Last week the city of Atlanta was shut down by a two-inch snowstorm. Also last week, the Twin Cities shivered through a couple days of sub-zero temperatures, and just after the Atlanta storm heaved another six inches of snow off our walks. All in a winter’s work.
We’re tough folks up here in the Northstar State, and don’t let a soul tell you otherwise — Not only that but this has got to be the best place in the country to run a record store. There’s so much awesome music, both in our past and being made right now, that we wouldn’t even know where to start to introduce someone to it all.
We’re a state of innovators and creators — maybe it’s because we’re stuck inside all winter. Minnesota gave the country scotch tape, the stapler, and post-it notes — Also the toaster, the water ski, Spam and Bisquick. It was the University of Minnesota that performed the first open heart surgery and sent the first enlisted man to serve in the Second World War (Pfc. Milburn Henke of the 34th Infantry Division, who was photographed by the press landing in Dufferin Quay, Belfast, on January 26, 1942).
Private Henke was hardly our first of firsts or of lasts — in the winter of 1861, Minnesota, the newest state in the Union, was the first to offer troops to its defense. Throughout the Civil War, Minnesotans played an important role, no less than at the Battle of Gettysburg, where the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry saved the Union position at Cemetery Ridge, and perhaps with it the Union’s cause, with a courageous charge against a Confederate brigade nearly four times its size. After the war, Albert Woolson, the last surviving Union Army veteran, lived in Duluth until he passed on at the age of 109.
On a lighter note, Minnesotans have set a variety of goofy world records, from our famous twine ball, to the largest cheeseburger, to the largest gathering of zombies (recently lost to some fuckers in New Jersey) and of people with mustaches. Even though Longfellow’s Hiawatha and Minnehaha were fictional, we are surely a state filled with history and colorful characters
And today we want to share a record we’ve been really enjoying. It’s sort of chicken soup for the Minnesotan soul — something to make you feel a little proud of getting to work, or to school, or just to the mailbox on those cold days.
helmer aavik“Helmer Aakvik — The Old Man and the Inland Sea”
That’s the first track on Iced Over the new disc by Tree Party — the song’s eponymous hero was awarded the Carnegie Award for Heroism after surviving twenty-eight hours on a handmade wooden skiff during a rescue attempt. His neighbor, Carl Hammer, was lost in a November storm on Lake Superior in 1958, and Helmer set out to find him. He lost two toes to frostbite and never found his neighbor, but forever entered Lake Superior lore, finishing an egg sandwich and a pint of coffee before he could be taken to the hospital.
You can learn all about Helmer Aakvik and other true Minnesota legends on Iced Over — there’s even a map of the state that gives each story a setting, from our southern prairies all to the northern border where we meet Dorothy Molter, the “Root Beer Lady” of the Boundary Waters.
We don’t want to spoil the whole thing for you, so we’ll share just one more track. It’s the story of John Smith, or Gaa-binagwiiyaas. Most folks knew him as Wrinkle Meat, “the oldest man in the world,” who remembered the Leonid meteor shower of 1833 and walked the woods and prairies of Minnesota well over the age of 100 carrying a blanket for his bed. Hotels welcomed the beloved Chippewa Indian of Cass Lake without charge, but he still slept on the floor, for the beds were too soft.
wrinkle meat“Wrinkle Meat — The 137 Year Old Man”
For Tree Party the tale of Wrinkle Meat is a cool shuffle. Even with two great discs behind them, the band has never sounded so confident as when swaggering through the story of Minnesota’s oldest man. On Iced Over the quintet skates gracefully across genres as needed to fit the feel of each of the album’s characters, matching Wrinkle Meat’s grandeur as perfectly as they capture the despair of Chris E. Herschberger, whose ghost haunts the Calumet Inn in Pipestone.
Many of the details in “Wrinkle Meat” came from this chapter in the recollections of Paul Peter Buffalo, an Ojibwe who in the 1970s recorded an enormous personal history that also documented the history, customs, and beliefs of his people. His autobiography is archived today by the University of Minnesota Duluth, made accessible to all through the web.
In the notes to Iced Over, songwriter Joey Ford notes that “Minnesota is well taken care of, with historical societies spread across the state that strive to keep the conversation between past and present alive.” The thing is, we have to do our share or it’s no longer a conversation — the historical societies and museums throughout Minnesota merely hold history until we arrive to thaw it out.
We had never heard of any of the characters featured in Iced Over until Tree Party brought us a copy of this disc last month. Learning about each (the album is so much more fun when you’re familiar with the stories behind each song) lit in us the pilot fire of pride for our Northstar state heritage. Mocked as we often are in the media, for so many imagine our Minnesota as one big Frostbite Falls, we might well be the awesome-est state in the Union.
Joey Ford received a 2013 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, and we think they couldn’t have made a better choice. Ford took the opportunity to travel the state asking about local folklore, meeting old timers in diners and scholars in museums and historical societies. He wrote songs based on the true life legends he heard, and brought them to Tree Party. The band had already discovered its flair for the theatrical with their second album, The 7 Shot Symphony, a collaboration with Live Action Set which produced an amazing touring cowboy show (check out the video trailer) which won a 2011 Ivey Award for Best Overall Production.
A few years back Sufjan Stevens wrote concept albums for two states — Michigan and Illinois — and we offered our own entries a while later (Minnesota and Ohio). We’re still working on Iowa. Iced Over might actually be the first concept album about Minnesota. The 32nd state has produced its small share of concept albums, from Zen Arcade to the Honeydogs’ 10,000 Years (surely their best) to Grant Hart’s long-labored, awesome adaptation of Milton and Burroughs, The Argument. As rich as Minnesota history is, the closest we’ve ever come to center stage may be in Paul Kennerley’s The Legend of Jesse James, where the shootout at Northfield, narrated by Charlie Daniels, was the highlight of the record (we posted it years ago here).
On Iced Over the rhythm section — bassist Andy Carroll and drummer Marc Bohn — adapts itself deftly to Ford’s vivid narratives. A listener can close his eyes and hear the frigid waves crashing against Helmer Aakvik’s wooden skiff, the calm waters lapping against Dorothy Motler’s Isle of Pines, or the crack of John Beargrease’s whip as he drives his dog team to deliver the mail to Grand Marais.
A little like the dog sled race named for Beargrease, Iced Over is a tour de force for a troupe of top rank musicians — Guitarist Travis Bolton grounds the disc in the very best of doo wop and early rock and roll. Just listen to that short solo in “Dorothy Molter” — it almost takes you back in time to a soda fountain where Molter had her first root beer. Jenna Wyse, whose own group, the Poor Nobodys, specializes in exciting theatrical music, provides vocals that help set Dorothy Molter’s story in a black-and-white memory as well as give other stories their epic sense of adventure. She also performs the accordion and violin, giving a genuine Minnesota flavor and even a polka romp to celebration of World War I hero Byrl Sylvester.
On “Byrl Sylvester — Plainview’s Greatest Hero” the band is joined by a robust brass section. One can almost imagine the celebration of a hero, not unlike the annual accolades our leaders still offer to the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.
Joey Ford didn’t waste anything with such a band at his back — he wrote each of the songs on Iced Over with Tree Party and got the best out of them, as well as himself. He takes his trademark yodel to soaring new heights on the disc — sometimes it’s silly. Throughout he approaches the stories with due reverence, while balancing the lighter side of local lore. He approaches Wrinkle Meat with a little wry wit and Chris E. Herschberger with an aching sense of loneliness. At his very best Ford is a cowboy singer worthy of one of our all-time favorite records, Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. At his worst he’s over-the-top (we’ve been playing Iced Over a lot lately, and folks always take notice of “John Beargrease — The Fearless Mail Carrier”) — We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Well, that’s not true. Iced Over seems to be hitting it stride with that last track, where the band is joined by an evocative cello and the brass heard on “Byrl Sylvester.” We’re ready for another story — that’s the thing about history, it’s sloggy at first and then you find a reference point, a place where you can put yourself in the story. And then you want more — but that’s where the disc ends. The band runs around the state in “Careless Hap — The Minnesota Romp,” a light yodel-driven instrumental and calls it a night.
We’re already looking forward to the sequel.
Tree Party will celebrate the release of Iced Over this Sunday at the Cedar Cultural Center. Details here. If their new disc weren’t exciting enough, they’ve got two of our favorite fellas in the world opening: Jack Klatt and Ben Weaver!