“Hey man,” Steve Brantseg remembers saying to Curtiss A in the mid-1980s. “I know all those Beatles songs. If you’ve got space for another guitar player, I’d love to do it.”
Three and a half decades later, and 40 years since Curtiss A’s spontaneous original tribute concert on the day John Lennon died, Brantseg (also known as a member of bands including the Phones and the Suburbs) is still one of the friends the Minnesota music legend gets by “with a little help from” on First Avenue’s stage each year.
“Every year,” Brantseg explained over the phone last week, “Curt and I get together, usually on Halloween, and we discuss exactly what songs we want to do. I sort of became his musical director.”
The tribute’s tightened up over the decades, said Brantseg, “especially since about 1991 or ’92, when we put together our core band called the Jerks of Fate — which, we have a brand new album out, by the way!”
Brantseg said he was pleased when “Yoko really, really gave her approval” for the tribute after journalist Jim Walsh arranged a conversation between Curtiss A and Lennon’s widow. “She’d heard about the show.”
The guitarist said he never tires of revisiting Lennon classics like “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which has “one of the greatest guitar parts ever written, I think.” Each year, Brantseg and Curtiss A work out a sequence and transitions that draw the crowd into the former Beatle’s art. “Sometimes,” said Brantseg, “It’s like the room just elevates.”
Lennon is of course one of the most widely beloved artists in rock history, but Brantseg thinks his songs also have a special resonance in Minnesota. “Here in the Twin Cities music scene, so many people were heavily influenced by the Beatles and by his solo work. All of us have the same story: we’re standing in front of the TV in 1964, pretending we’re the Beatles.”
While Brantseg won’t sell the “genius” Paul McCartney short, he said, “it’s definitely a Lennon town. Playing at First Avenue, also, has its own vibe. The combination of the Lennon music and the venue is just a swirl of this magical energy.”
With music venues still closed as the COVID-19 pandemic exacts a deadly toll in the Upper Midwest, this year’s show will be livestreamed from the Mainroom — not the first performance to be streamed from First Ave, but the first to be presented by the iconic venue.
“It obviously is going to have an entirely different dynamic without the live crowd there,” said Brantseg, “but really, when it comes down to it, the thing that moves us all so much is the music.” Under this year’s circumstances the show, traditionally a several-hour marathon, will be a relatively concise two-and-a-half hours, explained Brantseg.
“The fact that we’re still doing it,” he continued, “and that First Avenue made a point of making sure that this show happened…we’re just so honored to be their first livestreamed show. Obviously we will miss the live crowd and the interaction and all that energy, but the energy of the music just pours through us all.”
Brantseg said he expects at least one silver lining: fans from far beyond Minnesota, who otherwise couldn’t make it to Minneapolis for the show, will be able to join in online.
Some of Lennon’s timeless songs are particularly resonant this year, said the guitarist. “Isolation,” of course, but also “‘Power to the People’ comes to mind. ‘Imagine’ comes to mind…and I suppose ‘Revolution’ as well.”
The 41st Annual John Lennon Tribute featuring Curtiss A and friends will be streamed live from First Avenue at 7:30 p.m. CST on Tuesday, Dec. 8. For tickets and more information, see The Current’s Virtual Gig List.