The premise for Sunday night’s Kill Kancer benefit was certainly an emotional one — to pay tribute to Soul Asylum bassist Karl Mueller on the seventh anniversary of his death, while raising money for cancer research — but the execution was hardly somber. Instead, influential musicians from every corner of Mueller’s life turned out to crank up their amps and fill the Cedar with some of the loudest rock ‘n’ roll the venue’s ever seen.
Admittedly, I missed what was likely the quietest part of the evening, as Jordan Gatesmith performed a set of Howler songs solo with only a single electric guitar as his accompaniment. And I definitely walked in during the most hushed moment of the evening, as a doctor who cared for Mueller as he battled throat cancer shed some light on the University of Minnesota’s cancer research foundation, which would be receiving the proceeds from the event.
But after that brief interlude it was nothing but squalling feedback and brave smiles from all the musicians on stage.
The Magnolias tested the strength of the Cedar’s PA with a lengthy, satisfying set, mixing songs off their latest full-length, Pop the Lock, with songs dating back to their days on the Twin/Tone label in the late ’80s and early ’90s. One song with the repeated line “Can’t bring back yesterday” seemed especially poignant, while new songs like “At a Disadvantage” and “Kissing the Ground You’re On” could have just as easily been B-sides from their earlier albums. The Magnolias have remained dedicated to their sound and aesthetic for almost three decades, and people in the audience were quick to point out that frontman John Freeman looks pretty much the same, too. “He’s like Gumby,” writer Jim Walsh joked. “We all change and he stays exactly the same.”
After the Magnolias, one of the night’s big surprises was unveiled: a rare performance by short-lived “super group” the O’Jeez.
“I’d like to thank Karl Mueller for having us here tonight,” Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner said, sitting down behind a drum kit. “None of us would be here if it wasn’t for Karl.”
The O’Jeez also included Jessy Greene, who traded in her violin for a fantastic American flag-emblazoned electric guitar, and Kraig Johnson on bass. Each member of the trio is a talented songwriter and performer in their own right, so it was no surprise that their impromptu set was enjoyable, even in its roughest moments. Greene’s guitar let out a lengthy wail of feedback and the band seemed unsure of who should sing which vocal lead, but they managed to keep it together and smooth over any bumps with giant, Taylor Swift-level smiles of surprise and awe. After all, it’d been almost 15 years since they had performed together actively, and even then they performed sporadically.
After a break that allowed stage hands to fill the stage with microphones, keyboards, and guitars from end to end, Pirner re-emerged with Soul Asylum guitarist Danny Murphy for a brief duo set. Pirner debuted a very sweet, simple song in memory of Mueller that featured the repeated line, “Oh Karl, the last time I saw you I thought you were better,” and the pair followed it up with early Soul Asylum song “Never Really Been.”
Pirner stayed on stage while the rest of Golden Smog filed out and led the band through “Lonesome Day,” then retreated back into the wings to watch the rest of the set unfold. Sunday night’s arrangement of the ever-evolving Golden Smog included Jayhawks Gary Louris, Marc Perlman, and Tim O’Reagan; Run Westy Run guitarist Kraig Johnson; Soul Asylum’s Danny Murphy; The Suburbs’ Chan Poling; violinist Jessy Greene; and special guest vocalist Janey Winterbauer, who ended up being one of the night’s standout performers.
It was Winterbauer who led the band through one of the set’s many high points, a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” and who added well-placed feminine harmonies to many of the band’s more raucous sing-alongs. The band did an especially fine job showcasing each of its talented singers, and at one point the set took on a round-robin feel, with everyone getting a turn at the mic to sing either a Golden Smog original or a well-oiled cover.
The fact that there were so many players on stage (and, likely, so few hours of rehearsal before the show) made for plenty of funny interactions. At one point, Murphy tried to introduce Chan Poling and invite him to take the lead, to which Poling stoically studied his notes and shook his head. “I’d like to follow the set list, Danny,” he said. “I’m kind of a stickler like that.” At another, the band completely fell apart while battling some sound challenges and had to start over, causing Louris to remark, “This is classic Golden Smog right here.” That it happened during “You Make It Easy” made it all the more amusing.
But the appeal of Golden Smog’s shows has always been rooted in uncertainty and spontaneity; one moment, the band is coming apart at the seams, and just a few minutes later they are exploding to life in one unified wave of sound.
As a Jayhawks fan, some of my favorite moments were when Louris took the lead, especially on a cover of Badfinger’s “Without You,” made famous by Harry Nilsson. Tim O’Reagan also shined on John Cale’s “Big White Cloud,” and Poling provided another tender moment with a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
“I know I’m just a back-up keyboard player tonight, but I have a vested interest in the cause,” Poling said, no doubt in reference to the fact he lost his wife, Eleanor Mondale Poling, to brain cancer just last fall. “Thank you for being here.”
Toward the end of the set the band invited Jim Boquist on stage to bang away at another piano on stage, and the sprawling group was firing on all cylinders for set-closer “Until You Came Along.”
By the time they returned for an encore the band had nestled into an unstoppable groove, and both a cover of Love’s “Signed D.C.” and Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues” were unfurled with great intention and wild aplomb.
What a great night, and a fitting tribute to an irreplaceable figure in Minnesota rock music.