No Sleep ’til Lutsen

LUTSEN — I celebrated my birthday last year with the Molly Maher and Erik Koskinen bands at their regular Wednesday night gig at the beautiful and cozy Aster Café, and then Molly corralled a bunch of us to go around the corner and commandeer the eight bar stools that semi-circle the piano bar at Nye’s Polonaise Room, where my brother Terry’s band St. Dominic’s Trio rips it up every Tuesday night starting at 9:30.

One of the barroom singers that night was our friend Joe Fahey, who was so inspired by the sight and sound of a bunch of friends — all singers, songwriters and bandleaders — raising their voices in spontaneous bursts of song, melody, joy, heartbreak, etc., that he wrote his tune “The Late Believers” in a gush after the bar closed that night, and which he performed recently at the Mad Ripple Hootenanny at Papa Charlie’s, which is nestled in the belly of the unforgiving, majestic and truly awesome Lutsen Mountain.

“With all those faces, all those voices, it was like an Edward Hopper painting; ‘Nighthawks at the Diner,’ or something. I like that, because I’ve always been a night owl. My family has always been night owls,” said Joe, who then sang his tribute to the shadowy life for a roomful of song lovers that included fresh-from-the-slopes ski bums, stoners, snowboarders, a couple of gorgeous Wisconsin police officers looking for signs of humanity amidst the insanity, families from St. Louis, Missouri and Winnipeg, Canada and the Twin Cities. Chorus: 

The Late Believers

You see them drive by

The Late Believers

They find the perfect dive

The Late Believers

At the corner of 5th and Jive

The Late Believers

Know what it’s like to be alive 

Lutsen was alive with Late Believers this weekend, as a bunch of friends who met while playing and listening to live music in the Twin Cities made the four-and-a-half hour drive to what for a few hours Friday night felt like the end of the world, hit as it was with a perfect storm of fog, ice and snow that ultimately made for great skiing but also provided a wickedly romantic reminder of how primal the elements and wilderness living can be. “Today was a nightmare,” one local told me, and he was serious.

Friday night, Paul Gronert totaled his car on his way to Papa Charlie’s to play saxophone with the Belfast Cowboys, limping the last 40 miles to the gig. He had photos of the car in the back stage area, where other weather-fatigued band members were strewn about in various states of rest and repose. Then Gronert went out and played his huge heart out, and from where I was standing on the dance floor, there was something almost heroic about the sight of this sax player, playing and juking and having a gas in spite of everything, and of he and fellow saxman Vic Volare doing their vaudeville giddy-up squats during Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic,” and rocking every gypsy soul in the joint.

One such soul was our friend Emily Kaiser, who lost her mother Nan to cancer in January and who put out a bat signal on Facebook Friday night saying that she and her boyfriend were snowed in in Tofte and couldn’t get out but if anyone was dug out and headed to Papa Charlie’s, could they swing by? Our friend Kimberly Mikla, a single mom with a heart of gold, a love of live music, and a station wagon with four-wheel drive picked up the signal and got Emily to the pub in time to dance like a mad woman and sing along to an especially epic version of “Bike Ride on 35W.”

My minivan, filled with my teenagers and my friend, neighbor and band mate Pete Christensen, got snowed in at the Lake Superior condo that was provided by the club, and it took a cranky-but-golden Cook County Tow Service husband-wife team to get us out onto Highway 61, where we got stuck again and then up and running and then … there was Pete, jumping into the moving car and screaming at me to not stop, afraid for good reason that we’d get stuck again.

We needed another tow from a friendly family up the mountain to get us to the stage on time, and by now my knuckles were white and my ribs hurt from laughing. “This is fun,” my daughter’s friend Whitney said at one especially harrowing juncture of bumper-pushing; “in my family we call this ‘Forced family fun.’”

Anyway, everybody made it. More snowbound car mishaps and injuries were to occur, and our friend Martin Devaney took a nasty spill that left him with a wrenched back he nursed with Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. At the post-show jam at our friends Brianna Lane and Greg Neis’s condo, he debuted a song about our friend Leah Rule, who died of cancer in December. Jim Vick, the man with the booking vision at Papa Charlie’s, led a groovy singalong on John Prine’s “Dear Abby, Dear Abby,” which inspired Joe Fahey’s plaintive turn on Prine’s “Illegal Smile,” which boomeranged and morphed into various takes on Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Neutral Milk Hotel, Lucinda Williams, and a chorus that bears repeating:

The Late Believers

You see them drive by

The Late Believers

They find the perfect dive

The Late Believers

At the corner of 5th and Jive

The Late Believers

Know what it’s like to be alive