Local band makes good -- in France: "how the light gets in"

On a lot of Friday evenings, The Fantastic Merlins may find themselves playing their particular brand of soulful, sometimes lyrical free form jazz  to a dozen or so people. Fridays are the quartet's regular gig at the Black Dog Café in Lowertown, St. Paul, where the Merlins - made up of Nathan Hanson on saxaphone, Brian Roessler on the bass fiddle, Matt Turner on cello, and Peter Henning on drums - are the house band.

That's quite a contrast to the group's appearance last February during the annual Sons d'Hiver music festival in Paris or its performance a few days later in Brittany.

The group was in France promoting the impending release of its new CD, how the light gets in, a compilation of Leonard Cohen songs made in collaboration with vocalist and songwriter Kid Dakota that came out on March 8, 2010; as part of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, Kid Dakota and The Fantastic Merlins will reprise their performance of how the light gets in this Friday evening, June 18, starting at 10 p.m. at the Black Dog Café. Admission is free.

In Paris, the Merlins and Kid Dakota played before a packed audience at the Paul Eluard Theatre - which holds 400 people. What's more the performance was sold out two months in advance. A few days later, their show at a cultural center in Lagonnet, Brittany drew a crowd of more than 150 - in a village with about 400 inhabitants.

There were a lot of reasons for the big turnout. For one, both jazz and Leonard Cohen have bigger followings in France than they do in the U.S. Hanson and Roessler performed in Burgundy and Paris the summer before. And Sons d'Hiver is a popular event that generates a lot of advance press.

Whatever the case, the sold-out performances were quickly followed by other coups. This spring, FIP, the music service of the French National Radio system, picked how the light gets in as album of the week.

And in May, retail giant, FNAC, the French equivalent of Best Buy and Barnes & Noble rolled up into one outlet for books, CDs, DVDs, TVs and other electronic gear, picked how the light gets in to be the chain's featured CD for the next five months. Between now and the end of September, every patron walking into any of FNAC's 140 French stores will be greeted by prominent end-aisle displays featuring Kid Dakota and the Fantastic Merlins. The group plans to capitalize on the exposure when it returns to France this November with performances in several cities.

The genesis of how the light gets in goes back to early in 2009 at one of those Friday evening performances at the Black Dog Café.

After the performance, Hanson and Roessler fell into conversation with Jean Rochard, who founded the record company, nato music, in France 30 years ago this year.

During the conversation the musicians reminisced about an episode of "Night Music," a TV program from the 1980s, during which Leonard Cohen and Sonny Rollins performed as a duo. Intrigued, Rochard went home and found the episode on the Internet. "It was on YouTube," he says. "The two of them performing together. It was incredible."

A few days later, he suggested to the Merlins that they record a CD of Cohen songs. Both Roessler and Nathan had recorded music at Kid Dakota's studio in Northeast Minneapolis, and Roessler plays in his band, so Roessler approached the vocalist and asked if he was interested in collaborating. He was. "His songs are similar in sensibility to Leonard Cohen's," Hanson says. "It just seemed like a good fit."

Despite the sellout performances in France and even though FNAC and FIP are featuring the album, nato has no U.S. distributor for how the light gets in. The CD is being distributed in Canada and several European countries. Meanwhile, Rochard and his France-based distributor, L'Autre Distribution, are working on finding an American distributor. And, of course, copies of it will be sale at the Black Dog Friday.

In the meantime, The Fantastic Merlins are left to savor the irony of being much better known in Paris than they are in their hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

"It's just nice to be known anywhere," says Hanson with a smile.

The Fantastic Merlins with Kid Dakota, performing songs from their latest CD how the light gets in, 10 p.m., Friday, June 18, the Black Dog Café.

308 Prince St
Saint Paul, MN 55101
Hours: M-Th 7am-10pm, Fri-Sat 7am-11pm, Sun 8am-8pm

Our primary commenting system uses Facebook logins. If you wish to comment without having a Facebook account, please create an account on this site and log in first. If you are already a registered user, just scroll up to the log in box in the right hand column and log in.

Rich Broderick's picture
Rich Broderick

Rich Broderick (email richb [at] lakecast [dot] com lives in St. Paul and teaches journalism at Anoka-Ramsey Community College. Rich is a writer, poet, and social activist.