this year with a limited-run T-shirt and sweatshirt featuring the old Turf Club facade with their name under it.
“They run a tighter ship now, but it still feels like the same, great old dive bar,” Burkum said of the Turf’s owners, First Avenue, which purchased the vintage dance hall in 2014 and subsequently renovated it.
What’s the game plan this year? The Blossoms were about to release their second studio album, “Easy Way,” during last year’s January residency, and Torrey admitted, “We got a little too caught up and focused on that.” So they’re out to have more fun in 2020. That includes throwing in some of the cover tunes that used to dot their weekly Turf gigs of old. Plus, they’re reworking some of their older originals with the band’s current four-guitar lineup featuring third brother Tyler Burkum and ubiquitous picker Jacob Hanson.
Burkum and Torrey joked that they are “working on working on” their next record, but they “may have a couple new tunes to try out by the end of the month.”
Who are the openers? Monday features fellow Minneapolitan retro-twanger Jack Klatt, whose rich new record for Yep Roc was recorded with some of the same Chicago crew that worked on the Blossoms’ latest album. The Jan. 20 show will feature ambient Eau Claire folkie Hemma, who has recorded with some of the Bon Iver camp. Then last but not least is Joel Paterson on Jan. 27. A vintage twang-guitar maestro, he recently played with their mutual pal JD McPherson at First Ave.
How was Week 1? The set underlined how tight and richly textured the expanded Blossoms lineup became around the release of “Easy Way.” That was especially evident during a rewired version of “Stoplight Kisses” from their first album, and the high-strung encore free-for-all “Change Your Ways or Die.”
There were plenty of looser moments, too, including the dug-up oldie “Happy Man on a Gloomy Day” and tossed-in covers of Dylan’s “Went to See the Gypsy” and John Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” the latter rendered beautifully with help from Barbara Jean and Molly Dean of opening band Dusty Heart. No doubt we can expect similar crossover appearances in coming weeks.