This is the Fourth in a series of historical retrospectives on the Southside Aces, in celebration of their tenth anniversary.
Early in January of 2008, we went into the Ritz Theater up near 13th and University for the first annual Best of Midwest Burlesk, or “B.O.M.B.,” as it is affectionately called. Our friends at Lili’s Burlesque Revue produced this show, bringing in performers from all around the region. This would be the first of a five-year run for the festival, all five of which we served as house band. We always had the best seats in the house, set up as we were on stage left. That first year, we strode out and started the whole shebang playing “Back To Black” by Amy Winehouse. It set the tone for a great night. This was a show that was very much vaudevillian in it’s variety. This first year brought to the stage a juggler, a tap dancer, another doing bullwhip stunts, and yet another named Ned The Magnificent who performed acrobatics on a two-wheel dolly. The Meteor Boys were a pair of singers who accompanied themselves on ukuleles. Karen Vieno Paurus was Lili’s official chanteuse, bringing her vocal talents into the fray. All of us brought together by the hostess and M.C. nonpareil, Nadine Dubois. Then, of course, there were the dancers.
Best Seats In The House (the rest of the band is tucked around the curtain)
I love burlesque. Before you start accusing me of being the hound dog that I am, let me explain. It’s not merely disrobing that makes for good burlesque. Anyone can take off his or her clothes. I do nearly every time I take a shower. The best in my view combine deep senses of humor and a real cleverness on the Path to Pasties. They tell a story. And some, I believe, can achieve high art. I actually believe that with a straight face. I don’t have the space here to give the play by play on all the performers from that year, so I will confine myself to the headliner, Chicago’s own “Michelle L’amour.”
After her introduction, an orchestral version of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” began. She appeared adorned in a huge pair of white-feathered wings. The Debussy combined with her ballet gracefulness and gorgeous form made for a truly beautiful moment. We were astounded, and our jaws dropped. Afterwards backstage, her manager/assistant/boyfriend smiled at me and commented, “It looked as though the band really enjoyed her performance.” I said, “Yes. If she had come any closer with those wings, we would have all had feathers in our mouths.”
Click on this link to see ninety seconds of the best clips of that year. Remember, this will be slightly naughty, just so you know!
In January we continued our appearances at the Nomad World Pub, Chateau Lamothe, and Ferdinand’s Jazz Palace. February brought us out to St. Croix Casino to perform at a Mardi Gras party for the slot-zombies. We had a good show at the Times on the 16th on the night after being fired from Chateau Lamothe. No story there, we just couldn’t make a go of it south of the river, so Doris and we said goodbye. We flew out to Denver on Leap Year to play the Rocky Mountain Balboa Blowout. We’re a territory band! That’s the one when Steve threatened to get a tramp stamp tattoo that read “Balboa Blowout ’08.” For some reason, it’s the fact that he would put the year in the tattoo that made me laugh the hardest. On April Fools Day, we played a house party in a kitchen with all the walls torn out for remodeling after a three-story flooding. We were warned to not go too close to the wiring. I missed the April Nomad, being down in New Orleans and all, but got back home in time to make it to the Times on April 18th. Some goings on from that night:
Steve had lost his plunger mute, so he was working with a mixed nuts can instead. Between songs, I butted in on the mic, commenting to the crowd about how good music could be made from roasted nuts. Erik continued, “Speaking of roasted nuts, we’re going to have Robert sing this next one. It’s a sweet, sweet song.” Robert’s rendering of “Sweet Sue” is a fine thing. Erik went on, “His voice is like cream mixed with vanilla mixed with butterscotch. It’s like having your Lucky Charms on top of your Trix!”
A week later we played with the Edina High School Jazz Ensemble I for a Twin Cities Jazz Society concert. The next day we played a benefit for a Montessori school. The woman who hired us hailed from Dallas, and was very familiar with Louisiana music. It’s nice when the people who hire you understand what you do. Lisa Ann, who introduced herself and said, “Two names, just like everyone from Texas,” was proud of her ability to throw a party. She told us about the meeting she had to decide upon music. “I suggested zydeco, but the rest of them didn’t even know what that meant. So I said, ‘How ‘bout Dixieland?’ and they at least recognized that word.”
In June another appearance at the Times; we sure did like playing there! In July a trio of Aces were hired for a backyard party. Sort of an odd trio. The people wanted clarinet and brass, but only wanted three. Erik couldn’t make it, so Steve moved over to the sousaphone chair, and I hired Scott Moriarity to play trombone. Scott is a fantastic trombonist with a career as a lawyer. During the party that night, I heard one of the most mysterious sentences I’ve ever heard. To this day, I’ve not received an explanation. While on break, Steve set his sousaphone down. We stood around it drinking our beers and a woman walked up to take our pictures. The photographer paused for a few seconds, looking down at the coils of brass contrasting with the green grass, and said, “A lot of lesbians like sousaphones.”
Later, Scott said to me, “I don’t know why, but I wanted to call it a euphonium for some reason.” Sticking to the non sequitur theme of the evening, I said, “It’s because you’re a lawyer.”
After working on it for a month or so, Andy finally produced what became a pretty glorious handlebar mustache. It was out at the Twin Cities Balboa Fest held at the Mermaid that we finally began tossing around nicknames for him. My two favorites were Claudia’s contribution, “The Roughrider,” after Teddy Roosevelt, and the baseball connection, “Rollie Fingers,” after the famous Oakland A’s and Milwaukee Brewers pitcher. Hakala is a Finnish name, so I once introduced him off the stage at the Nomad as, “Rollie Fingers on trumpet, from the Finnish side of the Fingers family.” Fingers Hakala!
Look at this great picture of Andy in the Aces by photographer Ben Hejkal then one of a Rollie Fingers card. Heh? See what I mean?
This brings up the subject of band nicknames. Early on, Erik began introducing me as “the secret weapon of the band, Tony Balluff.” Eventually it was shortened to, “and the Secret Weapon on clarinet.” The origin of such a dramatic-sounding nickname, and the name of this blog, may disappoint in terms of dramatic content. It just kept happening that someone would suggest we put such and such song in the repertoire, and I would respond, “Oh. I have sheet music for that.” Or, “I have that recording.” Or I would know some jazz history fact when someone had a jazz history question. It so happens I’m a fairly decent jazz nerd, with potential for growth. Anyway, this occurred enough times in a row that Erik said in a rehearsal once, “You’re like our secret weapon!” So there. Mystery revealed. The only drama that happened around the name was during one of our earliest appearances at the Times. This was when the stage was still facing the river instead of Hennepin Avenue. It was last song of the night, and up to that point I may have imbibed one or three whiskeys. Erik had the effrontery to merely introduce me as, “Tony Balluff on clarinet.” I whirled on him and shouted, “I’s Secret Weapon!!” Fermented beverages sure can wreak havoc on a fella’s grammar.
For reasons we won’t get into, Zack was briefly called “The Reprobate.” I guess because every band has to have at least one. Erik often introduces Steve as, “Psycho Stevie, the Prince Of East Lake Street.” Steve is neither psycho nor a prince, but he does live on East Lake. Dave has always been called “The Moral Compass.” I guess because every band has to have at least one. We like to say Robert is “Mr. Class,” because if you took all the gigs we’ve been on together over the past decade, he probably has all of us beat by twenty or thirty percentage points in how often he wore a suit to the job. Erik has been called “Big Man” on account of his height, and “Big Delicious,” from the previously mentioned Tom Surowicz paragraph on the band. He also once gained the moniker, “The Swedish Mink” due to a mix of his heritage and an incident with a family heirloom. A couple of years ago he impressed a New Orleanian stranger with his dancing at the Maple Leaf, and the guy said something like, “Nice moves, Sweet Shoes.”
And you wondered why we called him “The Reprobate.”
Erik brought farmers market corn on the cob to the August Nomad. At one point he walked around the patio calling out, “Toothpicks! One dollar! The corn is free, but Southside Aces toothpicks are a dollar!” An African man who spoke with a Zimbabwe accent sat at a table by himself that day repeating the phrase, “Drink like a fish!” Even when I shook his hand and introduced myself, all he would say is, “Drink like a fish!” Whether it was advice, a mantra or commentary, I never was able to find out.
On September 20th, we went back to Omaha for our first Cowtown Jamborama. I love going to Omaha (see my story about the Naughty Lounge from A Decade Of Aces: Part Three). Nate Woodhams is a swell host. The Jamborama is a weekend that includes a man in a cow costume and a corn-eating contest. Bill Butler got himself involved with both one year. It led to a trip to the E.R., but I'll let him tell you whether it was the costume or the corn. A great time was had, both in the Eagles, Aerie #18 and the after hours joint, Studio 906, where we played until around four in the morning! That’s a lot of numbers in one sentence! This art gallery used to be an auto garage of some sort, and there were a lot of art cars in the driveway. My favorite car out there, however, was the ’49 Packard hearse that had a built-in 78 player in the glove box, complete with a record of “Old Rugged Cross.” One last memory from that night was when, during the last set, I leaned forward in the middle of a song to hand a solo off to Steve, but he was asleep in his chair! I don’t know why he had such low energy after six hours of travel and six hours of playing.
The October Nomad was one of those rare times when it exceeded the ideal of what it was supposed to be. Preservation Hall was in town, and Henry Blackburn managed to convince a couple of them to come over and play with us after their show at Orchestra Hall. Erik introduced our show by saying, “Please help yourself to what Claudia calls ‘The Pasta.’ Now, we’re going to play what we call ‘The Jazz.’” Ben Jaffe played some sousaphone, and Mark Braud some trumpet. I remember Mark killing us with his version of “Bogalusa Strut.” When they were done, our locals stepped up. Among others, a tenor man, Sam Brooks, stepped up on stage with us after saying, “Don’t you guys laugh at me; I only play rock and funk.” But he wailed away on our brass band stuff. Local crooner Randall Throckmorton sweetened the hot on “Stardust.” Mike Mello also played some sousaphone that day, and a drummer named Batumé lent a nice shuffle beat to a few tunes. Good pasta, good jam.
Our November Nomad was significant not for Erik bringing brats without buns (he left during set break to forage for some), but for two pairs of reasons. A couple of newer barkeeps at the Nomad really loved what we were doing. Bill’s father played trombone, and Rashad actually hailed from New Orleans. He said we made him homesick. Now that’s a compliment! Speaking of Bills, Bill Butler and his dad, Dan, both had birthdays to celebrate. We forced beer bottle solos on the two of them. Well, not on Bill. He’ll do anything. But his dad took some convincing. Birthdays and homesickness. The Aces do our best.
Who’s that happy band against the Nomad patio wall?
Church basements are used for a wide spectrum of functions. At least that's the excuse Zack offered! In December we played for a funeral, with Zack subbing back in for Andy. In the program we were listed as “Southside Acres.” That sounds like a band that would play for funerals. The son of the deceased apologized afterwards as we stood downstairs in the middle of the luncheon. We waved it off, of course, and Erik said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Zack watched the son walk away until he was out of earshot, shook his head and said, “I’m such an idiot! I was this close,” gesturing with the traditional thumb and index finger an inch apart, “to saying ‘Congratulations!’”
The Nomad is truly the source of some of the best quotes in our history. Something about the West Bank can bring it out in people. While there in December, two great friends of the band provided us with this little bit of history. After we played “White Christmas,” Mary told me later, “That was the best version I’ve ever heard! It was sweet and melancholy. It had some pain in it. It belonged in a place like this. It was like you were playing it for a cross between Holiday Inn and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Wow. I also was able to collect this nugget. Chuck emerged from the men’s room and exclaimed, “I love this place! You get to pee on bar ice!” At the Nomad, the men’s room is equipped with a porcelain trough about four feet long that’s usually filled with ice. “I want one of those at home!” he finished. I advised, for the sake of his marriage, against any hasty remodeling.
Before the end of the year, the Aces managed to squeeze in one more first. On December 22nd, we played at Famous Dave’s in Uptown for the Monday Dance. We play there to this day, although we took a break through most of 2012. This is once again a job we got on referral from Bill and Shannon Butler. I guess we’re going to have to put them on retainer one of these decades.