Could the Internet Have Saved These Local Bands?

October 24, 2008

I found myself getting a bit sentimental about the late-’80s/early ’90s Twin Cities music scene when I saw this post by Jim Walsh at MinnPost about a recent Jayhawks reunion show in Spain. Seeing the grainy reunion concert footage Walsh found on YouTube got me thinking about what might have been for some of my favorite local bands, including the Jayhawks, had they come of age in this Internet era.

The Jayhawks were enormously talented, and unquestionably leaders in the emergence of the alt-country movement that spawned Wilco, Ryan Adams and so many others. I’d argue the Jayhawks’ 1989 classic “Blue Earth” is one of the best albums ever released by a Minnesota band, and follow-ups like “Hollywood Town Hall” (1992) and “Tomorrow the Green Grass” (1995) confirmed their brilliance. Saddled with record-company debt and label indifference, however, the Jayhawks broke up without reaching the national status they deserved. Would things have been different had the Jayhawks been able to get around the record labels and do what bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have done to promote themselves online and sell directly to fans through digital downloads?  Perhaps so.   

They are not alone.  In honor of the Jayhawks’ resurfacing, I’ve compiled a list of the Five Best Twin Cities Bands That Could Have Been Saved by the Internet:

1. Trip Shakespeare  — Trip Shakespeare’s sound was unique, complex and exhilarating, and those lucky enough to catch their three-part harmonies live walked into the night convinced they had just discovered the Next Great Band.  They inspired huge word-of-mouth buzz, but their sound was not really radio friendly, leaving the fate of a couple stellar major-label releases to the mercy of inept record company marketers. The Wilson brothers, Matt and Dan, found success with other projects: Matt has had a fine solo career, highlighted by his stunning “Burnt White and Blue” album. Dan and bass player, John Munson, found national prominence with Semisonic, and Dan has even won a songwriting Grammy, teaming with the Dixie Chicks.  But in my opinion, Trip Shakespeare was their best work, and they were the ideal band to follow the online path to commercial success forged by such innovators as Arctic Monkeys and Radiohead.

2. The Suburbs —   Do yourself a favor and download The Suburbs’ “Love is the Law.”  (Better yet, head over to your local, independant record store.) Go ahead. Then try telling me these guys didn’t, for a very brief period in the ’80s, have a place among the most exciting bands in America.

3. Run Westy Run — Before launching Iffy, the brothers Johnson fronted the less polished and more entertaining “Westies.”  They were raw, loud, brash and unpredictable. The Westies album “Green Cat Island” bears witness to the notion that musical talent is not necessarily prerequisite to musical genius.  I always thought they were the musical equivalent of a Jackson Pollack painting. Lead singer Kirk Johnson could barely carry a tune, and and they were not particularly accomplished musicians at that point.  But when you stepped back and considered the whole, you realized these guys had captured lightening in a bottle. Sadly, they never established themselves on the national radar.

4. Gear Daddies —  The ‘Dads songs captured small town life in a way that makes John Mellencamp look like a city slicker.  They had a huge and loyal regional following, and got a taste of national fame with an appearance on Letterman.  But they broke up not long thereafter.  Frontman Martin Zellar put out a few strong solo records, and the Gear Daddies occassionally regroup, but those flashes only reinforce what might have been.

5. The Widgets — I saw the Widgets dozens of times, drawn in by the band’s sense of humor and obvious love of playing music together.  Their set lists ranged from drunken covers of Neil Young’s “Down By The River” to quirky, often off-key originals with a slacker point-of-view.  Frontman Aaron Seymour’s between-song banter was funny and engaging. You never got the sense that these guys were in it for much more than some beer money and to meet girls. Their charisma and quirkiness would have translated beautifully to a MySpace page, and perhaps propelled them to bigger stages and a broader following. 

Your turn.  What’s the best local band you ever saw that could have been saved by the Internet?  Or, better, what are some examples of bands on today’s local scene that are going around the record labels to successfully build a national following via the Internet?