(St. Paul, Minnesota) I entered the Turf Club in St. Paul right at doors and wandered around hunting for a safe basecamp for my camera bag. The sound guy showed me “the spot” which was perfect for working as long as you have nocturnal vision (which I do).
With that seen too, I slipped my M from its velvet socket and uncapped my nifty 50 and made for the bar. Halfway there I ran into Zac Sally, former bass player for Low, and man of many well-developed talents (he designed the shirt for Califone’s tour). We laughed because the last time we bumped into each other at the Turf it was also a Califone gig a few years ago.
Then some random Rubin offered to buy me a beer. I accepted Rubin’s offer and before I could sit down the opening band, Setting, started milling around the stage getting ready. I said “Well, I’m on the job. Let’s go up front.” The guys in Setting, a spellbinding instrumental band, were more than okay with my shooting their set. So I used the opportunity to do all my light and space calculus in advance of Califone. Everything looks different in the viewfinder, and it’s a good to get the brain in that compositional gear in advance.
“Why are you taking pictures of these bums,” asked Rubin. “Just so you’re aware, the bum playing drums is in Califone.” “Uh, oh.”
Setting got much applause, but when Tim Rutili of Califone appeared and sat center stage before a small keyboard and hauled up a Gibson SG from his harem of guitars to tune it, the place roared. They took a couple minutes to get their shit together and then started off by reaching back two decades, playing “Red” from 2003’s Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, followed by Michigan Girls from that same record.
I had been really looking forward to this show because of the excellence of Villagers, Califone’s new album. If you’ve not listened to it, do. And if you do, be aware that many agree that while side one is an excellent listen, side two is devastatingly excellent. On the flip side of that record Tim Rutili shows an uncanny ability to rouse potent feelings almost casually with candid, truthful turns of phrase that are too relatable to be denied inside.
But this is not a record review.
Still, mentioning it is relevant because they hit you like that from the stage too. To me, and many around me during certain songs, such as the next song “Skunkish”, off that heartbreaking second side of Villagers:
When did I become the thief
in the story
That you wear
on your face
like a mask?
The song is heavily laden with self-recrimination, and suddenly many were standing stock still, eyes wide and wet as the music swelled to meet these lyrics. Then on the heels of that:
When did I become the destruction
In the story
that you wear
Like an anvil
on your back?
And many wide eyes spilled over. Heavy hearts disgorging love and regret. We’ve all been the thief. We’ve all been the destruction, at one point or another in our lives. Every now and then, rarely, you find yourself cheering someone for making you cry, for reminding you of how much you yearn to be a better person.
This was followed by “Romans” and “Snow Angel,” both from 2020’s Echo Mine. There’s a line in “Snow Angel” that I love simply because it’s scientifically accurate, ironic, and poetic at once: “A star implodes, silent as a snow angel.”
I’ve been listening to Califone since 2004 and the thing that struck me was how the band did not simply execute their songs. Some of them, yes, but often it was if the band was having a wide-ranging seemingly endless instrumental conversation about the underlying musical ideas of songs that would suddenly become recognizable when Rutili would turn to the mic and sing and gasps of recognition would pass through the crowd.
“Halloween”, from Villagers, was one such example. It was given an entirely new opening. I’ve heard the song many times in the last month and I did not recognize it (even when he was singing the opening lyrics verbatim). It was looser. Veering improvisationally. But somewhere midway the band gear-shifted and the song-proper appeared out of its own fog with the pleading refrain:
Steal it back
Steal your soul back
Steal it back
Steal it back
Steal it back
Steal your soul back
Another punch right in the feels. I suspect the song begins differently in every town on this tour.
After “Halloween” Rutili knocked his beer bottle over asked everyone if they’ve ever spilled food on the floor and licked it up. I immediately hollered “5 second rule!” A half-moment later I dropped a camera battery and loudly invoked said rule. Scored me a laugh or two.
Then they launched into Villagers opening song, “Hasbury Jaw” which dispensed with the experimentation at first and everyone was dancing. Following the final verse, both drummers Rachel Blumberg and Joe Westerlund began rocking all over it through an eight minute hard-charging improv ending jam.
This was followed by another from Villagers, the lazy sweet “Eyelash”, and Rutili telling us how he’s been watching 1980s Minnesota pro wrestling. “Not the wrestling part, but the talking part.” I quickly illustrated this for everyone by sounding off in my best Jesse Ventura “And I’ll tell you another thing Mean Gene!”
“That’s it,” Rutili responded. “That’s the stuff!”
Then he matter-of-factly said he’d like to rip our faces off, and some hapless dude called out “I want to rip your face off!”
Rutili instantly responded “I want to change your diaper, sir. Because you definitely wear one. And not in a real problem way. You’re wearing one for fun. You love that feeling. That warm feeling when you just let go. I understand. I know that warm feeling too. But for me it’s from ripping your ears off. Don’t worry. That’s just wrestling talk. But that’s not going to stop me from ripping your ears off and feeding them to my goldfish when I get home.”
Heckler 0 Rutili 7 (extra point for the goldfish bit).
Then came the familiar strumming that signaled “Funeral Singers.” Personally, I can’t listen to this song without losing it. In November of 2022 he performed this song at Low singer Mimi Parker’s funeral at her request. Having been an attendee, this song is, for me, glued to that heartbreaking loss. She was witty and smart and born with a bell in her throat that has saved lives, and continues to after her passing. So yeah. Hit me hard in the feelings. And always right from the first line: “A little narcotic warm on me, what will I do without the weight of you?”
It finished and I wiped my face and recovered my composure. Rutili hollared out “Should we do this every year?” (cheers, naturally) “because if we stay here long enough we will.”
Then, rummaging around for the next guitar, Rutili dropped into this bizarre and hilarious persona that came off as murderous, lazy, tired, and possibly drunk. The ultimate misanthrope. This extended off-kilter toxic-stream-of-consciousness banter led to super-silly back and forth between him and random people in the audience. He’d make a fine comedian. This long break in the music was totally okay because nonstop laughter is totally okay.
But then someone called out “you suck!”
Rutili calmly broke character and responded “Is that all you got?”
“You going to yell out ‘Freebird” next?” he mocked. Then someone else in the audience announced “about twenty years ago we yelled out ‘Freebird’ at Built To Spill they played it for like twenty minutes. I’m not even kidding.” Califone drummer Joe Westerlund’s face lit up and he said “Hey, I was at that show.” A silent moment, then the word “Whoa” rippled through the crowd.
Once the Really Weird Coincidence subsided, they finished with “Comedy” and “Ox-eye” and encored with the title track from Villagers.
Very old songs and very new songs. A great night of dancing, cheering, and laughter. Heavy on the laughter.
Article/Photos: Joe Cunningham