Friday, August 25, 2006

More fun in MPLS, starring JNS LKMN

Minneapolis has a great network of bike and rollerblade trails. When I was doing advance research, I actually got more useful information from this rollerblading site than from any official sources. We plotted out a loop that ran along part of the Grand Rounds (a route that, if biked in its entirety, would’ve taken more time than we had…maybe next time) tracing the Mississippi River, down to the old Soo Line railbed that has been converted to an asphalt track and is in what looks like the final stages of refurbishment.
This took us west through the city between 28th and 29th Streets, under a long series of overpasses and eventually out into the pretty green space between Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles. The Southwest LRT Trail continues to the west, but we turned North on the Kenilworth Trail to get back downtown. The Cedar Lake Trail will take you most of the way downtown, but there’s not a really obvious and easy route through the city and back to the river yet. There’s a dedicated bike trail down the middle (!) of Hennepin Avenue, and that will get you most of the way. It was really frustrating to be pedaling past so many of Minneapolis’ great old movie palaces without being able to stop and take a picture, being in the middle of the street and all! I was, however, able to get a shot of the boisterous signage at Lee’s Liquor Lounge.
We picked up the West River Parkway, which gave us a good view of the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minneapolis.
Before long, we were back where we started—next to the WPA Rock under (I think) the 27th Street bridge.
I had lost my cell phone somewhere along the trail, so we had to take a few minutes back at the hotel to call Verizon and get them to suspend service until I could get a new phone. Unfortunately, the customer service representative instead disconnected the line altogether (after I had asked her as carefully as possible if I’d be able to get my old number back when I get my new phone, just so she wouldn’t make exactly the mistake she made) and it took a week for me to get my service back. Since my cell phone is the business number for my DJ service, every call I miss is a potential $500 down the drain, so you can imagine how mad I was at Verizon. Can you hear me now?

John Kass had promised us his “patented tour” of the Twin Cities, and he figured we’d find all the old-school commercial-strip stuff on our own—so he drove us through the network of pretty parkways that crisscrosses the metropolitan area, connecting the lakes where locals swim and sail. We did take a detour through downtown St. Paul and the neighborhood John grew up in, so he could show off the old Mounds Theatre he used to attend as a kid—now refurbished and thriving after thirty years as a warehouse.
We encountered a group of Swedish tourists at Minnehaha Falls, which was a nice bit of foreshadowing for the evening’s entertainment. But before we checked out Gothenburg’s favorite singer-songwriter, we had a fine Thai meal at Sawatdee (one of several locations) and tracked down a few more golden-age movie houses.
The Uptown Theatre anchors the neighborhood celebrated in song on an early Prince album. The carved mural on the side wall and the huge vertical sign are still impressive, and movies are still shown here. The Uptown has the Twin Cities' largest screen, and it's operated by Landmark Cinemas in conjunction with the newer Lagoon multiplex about a block away.
Not far from the Uptown is the Suburban World Theatre, now available for live performances. Somewhere along the way, we also bumped into the Music Box (formerly the Loring Theatre), home of the long-running show Triple Espresso... …and the Avalon, now home to a puppet theatre company called In the Heart of the Beast. (As if puppets weren’t creepy enough already!)
Couldn’t pass up this fantastic Car Wash sign, either.
Finally, with dusk approaching, it was time for the event that brought us to Minneapolis in the first place: Jens Lekman in concert. The Triple Rock Social Club is used to performances of a punkier variety (the bar’s general vibe is similar to that of St. Louis’s Hi-Pointe), which may explain why Jens’ publicity was a little sketchy. His name was misspelled one way (“Lekmen”) on the concert flyers, and another in the club’s ad in CityPages. (I bet they never misspell NOFX!)
Jens’ recorded output—which, in America, amounts to two CDs’ worth—leans heavily on melancholy, often trenchantly funny songs sketched out on piano or acoustic guitar and decorated with horn or string arrangements sampled from another record. He’s often compared to Morrissey and Stephin Merritt, but there’s an optimistic undercurrent that pops up in the occasional unabashedly Ishtar rhyme or a starry-eyed declaration of love, and that gives him a leavening dollop of Jonathan Richmanesque charm. (Yes! I used “Ishtar” as an adjective! And in the context of a compliment! But I suppose most of you have never seen “Ishtar.” Well, you don’t know what you’re missing. When the plot focuses on Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty as struggling, clueless songwriters, it’s as nerd-tastically funny as “Napoleon Dynamite” or any of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries. But I digress. )

In concert, the affable Swede’s more upbeat material carries the day. The cut-and-paste horn arrangements are recreated live by a band of six attractive women, dolled up in tasteful homage to ‘80s couture and switching expertly from saxophones and trumpets to a variety of percussion instruments, keyboards, string bass, and a stripped-down drum kit. Jens, with a fedora tipped precariously toward the back of his head, plays guitar, jigs around a bit, sings and tells a story or two—pausing at one point to inform us that he actually speaks no English and is, in fact, “doing all this phonetically.”

There is, however, a hint of potential trouble right from the beginning. When the first of two opening acts—local folk-rocker Robert Skoro—approaches the microphone, a broad-shouldered frat-boy type, in a t-shirt emblazoned with “SNEAKY PETE’S” across the back, steps right up to the lip of the stage, about eight inches from Skoro and at least fifteen feet from the next-closest observer. He greets the end of each of Skoro’s low-key tunes with the sort of whooping and clapping you’d expect to hear at, say, wet t-shirt night. Skoro looks a little unnerved, and it’s apparent that he’s never seen this dude before. Is he heckling him in an ironic way? Is he so drunk he doesn’t realize he’s being inappropriately boisterous? Is this, like, the first concert he’s ever been to? Katie and I decide that he’s just a random overserved lunkhead who was dragged here by his girlfriend, and this might turn out to be their last date.

When the second performer, a mildly eccentric and rather pretty Swedish blonde named Frida Hyvonen, takes a seat at the piano for her solo set, I’m sure I’m not the only observer who’s worried that this might get ugly. Sneaky Pete is at this point distracted, being scolded sporadically by his date, who seems to be worried that he’ll forget he left his flip-flops up by the stage. Still, I’m a little concerned that if Sneaky gets a second wind he’ll somehow manage to ruin Jens’ set. But you know what? Dude’s a fan—a huge fan; he knows all the words and sings along with gusto. No harm done! Jens seems rather bemused by his football-fan enthusiasm. When, toward the end of his set, he seeks volunteers to help rattle some tambourines, he hands one to the broad-shouldered lad, and more than one audience member is heard to groan “Oh no—Sneaky Pete!!”

Funny thing—in the end, the fella had made the show more memorable and maybe a bit more fun. The only performer he disrupted at all was Skoro and, well, let’s just say the crowd didn’t seem all that into Skoro anyway. To be honest, he wasn’t my cup of tea either, but I could see him going over big as an opening act for, say, Son Volt. Live and learn, bookers…

NEXT: Arbus, Ikea, Twins, Hell.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Summer Vacation 2006, Part Two

An early highlight of the second leg of the trip was the Palace Theatre in Waverly, Iowa, not too far up the road from Waterloo. As the website explains, the Palace is equipped with a state-of-the-art sound system that's the first of its kind.

In Spring Valley, Minnesota, we found a well-preserved A&W Drive-In. It still has the familiar roofline and curb bay, plus a plush green backyard featuring picnic tables, a mural, and a vintage Papa Burger statue. (Mama Burger apparently got custody of the kids, and they could be anywhere by now.)A&W’s been having a bit of an identity crisis lately, by the way. Many of the classic drive-in locations had closed by the 1980s, when the chain was concentrating on placing hot dog stands in every mall’s food court. Nowadays—in my neck of the woods, anyway—A&W is most often seen sharing a building with Long John Silver’s. (Both restaurants are run by Yum! Brands, out of Louisville.) Once in a while they’ll try something new—but an architecturally impressive freestanding prototype A&W opened in Effingham, IL, a few years back didn’t last long, and an A&W paired with a gas station in St. Charles County, MO, tanked after a few seasons. It’s nice to see that the classic curb-service root beer joints survive here and there, but the “new” corporate color scheme—sea-foam green with mustard-and-bean-dip-colored checkerboard trim—really clashes with the venerable orange-and-brown palette most people identify with A&W…don’t you think?

I’d promised my friend and rock ‘n’ roll benefactor John Kass I’d ring him when we got to Minneapolis, and he promptly invited us over to beautiful suburban St. Paul for beer and swimming. We had a lot to talk about and I can talk while drinking but not so much while swimming, so we sat by the pool with the happy Kass clan and John and Chris gave us tips for enjoying the Twin Cities. He also got out a surprisingly good-sounding battery-operated turntable and played requests from his vast collection of Minneapolis rock rarities. I hadn't heard the Suburbs in quite a while!

At length Katie and I retired to the conveniently-located Four Points Sheraton, where we watched a fascinating TV show about primordial dwarfs and their susceptibility to catastrophic aneurysms.

Katie had heard good things about the Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior, and John advised us that traffic would be hellish on a Friday or Saturday so we made the trek on Thursday. It was quite a haul, but we were rewarded with some fantastic scenery, a top-notch pizza at Sammy’s in Duluth, and an audience with the Bare-Assed Voyageur of Two Harbors.
This impressive piece of folk-art statuary must stand fifteen or twenty feet tall. He guards a vacant lot next to the Voyageur Motel—which could just as easily be called the Voyeur, due to its guests’ view of the bearded giant’s unclothed nether region. I’m sure the dude is supposed to be wearing pants, but his caretakers made the mistake of painting ‘em the same color as his face and hands. Oops! And what’s with the hollow eyes? A web search reveals that the Voyageur statue used to have eyes that moved, and that he also spoke. Creepy, huh? I’ve found no record of what he used to say, but I couldn’t blame them for silencing him if he was uttering things like “Come here, little girl; I want to show you something.”

Another too-big-to-be-believed sight in Two Harbors is the set of massive docks pictured above.

The lighthouse itself, a little further up the road, is impressively positioned on a rocky protuberance and admirably maintained. Interpretive displays tell the story of the lighthouse’s construction, explain the way the keepers obtained supplies before local roads were built, and also trace the course of the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald.
Since I try to bring home at least one new t-shirt from every road trip, I was slightly tempted by the surprisingly cool offerings at the gift shop: One t-shirt design imitated the label of a beer bottle, for instance. Still, I am not prepared to be the Guy With The Lighthouse T-Shirt, so we bought a commemorative spoon for Katie’s mom and went on our way.

We paused in the tiny town of Kerrick for a photo of a bar called Lobo’s Den. It had a stylish example of the “On & Off” signs seen around Minnesota; they indicate that a tavern also functions as a package-liquor store so customers can consume their booze ON-site and OFF-site.

I cannot believe I did not take a single picture of anything in Duluth. Someday I will return and give Duluth the time and attention it deserves.

Back in Minneapolis, we met up with John Kass again at a release party for “Whiskey on a Sunday,” a new DVD about the band Flogging Molly. The event was hosted by the downtown branch of Grumpy’s, a small chain of bar & grills run by one of the parties responsible for the Amphetamine Reptile record label—an imprint familiar to fans of the loud, raw, wild rock ‘n’ roll of the grunge era. AmRep (as it's fondly known) has a very distinctive graphic aesthetic, and the design and signage at Grumpy’s shares some of the same flavor. I presumed that they’d have some pretty good-looking t-shirts, but Paddy the bartender regretted to inform me that they were temporarily out of stock. The teriyaki wings were good, though!

The evening ended at the Varsity, a handsome old movie theater recently reborn as a concert venue. We enjoyed a sparkling set by Camera Obscura, a six-piece Scottish pop band that shares a few attributes with its friends and neighbors in Belle and Sebastian. The sound was crystal clear, and the venue was just beautiful. The movie-house floor has been flattened, but there’s a variety of tiered seating (sofas, small tables, ottomans, etc.) along the side walls and a wide strip down the middle for those who prefer (or are obliged) to stand or to dance. Small trees hung with white Christmas lights add charm, and the upstairs lounge flanking the restrooms is retro-fabulous. Camera Obscura was selling t-shirts that, oddly enough, resembled Minnesota Twins jerseys. Coincidence, surely; they could hardly afford to print up locally-themed shirts for every town on the tour!

I didn’t buy a shirt. I was holding out for something that explicitly, intentionally stated ”I got this in Minneapolis!” (The Varsity should sell t-shirts of its own, I think.) I also didn’t get a photo of the Varsity; I figured they didn’t want cameras inside, so I left mine in the car a few blocks away and totally forgot to get a picture later. Here’s a link to a set of photos taken just a couple of days later by someone else; I’d sure like to have been at this show!

Next installment: Bike-friendly MPLS, more cool old theatres, Jens Lekman!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Summer Vacation 2006, Part One

Katie and I just got back from Minneapolis, where we saw, heard, did, and ate a lot of wonderful things.

We drove up instead of flying because there’s a lot of land between St. Louis and Minneapolis that we haven’t seen yet. We took US 61 to the top of Missouri, and cut across on 136 to pick up US 63, which we followed all the way through Iowa.

We stopped for lunch in Bloomfield, a nice little county seat with a handsome courthouse on a bustling square. The Iowa Theatre has a cool Moderne fa├žade, and two doors down there’s a vintage Coke sign over Ray’s Recreation. We had lunch at Rancho Centinela on the square; it’s a Mexican restaurant occupying a huge storefront—6000 square feet, says one resource—that I suspect might have been a department store in a previous life.

We’re carrying Buildings of Iowa with us; it’s one volume in a series of books published by the American Institute of Architects, and it lists notable buildings in many of the towns we’re passing through. I’m most interested, obviously, in mid-20th-century relics, so when we hit Ottumwa I seek out the Rowe Drug Store. It’s supposed to be a Streamline Moderne classic, clad in neon and midnight-blue-and-cream Vitrolite. At the listed address is a tiny, nondescript storefront swathed in stucco. It’s not a drug store anymore, and all the Moderne finery is gone. The only hint that this is even the correct address is a capital R set in the tile at the entrance.
Oskaloosa is a bust too, as I’m looking for the old Rivola Theater that’s listed on CinemaTour. It’s gone (though visible at Cinema Treasures); entire blocks of the main drag have been replaced by a modern strip center that’s supposed to act as a natural extension of the old business district. There’s a farmers’ market set up along one side of the square, though, and Katie scores some tomatoes and blackberries.

There’s a nice surprise in New Sharon: The Capri Theatre is a well-preserved example of an older cinema getting a 1960s makeover. The entire entrance is uninterrupted glass, and atop the marquee are backlit letters in individual boxes spelling CAPRI. Theatres built or remodeled in this style are often a curious mix of rough stone facing and poodly wrought-iron, and the Capri is a fine example. The venue is run by volunteers, and it’s open only on weekends—but the $1.50 admission charge is hard to beat.

There were a couple of things I wanted to check out in Malcom, but an angry-looking storm cloud is literally following us up the highway so we buzz on through in hopes of leaving it behind.

The coast is clear by the time we hit Traer, so we check out the famous Winding Staircase that was built in 1894 for direct access to a second-floor newspaper office. Just down the block is the Traer Theatre, which is run by the city and is presently being remodeled.


We had reservations at the Quality Inn in Waterloo. After everything was set up, I discovered, and checked out the users’ comments on our hotel. One traveler noted that the Quality Inn was in the “WORST neighborhood in all of Iowa” and that the outer doors required no key-cards for entry: “You could just walk in at all hours and hop on the elevator up to the rooms, no questions asked.” Well, how the hell else are you supposed to get in when you first arrive, before you’ve registered? The restaurant and bar are both open to the public, and if their doors to the hotel lobby were locked, it would be a fire hazard. Myself, I worry more when I arrive at a motel and I have to be buzzed in. There are three locks on the door to your room, worry-wart. Use ‘em.

True, the Quality Inn was not in the prettiest of neighborhoods, but it didn’t look particularly dangerous to me. There were at least four bars within rock-throwing distance, but we didn’t hear any drunken hollering during our stay. The immediate area also contained an ethnic grocery, several warehouses, more hotels, a convention center, a Subway restaurant, and a pizza parlor with the repellently cutesy habit of spelling its product “peetza.” I would’ve thought the hotel just fine, even if I hadn’t been named “Guest of the Day” and gotten upgraded to a two-room suite with a whirlpool tub!

In the morning, Buildings of Iowa led us to a swell art-deco gas station (now a fence store), and further exploring revealed a vintage neon sign in the shape of a fez …

…and this wonderful sculpture in front of the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center. I got to wondering about the Sullivans: Were they local mavens of commerce? A comedy troupe, perhaps? Sadly, no. A little research revealed that they were five local siblings, ages 19 thru 27, who served together on the USS Juneau in WWII and were all killed when the ship was attacked in 1942. The armed forces usually didn’t allow siblings to serve together, but the Sullivans had insisted on it.

Waterloo and neighboring Cedar Falls, a college town, have a pretty impressive network of bicycle trails, and we rode over 20 miles through the parks and suburbs and along the river. (Trail maps and other local resources are available at the Chamber of Commerce—on Main Street just south of the Cedar River—and just down the road at an old gas station that’s been converted into a tourist-information kiosk.)
Main Street in Cedar Falls has undergone an amazing transformation in the last few years. The sidewalks have been upgraded with new trees, benches and bike racks, and shops and restaurants have multiplied. Cup of Joe, a coffeehouse conveniently located at the nexus of the bike trails by the river, was celebrating its eleventh anniversary on the day of our visit, and the proprietor felt very fortunate to have staked a claim on Main Street well ahead of the rush. The coffeehouse is blessed with a perfect location, great java, a friendly staff, and an incredible collection of early-‘60s Danish Modern furniture.
Directly across the street is the recently-restored Cotton Theatre. Now renamed the Oster Regent, it presents live entertainment.
A few doors down, the historic Blackhawk Hotel offers quaint-yet-classy accommodations.
Main Street also offers a wide variety of restaurants, many of which are run by the multi-concept Barmuda chain—we had dinner at Beck’s Sports Grill, which is also a microbrewery. There’s also a bike shop, a handsome modern library, an array of public sculpture, and—just a few steps off of Main on 4th Street—a vintage Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop, serving loose-meat burgers Midwestern style.

A little further out in suburban Cedar Falls, my eye was caught by the vintage neon at the Panther Lounge and the venerable Maple Lanes. I wish I’d had time to check out the Imperial Lounge, or at least go into the bowling alley and see if the interior was as retro-fabulous as the exterior! (There are NO photos on their website, unfortunately.) Among all the sights we saw in the Cedar Falls/Waterloo area, I’d say the place most deserving of the Mid-Century Dream “Don’t Go Changin’” award is downtown Waterloo’s Newton’s Jewelers. Now THAT’S some undeniable signage!
We had to get going before we could explore the town any further. Fortunately, someone with a little more time to spend in Waterloo (and other Iowa cities) has documented it more extensively:

NEXT INSTALLMENT: Waterloo to Minneapolis.

UPDATE: Reader Aaron Bolton shares news that Newton's is closing after 93 years. The owner is pursuing other jewelry-related endeavors that afford her greater opportunity to travel. I can respect that, obviously! Now, anybody got a good home for a two-story-tall neon sign?