On the road again, again

Jill Fisher

Inside Straight playing at the Pine County Fair. Photos by Jill Fisher.

I’ve now made two trips this summer up the North Shore to hear outdoor concerts, one by Charlie Parr, another by Joyanne Parker: But this past week I headed an hour south on I-35 to hear the blues band Inside Straight, which was playing at the Pine County Fair in Pine City.

One might wonder why in the world, and rightly so, what with all the blues I’ll be hearing this weekend. Granted the timing was somewhat off but here’s the story in a nutshell: I first learned of this band in early June when I spoke with its leader Kurt Koehler after he performed a couple songs during the regular Tuesday Blues and Dance Jam at The Blues Saloon (formerly Wilebski’s) in St. Paul. He was playing lead electric guitar and sang “Bad Case of Love.” It really knocked me out.

Following up, I found that the band plays mainly around the Twin Cities area. I asked around about it and my pals in the Twin Cities knew of it, saying it’d been around for a while. Thirty-one years to be exact, per Koehler! Kurt Koehler knows the blues. He owned, produced, edited and wrote for the monthly Twin Cities Blues News  1996 – 2006. As such he was inducted into the Minnesota Blues Hall of Fame in 2009 for literature. (I have yet to track down the archive, which is required remedial reading for me.) T

hus I have been looking for an opportunity to hear Inside Straight and Saturday, Aug. 5, was the closest venue on a date convenient for me. To entice me further, the gig was attractive due to my fondness for county fairs; I love seeing the horses and other animals, taking the rides – the wilder the better – and checking out the blue ribbon awards for jams, pickles and pies.

More recently I discovered that fairs (like my venture to the Minnesota State Fair last summer) are a good place to hear live music. I arrived at the Pine County Fairgrounds in good time and heard the band already playing before its noon start time, as I walked through the fair to the bandstand. That doesn’t happen too often!

The members of Inside Straight are Koehler (electric guitar, vocals), Rose Duffy (saxophone, flute, vocals), Bill Swanson (keyboards, bongos, vocals), Mark Zmuda (bass, background vocals) and Donna Dahl (drums, vocals). The first full song I heard was Koehler’s rendition of “I Get the Blues Everyday” which instantly put me in a blues mood. Before I could settle in though, Swanson launched into “Walkin’ the Dog”- a Rock and Roll number with the silly, though realistic lyrics, “…pick up the poop, put it in the bag, throw it in the trash.” 

Drummer Donna Dahl was a real a wake-up call, taking the lead on several tunes, among them, “Gimme One Reason,” “Them Changes” and “Dancin’ In The Street.” What a voice! She warbles, wails and growls with a Janis Joplin-like passion. Her extreme vibrato adds a grittiness that makes the band’s sound distinctive on these numbers. Dahl was really, truly soulful on the Etta James song, “I’d Rather Be Blind.” I’m in awe that anyone can put this much into conveying a song like she does all the while pounding out the rhythm on drums. Quite remarkable.

By contrast, Bill Swanson has a smooth and strong voice that gave us pitch-perfect covers of classic rockers like “Great Balls of Fire” and other tunes by Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, etc. Delightfully danceable. One original tune performed by the band was his: “At the Juke Joint” with him singing lead.

On a couple of numbers Swanson turned away from his keyboard to add some bongo percussion to the mix. He too sang an Etta James song, “Can’t Help Myself,” which demonstrated he could go bluesy as well.

Bass player Mark Zmuda wasn’t highlighted as much as the others, but still his rhythmic backup served the band well. In addition, he joined on a few songs to provide harmonies. The five members all singing together was one of the ways this band stayed tight, despite the divergent genres that snuck into the playlist. One such song was “You Are My Sunshine” that became something entirely different given the jammin’ treatment it received.

Inside Straight

Then there is saxophonist Rose Duffy who is featured with the band. Her sax instrumental of “When A Man Loves A Woman” was wonderfully emotive. On the song “Into the Misty,” Duffy’s long sax notes were particularly effective in replicating an appropriate foghorn sound. Then, in another diversion from pure Blues,  the band performed the song “Tequila!” with Duffy roaming the audience with her sax and the rest of the band (and audience members) shouting the song’s title. Duffy also sang lead vocals on a couple of songs – “Fever” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”

Most of the numbers played during this afternoon concert included saxophone solos or interludes, which were great for the most part. Those of you who read my reviews regularly will recall that one of my more critical comments about the June 20 Doobie Brothers concert was that they featured a bit too much sax, which tends to homogenize the songs played. The same could be said here; it was a welcome respite when Duffy switched to flute on “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Ball and Chain.”

But it was Koehler’s full-out bluesy covers of Mose Allison, Albert Collins, Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Eric Clapton tunes, among others, that created the groove I was seeking. I can’t say his vocals reminded me of any specific blues icon (but then I haven’t an encyclopedic memory of all blues artists). What I can say, is he has the requisite “tough guy” inflections (“Messin’ With The Kid”) and subtle nuances that bring lyrics to life.

On one number Koehler demonstrated a call-and-response style with his rare long-necked 1969 Gibson 330; singing a line, then letting his guitar lick complete the sentence. With “Born In Chicago,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Ball and Chain” and “Iceman” and winding up the show with “A Bad Case of Love,” Koehler revealed a real kinship with the blues.

As I have previously opined, what keeps a band from being a typical cover band is a curated selection of covers and making them its own musically. It’s my opinion that Inside Straight does this admirably. It would be great to be able to hear them play here in Duluth sometime, especially since there seems to be insufficient opportunities to hear live blues music in this town (except this weekend!)

Upcoming: For those who don’t wish to make the trek up the hill to Chester Bowl for the regular concert series there on Tuesday evenings, the DECC is hosting outdoor events – “Beer & Bands by the Blue Bridge.” (Back in the day, many of us called it the “Baby Bridge.”) Doors open at 6, music starts at 7; on Tuesday, August 15 the Bluegrass band Tres Osos will perform.