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Moondance Jam's 'Silver Lining'
Twin Cities rock legends Soul Asylum are a late addition to Walker festival

by John Hansen
Brainerd Dispatch

Friday, July 13, 2007

One of the most fascinating things about Soul Asylum is how normal its career trajectory has been.

The band - among the most popular and respected to come out of the Twin Cities rock scene - developed a small following in the 1980s, found huge success in the 1990s with "Runaway Train" and has gracefully faded back into a niche act in the 2000s.

Soul Asylum will draw from its hits and new material when it plays at 9:30 p.m. Friday at Moondance Jam near Walker. The band was added to the lineup last week after Smash Mouth withdrew because of a scheduling conflict.

"I think there are (fans) that will be with us forever," frontman Dave Pirner said in a phone interview Thursday from his Minneapolis home. "No matter what happens, that's who you feel the closest to. I sort of feel like, as the band has developed, you lose people along the way. When a band gets some recognition, people move onto the next thing. That's just natural."

To casual observers, Soul Asylum is seen as blue-collar punks who broke through with 1992's hit-laden "Grave Dancer's Union," which included "Somebody to Shove" and "Black Gold" along with "Runaway Train" and ubiquitous lost-children music video.

But all of that is largely beyond Pirner's control. He's mainly interested in putting out good music. That was the goal on "The Silver Lining" (2006), the last Soul Asylum album to feature bass player Karl Mueller, who died of throat cancer in 2005.

The band is still exploring issues on half the tracks, just plain having fun on the other half - "Stand Up and Be Strong," for example, has been used in ESPN college football telecasts - and rocking on all of them.

"The one that seems to be kicking up the most fuss is 'Lately,' and I think that's probably for all the right reasons," Pirner said of the track about a father who is fighting in Iraq and can't see his child grow up.

"You know, as the Iraq thing built up, I had a kid (Eli, now age 4), so these personal experiences went into writing the song. I couldn't imagine that scenario. I feel lucky I got to watch my kid turn from 0 to 4. My heart goes out to these soldiers."

A lot of fans connect with Soul Asylum because of the emotion in Pirner's distinctively high-pitched and melodically raspy singing voice. His speaking voice is decidedly lower, though.

"The range of the electric guitar, which we have two of, is somewhat in the range of my speaking voice," Pirner said. "So the way I've seen that work is a lot of guitar-driven bands have guys that sing way up there, whether you're talking about Led Zeppelin or Journey or the White Stripes. It gets your voice to cut through the guitars.

"So a lot of the time I'm reaching; I'm singing out of my range. You know, it's harder on the vocal chords, but I think it's a little more exciting to listen to than if I was singing down here all the time. Then we'd have to have a piano and banjo."

Soul Asylum isn't about to go country, but Pirner did become a big-time blues and Cajun music aficionado in the time period between "Candy From a Stranger" (1998) and "The Silver Lining." He put out a solo record, "Faces & Names," in that style in 2002.

He and his wife, Karen, have a second home in her hometown of New Orleans. Because their house is on higher ground, they got off fairly easy in the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005, although Pirner noted that several of their friends have since moved out of the city.

"The more time I was spending in New Orleans the more I realized it's a special place when it comes to music," Pirner said. "I wanted to be around these people that have music playing all the time. Things used to be all sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, and now I've found these different elements I've been missing my whole life. I've been around the world and there's no place like New Orleans."

Pirner realizes in retrospect that Soul Asylum was heavily shaped by the Minnesota scene's guitar-driven rock aesthetic.

"Growing up where everyone is in a rock band, you just did what everyone was doing," he said. "I was just crazy for rock 'n' roll, but I didn't realize I could do it until I started seeing local bands. Karl and I were sitting in his pickup truck after a local band played, and we said, 'We gotta give it a try.'"

Pirner feels that music trends are more powerful than any individual band.

"It's hard to have goals when you're in a rock band," he said. "You feel like everything could fall apart at any given second. Getting our first gig at the 7th Street Entry (in Minneapolis in the 1980s) means as much as anything that's happened along the way. Talking to the guy at Twin/Tone (which signed the band to its first record deal in 1984), I thought that's as big as any of this gets.

"You become very quickly jaded. There's so much excitement in making your first record, and it couldn't be more different today. Seventeen-year-olds sit around and dream about putting a song on MySpace. It doesn't seem like the same kick."

Soul Asylum - which today is rounded out by co-founder Dan Murphy on rhythm guitar, former Prince collaborator Michael Bland on drums and newcomer George Scott McKelvey on bass - may still be making good, timely music. But Pirner will always have fond memories of those early days, before everybody knew his name.

"I had to make my record label make me a copy of 'Silver Lining' on vinyl," he said with a laugh. "I don't feel like I made a record unless I'm holding a record. So they made one for me just to shut me up.

"There's a very romantic notion when I look back on coming up (as a band). You throw around sarcasm and contempt for the business when you get burned a bunch of times; you get more cynical. But, you know, it was just a thrilling time."