Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Decade Of Aces: Part Two '05-'06

This is the second in a series of historical retrospectives on the Southside Aces, in celebration of their tenth anniversary

On February 8th, 2005 we went into the Times to celebrate our first release, All Aboard. How’s this for the musician’s compromise? We had decided it was appropriate enough for a band such as ours to hold a CD release on Mardi Gras, so there we were at the Times of a Tuesday night. At that time, Mardi Gras in these parts was a vague notion. People have to go to work on Wednesday; why would you go crazy on a Tuesday night? It’s kind of still that way, although I believe Mardi Gras awareness is improving. On account of this under-the-radar aspect of our nation’s greatest holiday (do I exaggerate?), places didn’t invest in the Tuesday night, preferring to bank on the weekend regardless of whether or not it was actually Fat Tuesday. Mardi means Tuesday, people!!! Ahem, excuse me. So this was what was offered to us: the Times would pay us, or put an ad in the City Pages and feed us. Not both. We chose the ad and food, perhaps because we were young and foolish. Or perhaps because we were hungry. I have a copy of that issue of the City Pages around here somewhere. I think the ad was about two inches wide by six inches high. We like to tell ourselves that at least three people were at the Times that night because of the ad. We did have a lot of friends, though. So we had a great time, with dancers, drinkers, and a second-line parade around the bar. In the end, we were able to maintain our Mardi Gras Certification because of that party, so it was all worth it.

Here's a never seen before picture from the photo session for our All Aboard cover:

2005 gave us a diverse work. Besides appearing at the Times once in awhile, there were these memorable moments:

—Pregame for the St. Paul Saints
—Kelly Doran announced his candidacy for governor at one of his construction sites on a blustery June day. The Aces enlivened things from a small, rickety stage. At some point, the wind grabbed hold of one of Dave’s cymbals, but fortunately this only created startling noise, not tragic decapitation.
—Father’s Day of that year brought us out to the Hopkins Hot Summer Jazz Festival. This marked the first time that our mentors heard the band. The Aces were sandwiched between the Mouldy Figs and the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band. Erik and Robert figured out a way to have their chord book explode, so I have this memory of calling tunes and looking over my shoulder to watch them fish around in a pile of music at their feet!
—Peavey Plaza shows, where I seem to recall a lot of moms and strollers full of kids. A deliberate ambiguity on my part—some of the moms, too, were full of kid(s).
—Mears Park downtown St. Paul, where our audience consisted mostly of the park’s resident vagrants
—Wedding Incidents
—the one where an iron arbor fell on Dave and Robert’s head, producing a  giant goose egg on Robert’s dome, but, if you can believe it, not causing either of them to miss a single beat. They began to brag that Robert’s bump was so big it was “eggs and bacon.” Or maybe it was that his injury looked like a strip of bacon. By the end of the show, Dave kept asking Robert, “How’s your bacon?”
—the one where the wedding ceremony took place center ice at Mariucci Arena for a couple on skates. The band did a slow ice shuffle in our suits and street shoes out to a square of carpet to sit down and play the “Minnesota Rouser.” The ceremony was officiated by a man on skates, in referee stripes.

—our showcase at The Annex, a joint normally associated with punk and hard rock music. The Annex was in the basement at 528 Hennepin, across from Block E. We were the “headliner” of a three-band act. College-age kids in jeans and tees comprised the lineups of the first two bands playing, as well as the crowd. The first band was definitely influenced by the Beatles, and the other fashioned themselves a punk band, “Ramones wannabes,” Dave informed me. Then we walked up in our full suits. There were only about nine kids in the audience, but they were game, as was evidenced by the fact it was the first and probably only time I will ever see a group of the youth moshing to Jelly Roll Morton.

                                                      Did we really belong here?

And, of course, that fall Hurricane Katrina came to ground. On September 18th, just a few weeks later, the Aces were part of a double bill benefit at the Dakota with the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band. Special guest Kid Merv played with us. He and his wife just escaped New Orleans with their one-day old infant the day before the levees broke.

We ended 2005 by starting a monthly job at Club Underground. Another venue that was and still is primarily a home for punk rock. Located in the basement—a very prosaic name this club has—up on Spring Street in Nordeast Minneapolis. The owner, Peggy Dunnette, was influenced by parents who loved jazz. So she decided on an experiment to change it up once a week, rotating four traditional bands in on Sunday evenings. In addition to the jazz, they put candles on tables, and Peggy’s grade school-age daughters would conduct a meat raffle between sets. 
The Aces played for $55, beer and food. Oh, and the dancers. This eventually was reduced to $50, beer and half off food. After going in there in June of 2006, we were fired. The jazz experiment had failed, so they went back to purveying just one style of marginalized music, punk rock. The best thing to come out of that job was our lasting friendship with those dance floor wonders, Bill and Shannon Butler. 

Through roughly that same time period, we managed to get hired and fired at a St. Paul supper club called Mitch’s. We played our first show there on February 7th, and our last one in May. I recall a version of “Tiger Rag” along the way that raised the hair on the back of my neck. Or was that a premonition about getting the pink slip? We all felt like we weren’t given enough of a chance to build something. Despite that, Dave still has fond memories of the steak sandwich and the goulash. These days it’s called Bennett’s Chop and Railhouse, and I play there monthly with the Bill Evans band.

That was pretty much our schedule for the first half of 2006. Monthly appearances at Club Underground, Mitch’s and the Nomad, with a show at the Times thrown in for good measure. A much more significant event, however, happened in May. On the nights of the 9th and 10th, we went into Patrick’s Cabaret next to the 3rd Precinct on Minnehaha Avenue to record our second album. Matthew Zimmerman recorded us “live” without an audience. We were set up in our standard two lines in the cabaret. When you look at the picture, imagine us near the window facing you. 

Matthew had to fashion a sound booth out of the outer hallway, not pictured. He couldn’t actually see us at all; we communicated through headphones. The project was funded by Dave Michael Is Foolish Enough To Lend His Bandmates Money Enterprises. Standout memories: We were nervous, having difficulty loosening up. We procured a bottle of Old Heaven Hill from Minnehaha Liquors across the street. Maybe a jazz band shouldn’t record directly across from a liquor store, I’m not sure. Maybe they always should. We have distinct memories of putting the bottle on a stool next to the band along with a lamp to give it a homey feel. We took to calling the stool/lamp/whiskey setup “Grandma’s Nightstand.” Even with some consulting of Grandma’s Nightstand, things weren’t going smoothly. Whiskey may have lit us up, but it didn’t light the way! After an anxious scratched take on some song or another, we sat in our chairs making exasperated, despairing sounds. Then, out of nowhere, Erik called an audible! He shouted, “Alright, guys! ‘St. Phillip Street Breakdown!’ One, two three…” You can hear him on the recording counting it off. Matthew told us later he had to lunge for the record button, almost missing the beginning of the tune. But he got it! It’s one of my favorite Aces recordings, despite a couple of rough edges, because of the spontaneous, shake-off-the-nerves nature of the moment. We didn’t completely get over ourselves after that, but the evening definitely improved.

Dave brought eight different snare drums to change between songs. You’ll have to ask him about that. Dave also split his pants one of those nights. Probably all that bending over to change snares. Speaking of pants, Henry Blackburn came in there with his alto on the second night and kicked the Aces in the collective seat of ours. I am not exaggerating too much to say he saved the recording. He is fantastic on our cuts of “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” and “Four Or Five Times.” He brought sweet melodies, fire, and swing. Through his playing he reminded us that we weren’t doing surgery, so we should just relax, have a good time and swing hard. 

The rest of 2006 brought some great times. There was the famous “June Blizzard Job.” June 10th found us down in southern Minnesota for the Windom Riverfest. It had all the shenanigans a town festival could muster. Scott Anderson played sousaphone for us on that one. Our duties were to be twofold: first, play on an outdoor stage in the middle of town square, secondly on a flatbed truck in the parade that would wind around said square. As soon as we started to play on the outdoor stage, however, the snow came down! Big, wet, June snowflakes. Fortunately, the stage had an eave that protected us, so we were able to play on, but there was no way we could fulfill our agreement to play uncovered for the parade. 

                                                  Windom on a normal summer day

During break, Dave went to a local video store in the town square that was having a close-out sale and bought a batch of horror movies. Like a guy does on his break. We finished our last set and packed up quick to get out of there before the parade started, which would pin us in the middle of the town square. Dave’s drums take longer, so he and Scott, who was riding with him, actually did get caught. Dave was desperate. He had already bought as many horror movies as he needed, and he wanted to get out of there. So he just eased his truck right into the parade! He and Scott were waving and smiling to the crowd as his truck slowly made it’s way around a portion of the square. Then it was time to make his escape. He jumped a few curbs, and soon they were on Highway 71 out of town. The rumors about him accidentally dragging the Miss Riverfest float for six blocks are entirely unfounded.

July saw us in Albert Lea for the Doc Evans jazz fest, and at the Plymouth Music Series in front of thousands of people. The end of the month was one of my favorite jobs ever. The guys came out to the Loring Playhouse and not only played, but were groomsmen at my wedding. 

Robert and Zack help me figure out my bowtie. 
Note Zack's left hand holding the instructions.

Before the ceremony, the guys and I were staring at this huge pipe sticking out of the wall. In my memory it was as large as one of those ship vents you see in movies with stowaways. We were wondering what it did for the building. Steve laid us low with this one: “It’s not too late, Tony. If you slide down that pipe, I have a horse waiting for you at the bottom which will take you to the river where you’ll find a change of clothes and you’ll be able to get away on a barge.” The Aces switched sets with the Bill Evans Band throughout the night. One of my favorite all-time memories of my life happened just after I’d seen my mom to her ride. I walked back into the building, and stood alone for a few minutes at the bottom of the long stairway that led up to the theater. The party was still going on, and the Bill Evans band was in full swing. The jazz floated down those stairs blending with echoes of itself. I don’t recall the song, but it was a sweet, medium-tempo melody. I stood there in my loosened tux leaning on the bottom newel post marveling at my life. The cover photo for A Big Fine Thing came out of that night, but here’s one of all the men in loosened tuxes:

In September, we released our second album, Bucktown Bounce. A wonderful night back at Patrick’s Cabaret, where we recorded it, and two shows the next day at the Times. We actually sold enough CDs to pay Dave back, so maybe there is money to be made in the traditional jazz recording business! Tony, wake up! Tony?! Wake up!!

We played at the Varsity for Midwest Lindyfest where the setup allowed for some of the audience to actually sit on a red velour sofa behind the band; a wedding at the Walker where Zack inserted a bit of the melody to the “Chicken Dance” into his “Stardust” solo, after I told him I refuse to have the band do the “Chicken Dance” at weddings; and hosted a huge, three-band Thanksgiving Extravaganza back at Patrick’s Cabaret, with the Twin Cities Hot Club and the Brass Messengers.

It was a good year. But it ended on a melancholy note. Zack wanted to be in a band that could actually give him enough work to be a working musician. And so far, even through to today, nobody should quit a day job solely on the promise of Southside Aces income! So Zack put most of his eggs in Davina and the Vagabonds’ basket, giving his notice to us. We had a last throw-down at the Times in December. This was the time when Tom Surowicz extolled the “big, delicious sound of the sousaphone” in the paper. That garnered Erik one of his many nicknames, Big Delicious.

But back to the melancholy. There we were before the show, standing on the stage kind of uncomfortable, not saying anything. A bunch of men. Zack, Dave, Steve and I were waiting for Erik and Robert. Robert had just arrived when Zack folded up his phone and said, “That was…you know, the Big Man, the one who sits here.” He pointed at the chair where Erik would sit. I cracked up a little and said, “He’s not even done with his last show, and he’s already forgetting our names.” We all laughed. We didn’t bust a gut or anything, but at least the ice was broken, and we could settle into a good time.

Do you remember my reference to the drink called The Haymaker from A Decade Of Aces, Part One? Well this was the night. The melancholy turned a little wild and farcical, with some hot jazz thrown in. The bar actually set records for sales of The Haymaker. One patron, herself very drunk on the concoction, showed up to the stage with a tray of them for the band. “So!” she barked, “See that table over there?” She swung her arm in a dangerous, karate chop arc, her body following a second later. “Thaz the Hudzon Map Company! Every one of ‘em! They bought the drinks!” She stared at her table for a few seconds before turning her body back to face us. “Wethinki’s fair…thatchoo…PLAY a song!” she slur/bellowed. She requested “Limehouse Blues.” I had to give her the bad news that we didn’t have that one in the repertoire. “Fuck off!!” she yelled, but in a nice way, I want to hasten to add. She and her friends were having a great time, she was really friendly and garrulous, and under more sober circumstances she might have only said, “Really?” At any rate, she was not to be deterred. “Wait a minute,” she says, holding up her finger. She swerved to her table, and in a couple minutes right back to us, clambering up on the stage, somehow stepping into the middle of the sousaphone without breaking anything. Our alcoholically ataxic newfound friend encircled by the big brass bass. “Alright. You HAVE to know ‘Sweet Georgia Brown!’” I tell her we’d do it. Robert, standing there, mischievously asked, “So we dedicate this song to the Rand McNally Map Company?” She pointed at us with a fiery look in her eyes, “Watch it!” she warned. But she belied her intimidation with a big, happy grin. She very gingerly stepped back out of the sousaphone and back to her table. I was impressed, given her condition, by the adroitness with which she completed this maneuver. So the Southside Aces ended 2006, and Zack’s first run with us, by playing “Sweet Georgia Brown” for the Hudson Map Company.

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