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Review and photos: Rock Bottom Remainders throw a book party for the ages, and pay tribute to Prince, at First Avenue

Stephen King performs with the Rock Bottom Remainders. (all photos by Emmet Kowler for MPR)

“This is a really bad idea,” said Stephen King, “especially considering that the band that first had a hit with this song came from Minnesota. Anyone remember the Trashmen?”

Some of us remembered the Trashmen playing “Surfin’ Bird” on that very stage in First Avenue’s Mainroom. King dropped his guitar and stepped forward for that number, hitting every “bird bird bird” and even the jowl-waggling resets — though he’d occasionally collapse back into the arms of his bandmate Dave Barry, feigning exhaustion a la James Brown.

After nearly half a century of live music, it might have seemed like First Ave had seen it all, but Stephen King singing “Stand By Me” was something new, a pop culture crossover the likes of which the Mainroom won’t see again unless, say, J.K. Rowling steps up to cover “I Put a Spell On You.”

There was no question that King was the night’s main attraction — his face adorned posters that had attendees of the sold-out show posing for photos while they waited to enter, and a scrum of desperate-looking readers clutching copies of It stalked the loading dock door — but only such an iconic author could be a standout in a band that also includes the likes of Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Mitch Albom, Mary Karr, and Roy Blount Jr.

The band are called the Rock Bottom Remainders, founded in 1992 as a brilliant folly by the late Kathi Kamen Goldmark. They’re basically a cover band (no pun intended), most likely to be found in proximity to book festivals like The Loft Literary Center’s Wordplay. Last night’s show at First Ave served as a kickoff party for the inaugural festival, which continues through tomorrow in downtown Minneapolis.

Why is it that when a movie star starts a band, the result tends to be stultifying, but when a bunch of authors play music together, it’s a blast? One reason is that the Rock Bottom Remainders (their name refers to book-industry jargon for volumes priced down due to poor sales) aren’t a vanity project. In fact, the project is pretty much the opposite, allowing writers to shed their literary trappings and cut loose like they’re at a karaoke bar.

Turow, author of bestselling legal thrillers like Presumed Innocent, donned a series of wigs and proved to have some of the band’s best pipes on numbers like Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” (“Yes, that is his real hair,” said Barry when Turow stepped forward in a blonde fop.) Tan pulled out her dominatrix garb to lead “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” literally whipping the asses of her bandmates. Blount, the band’s emcee, came out to help growl “Wild Thing.”

While no one expected the evening’s entertainment to rise to the venue’s usual standards for musical prowess, the Rock Bottom Remainders prove that just because you can write, that doesn’t mean you can’t shred a little bit too. Barry and his brother Sam are among the group’s ringers (one of Sam’s books, after all, is a harmonica primer), while Tuesdays with Morrie author Albom handled dual keyboards like a pro.

It was bestselling suspense author Ridley Pearson, though, who ended the suspense regarding whether the band would pay tribute to the man most famously associated with First Avenue. Sure enough, when the band emerged in purple feathered boas and hats for an encore, Pearson hit the falsetto opening lines of Prince’s “Kiss.” The crowd screamed its approval, and the band didn’t seem to want the encore to end either: they ran out of setlist, and rocked on with King singing “Susie Q.”

The Prince cover came as a surprise even to me, although I’d asked the band about it in an interview earlier in the day; I’d pointed out some stray purple feathers that were incongruously littering the group’s hotel suite floor. King just shrugged, pleading ignorance. Count on a good author to avoid spoilers.