When I picked up What’s Left of Spider John, a brand-new Spider John Koerner album (available as a download or as an import CD from fledgling UK folk label Hornbeam Recordings), the first thing I noticed was a track title new to me. Among the traditional folk standards and the original “made-up” tunes Koerner has been mining since a couple of decades before the end of the last century, there it was, staring at me from the back of the faux-letterpressed case: “God’s Penny.”
I dropped my 20 bucks without a thought.
The joke was on me. “God’s Penny” isn’t a song old or new. It’s one of those cornball groaners Koerner often chuckles through as he switches out harmonicas or tunes his guitar during performances, the kind of folksy-witticism-with-a-moral-at-the-end I imagine Garrison Keillor dreams of writing. “God’s Penny” wasn’t even all that funny the first time, but I have yet to skip it, however many times I’ve listened to What’s Left by now. There’s a Zen koan quality to it, heightened by Koerner’s wry, even drier than usual, delivery.
Accompanied on perfectly spare fiddle, bones and barroom piano by Chip Taylor Smith, Koerner’s latest recordings of “The Leather Winged Bat,” “Ezekiel,” “Good Time Charlie” and “Last Lonesome Blues” remind us that there’s still plenty left to discover inside his syncopated guitar playing and shout-singing — and that Koerner’s still doing his share of that discovering. Earlier this year he confessed to the BBC that he’s tired of playing, but to my ears he sounds more engaged here than he has on any studio session since the 1960s folk revival heyday of Koerner, Ray and Glover.
To hear him revisit “Rattlesnake” (a trickster tale of a field holler that Duluth traditionalist Charlie Parr included as a tribute on his recent album, Barnswallow) is to appreciate those crazy-wisdom Zen masters infamous for pranking their minions toward enlightenment.
At the very least, Koerner is Minnesota’s last, best holy fool still out there carrying on our nation’s songster folk tradition. That it still sounds like he’s “carrying on” when he picks up his 12-string is laudable, too. In his mid-70s he remains as vital and relevant as his Dinkytown protege from more than half a century ago, Bob Dylan. (Maybe you’ve heard of him.) What’s Left’s spirited new take on Koerner’s own stream-of-conscious rhymefest “Running, Jumping, Standing Still” might even have convinced me, at long last, that Spider John does, indeed, represent a “major threat to the jet set,” more than 40 years since he first wrote and recorded the tune with buddy (and renowned category-defying bandleader) Willie Murphy.
That’s valuable information to have, too. Because daily economic news reports to the contrary, the well-heeled still lurk among us — and they’re ready to bargain for all they don’t already own, including the soul(s) of the Metro area art scene. These greedy devils were last seen in the Twin Cities last month, during Art-a-Whirl weekend. Or so I assume, given the many Art-a-Whirling artists that seemed to be on the lookout for them. Ready to deal, too.
How else am I supposed to make sense of some of the prices I saw? I should probably be embarrassed to say so, but I didn’t and still don’t get it. Artists of all ages and ability levels apparently have arrived at the same singular conclusion: Pricing will be what establishes them as professionals. Materials, time, toil and/or what the Northeast Minneapolis art market can bear might have figured into artists’ economic equations, but I didn’t see much evidence of that. Instead, what I saw in more than a handful of the studios I stepped into looked like grand displays of unrealistic hope and/or unfortunate hubris.
Something I never saw during Art-a-Whirl: a single moneyed collector carrying anything that looked like four- or five-figure art out into the drizzle.
After wandering from building to building, squeezing into steep, claustrophobic stairwells crowded with herds of shoppers and gawkers and huggers unaware that their cheery reunions were screeching the precision-tuned workings of our Metro area art scene to a halt, I found myself craving a beer to wash down all the salts and sweets I’d been taking in. Fortunately, my girlfriend and I stumbled upon Indeed Brewing Company’s taproom just in time. Our beers hit the spot, but what I appreciated even more, enough to pocket a coaster featuring it in miniature, was the vivid label art for Indeed’s Midnight Ryder black ale.
Created for Indeed by Minneapolis-based illustrator/designer Chuck U, the Midnight Ryder label caught my eye and captured my imagination even before my beer arrived. How could it not? Its scene implies a fantastic novel of a story. (And if anybody at the upstart brewery happens to be reading this: Even the cheapest digital banner ad campaign would cost you more than the price of the cardboard marketing prop I filched. Consider this free plug my plea for forgiveness.)
Which reminds me: Posters of the Midnight Ryder label can be purchased at Indeed’s web store — along with other merch featuring Indeed branding, created by Minneapolis commercial art studio Aesthetic Apparatus. Chuck U also offers an enormous array of prints for sale via his Etsy shop.
Nothing available from these sites will set you back four or five figures, and you will have to put out your own snack trays, but it will still feel great to support local artists earning their living from their work.