The days of keeping your voice down at the library are over. At least in downtown St. Paul, where the James J. Hill Reference Library has become one of St. Paul’s newest late- night music-and-drinks venues. The private, nonprofit business library launched a number of musical events this winter that included the Book It series—four evenings of trivia, beer and music by local indie and pop talent that ended in March—and the monthly Real-Phonic Radio Hour, a live show that bills itself as an evening of “American roots music and conversations on poetry, music, the arts and a world gone mad.”
The Hill will extend its closing time again on Thursday, April 26, as country-blues guitarist Charlie Parr headlines the fifth Real-Phonic Radio Hour.
The Radio Hour is a collaborative effort by Twin Cities musicians Molly Maher, Erik Koskinen and Paul Bergen and idea- guy Thom Middlebrook, a music fan with a highly successful career in design who happens to be on the board of the James J. Hill Library.
The show debuted in November, but its roots lie on Dec. 19, 2010, the snowy winter day when Koskinen’s 1996 Suburban was stolen—along with a cherished guitar and all of his gear—from a spot beneath the window of his UniversityAvenue loft. “I remember the date because it was the day after my dad’s birthday,” Koskinen says. “It had snowed a lot. I just got the truck fixed. I just spent $1,500 on my truck that week.” Had he not changed the glow plugs on the vehicle, whoever stole it “wouldn’t have even been able to start it.”
He shakes his head. He had no theft coverage on the vehicle or the stuff inside it, which included a guitar that had once belonged to David Hidalgo from the rock-Latin- blues band Los Lobos.
Koskinen’s friends staged a benefit for him at First Avenue. Called the Real-Phonic Revival Show, performers included Duluth stringband Trampled by Turtles and the band’s side project, Dead Man Winter, along with The Jahskinens, Charlie Parr, Molly Maher and Ashleigh Still.
“That was the beginning of the Real-Phonic show,” Koskinen says.
The Radio Hour takes its name from Koskinen’s recording studio and record label. Real Phonic Studios has produced work by Trampled by Turtles, Australian band The Waifs, the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank, and of course his own work and that of his frequent musical partner Molly Maher.
“I called it ‘Real Phonic’ because we tend to keep it quite true to the form as much as possible,” he says. “I have a warehouse space [in the Southeast Como neighborhood of Minneapolis] with high ceilings and an open room, and many of the recordings we do are live, like the old days. I have a tape machine and analog stuff. We have modern stuff also, so we can mix the two worlds together. We tend to try as much as we can to keep it as real as possible. Hence the name: ‘Real Phonic.’ ”
Back to the Radio Hour: “It’s just an idea that we started and we’ll keep on doing it,” Koskinen says. The first show featured Iowa singer- songwriter Bo Ramsey. Subsequent shows were headlined by Paul Cebar, Dead Man Winter and indie-rockers The Pines. Middlebrook emcees each show and poet Julie Klatt Singer reads her work.
At the January show, which was held on one of the coldest nights of this past winter, Singer read a poem with stark images of birdless bare branches and frostless windows. In February, when the show was temporarily moved to the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, she read a poem about meeting a woman vomiting in the bathroom at a Suburbs concert. “It was a rock and roll kind of night,” Koskinen explains.
The creators have high hopes that the show will eventually be broadcast on a radio station. For now, the show’s website, realphonic.com, has some of the shows online and you can read Singer’s poems and learn about the musicians.
Koskinen, who describes his own work as American roots music with a lot of influence from the blues, country, rock and roll, rockabilly and soul music that came out of Memphis, is rarely seen without a ball cap. His current favorite bears a label that reads “Detroit,” a nod to his maternal grandfather who worked for Buick in southern Michigan.
He comes from a family of autoworkers and that means he tendsto fix his own cars, like the Suburban that was stolen more than a year ago and was never found. The guitar, however, is back with him. It showed up at a pawn shop in a northern suburb.
The Real-Phonic Radio Hour (which actually lasts for way more than an hour) will present Charlie Parr on Friday, April 26, at 8 p.m. at the James J. Hill Reference Library. Tickets are $25. You can order them through the show’s website, realphonic.com, or buy them at the library the day of the show. You can also hear Koskinen and Maher play at their weekly Wednesday show at 9 p.m. at the Aster Café, 125 S.E. Main St., Minneapolis.