Hootenanny on punk rock’s back porch

Bands that blend the ethos of moonshine and cowpoke with the homegrown grittiness of punk rock create music that's all Minneapolis

Haily Gostas

Many moons ago, rambunctious, punk-country hellions The Knotwells were still honing their skills in the East Harvard Market basement when they made the bold (or, possibly, suicidal) move to play one of their first shows at the now-defunct hip-hop club Bon Appétit. Needless to say, the response was less foot-stompin’ and more trash-talkin’.

“We totally hee-hawed it up,” lead singer Arik Xist admitted, referring of course to the uniform of suspenders and ripped jeans (and … donkey masks?) he and his fellow musicians donned that night. “I was so damn embarrassed. I think a riot almost broke out, but either way, no one clapped at all!”

The Knotwells and Painted Saints (with Shovel Dance and John Wills)

WHEN: Friday, June 8 at 9 p.m.
WHERE: Triple Rock Social Club, 629 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis, (612) 333-7499
TICKETS: $5, 21-plus
[email protected]

Thankfully, the Knotwells shook it off and performed at the much more oddity-oriented Bedlam Theatre the following night. Though they only had four songs written at the time, the audience refused to let the band stop playing and leave the stage.

“We knew at that point what scene we belonged to,” said Xist. “And I guess we’ve since roped other people into it.”

Indeed they have. The Knotwells were both a big branch of the beginning, and still part of the current continuation of, one of Minneapolis’ most strikingly grassroots music scenes to date. Similar to the city’s first-wave folk revival during the 1960s (chronicled best in author Cyn Collins’ retrospective, “West Bank Boogie”), a new generation of punk-inspired musicians are breathing fresh life into, and bestowing a harder edge upon, a fistful of cobwebbed genres – think elements of dreamy folk balladry, back-porch bluegrass and old-timey Americana, but dressed for an acid-tinged apocalypse.

It’s a tight-knit family album of artists just as eager to play someone’s basement as they are to play a bar, a group who cares just as much about communicating with and satisfying its diverse audiences as they do about gleefully dabbling in one another’s numerous projects.

“This genre is great because it’s comprised of people who aren’t at all concerned with making a name for themselves,” said Xist. “They just hope to have an effect on the structuring of Minneapolis culture.”

The Denver-based, Minneapolis-reared Painted Saints are a prime example of this attempt, inspiring an ambient introspection with wistful, Spaghetti Western-type chamber music. Though it began as ringleader Paul Fonfara’s one-man gypsy band (for which he took on vocals, clarinet, guitar, accordion, viola and cello), it continues to trap a rotating cast of area members old and new under its fast-spinning wagon wheels.

“Minneapolis is really open-minded to these sorts of projects,” praised Fonfara. “There’s no ego here, just people willing to be cooperative.”

A super fan (and diligent student) of old school New Orleans jazz and Romanian folk especially, Fonfara wanted to shape something new from these time-honored styles, something both compelling and cathartic.

“Classical music is sort of dead, unless you’re a prodigy lucky enough to get picked up by an orchestra,” he said. “These songs are my observations, so I wanted a more personal venue for music in this vein.”

Whiskey-soaked, Knotwells-esque outfit Chokecherry use their brand of bighearted cowpoke punk to get rowdy and spread the word. Whenever possible, they try to perform in front of a massive homemade banner that proclaims in bold lettering “Down with capitalism! Up with transcendent fun!” – a gesture that just about sums them up perfectly.

“I think a lot of really interesting ideas are being overlooked or labeled as old-fashioned by those who care only about where the next indie hitmaker is,” defended Chokecherry frontman Jon Collins. “But this type of music isn’t as traditional as it might seem.” To him, making punk music isn’t about Mohawks and guitar-smashing; it’s about breaking boundaries and having the opportunity to incorporate radical ideas into everyday life.

The Blackthorns are another band that wishes to trump any preconceived notions by tiptoeing between the beautiful and the frightening qualities of a Southern Gothic sound.

Christian Thaddeus Petty, who lends his haunting howl and guitar-‘n-banjo abilities to the Blackthorns’ dark industrial folk, is personally tired of the term “old-timey.”

“I love that type of music, but to play just that doesn’t serve much of a purpose anymore,” he said. “Now, it’s just a history lesson. Of course, it’s good to look back, but it’s 2007 and time to take that and dare to invent something new with it.”

Bassist Cody Bourdot and drummer Richard Arnold emphasize the power behind pulling things in from different directions in order to achieve an

amplified version of the aged.

“We all bring something to the table, which makes for much more interesting music,” Arnold said of the Blackthorns’ tendency to stop, collaborate and listen. “No one writes a whole song by themselves – that’d just be unfair!”

To Bourdot, an inimitable musical community such as this means more chances for members to carve out their own niches and make their own statements, however grand they might be. Some, like Fonfara, want the chance to tell their own musical story. Others, like Collins, hope to educate through awareness. And Xist? He just wants to make you dance, because “it’s therapeutic, and great exercise too!” However it’s done, here’s hoping they all progress well into the future by prospering in the past. Minneapolis does, after all, love ’em for it.