Played with Michael Morris and Band tonight

Just got home from a fun and reinvigorating night of performing at Minneapolis' legendary 400 Bar. This evening I sat in as a guest musician with Michael Morris and his band. They're doing a month-long residency at the 400 Bar playing every Tuesday, and tonight was the first show of the series.
I've only known Michael for a few months, but I feel really supportive in him and his excellent music. We met at church, of all places...I was sitting in with the church bluegrass band one Sunday and we played Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," and Michael came up to talk to us after the service. Turns out we have a lot of stuff in common: proud Midwesterners, spent time as Lutheran youth group leaders, attended ELCA colleges, did brief stints in the Pacific Northwest, returned to the Midwest to settle in Minneapolis. In other ways, though, our experiences are VERY different: he didn't start playing guitar or writing songs until relatively late his young adult life. His songwriting has emerged fully-formed and mature...he didn't have to "grow into" his role as songwriter. His career, too, is really rocketing. He's only been doing his music for a year or two, but he's already generating a lot of interest in the local scene, and he's getting AMAZING gigs, like opening for Soul Asylum at First Avenue, and headlining a residency at the 400 Bar, etc. It's really exciting to watch somebody so new at this stuff come flying out of the gate and really catching a nice wave. (How's that for mixed metaphors?) He's getting opportunities that it took me over a decade to get (and some I haven't reached myself).

Michael has surrounded himself with really talented people from the start, and I had a BLAST playing along with his band tonight. It was a big group, Michael singing and playing acoustic guitar, backed by piano, mandolin, pedal steel, drums, and bass. I was in side-man heaven, switching between harmonica, melodica (just like Eric Bazilian!), and my Grandpa's vintage accordion. The last time I played a show like this was WAY back in 2002 at Schuba's in Chicago, during the Beki Hemingway CD release party for her album "Words for Loss for Words." I loved being in the Beki band 'cause I didn't have to talk, or organize anyone, or be in charge...I just enjoyed the great songs and switched around on whatever instruments were needed. That's what tonight was like...step up to the mic, rock out to the chorus, sneak away, sneak back in and play little riffs during the verse, trade solos with the pedal steel player, etc. I LOVE this kind of role in a band, and I'm so glad I got invited to do it tonight. I'll be sitting in with them next Tuesday as well....stop by to hear us if you live in the Twin Cities!

Aside from the obvious fun of playing in a good band, I must say that Michael has some seriously great songs to draw from. Super melodic, classic-sounding changes, but fresh and original too. Very heartfelt and personal lyrics, but delivered with a really credible earnest-ness. Michael is often grouped with bands like Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, etc....I don't know, is that "emo?" Maybe it's emo. Whatever it is, it's personal and emotional, but not cheesy or pretentious or whatever. And like I said, the songs have a vibe like they've been around for 40 years or something....a timeless quality. I kept thinking of old Dylan songs like "Don't think twice, it's alright." It'll be fun to see the impact Michael Morris makes on the local/national music scene once he gets a full-length album recorded (there's a 2-song CD single available already, if you're interested).

I had a weird flash back to the start of my music-life tonight. After we soundchecked at the 400 Bar I drove to the Northern 'burbs to do a little Christmas shopping. For dinner I went by myself to Chipotle, the newish-quick-casual Mexican place. As I sat there eating a burrito, I reflected on how many times I'd driven in that Chipotle parking lot...although it was before Chipotle was there. Back in 1989 when I was 18 I started my life as a performer, volunteering for a couple of years as a singer/instrumentalist in traveling bands sponsored by Lutheran Youth Encounter (LYE). The LYE offices were in an old office building on that same plot of land, and for two years my band(s) would pull into that parking lot in our touring van (or bus) to meet with our bookers and friends, pick up our mail, pick up new sound equipment, pick up tapes and Tshirts for sale at concerts, etc. Since I lived full-time in a van for those years, that parking lot was the closest thing I had to a home. A few years ago LYE moved their office over to St. Paul, and the old office building was torn down to make room for new upscale shops and restaurants, and BOOM, now it's a Chipotle, and a Wal-Mart, and an Applebees. So, way back 16 years ago I was driving around that spot on the globe, doing concerts (in churches) and playing my Grandpa's accordion. Now I'm 35 years old, with 2 kids, but still driving around that exact same spot on the globe and doing a concert (at the 400 Bar), playing the same accordion. Weird weird weird. Not "bad" weird. Just neutral weird. Although I have no regrets about my past, you couldn't pay me to go back to 1989!

One more thing: the opening act tonight was an 18-year-old singer/songwriter from Northern Minnesota who had just moved to Minneapolis. Her name is Caroline Smith, and she was one of the BEST songwriter/performers I've seen in a LONG time. Wow. Great voice, killer guitar playing, amazing riffs, wonderful lyrics, fabulous melodies. Imagine Juliana Hatfield, with a little Lisa Loeb, and a little Liz Phair. Sheesh, if she's this good at 18, imagine where she could go in the next decade (or more!). I want to play a show with her again sometime. Play on, Caroline. There is hope for the future of rock.

Thanks to Michael Morris and friends for including me on your awesome gig. We'll do it again in a week.


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