March 20 was one of them nights that just don’t pan out.
It was my first time at the Acadia Cafe since it moved from South Minneapolis to the West Bank, across the street from that venerable, holdover hippie hangout the Hard Times Café. The place looks good: big enough not to be cramped, small enough to still be intimate. Nice-sized stage, roomy enough to fit a band.
Sitting, I was greeted by a cordial wait-person (never much cared for the word waitress: if waiter’s good enough for a man it ought to be for a woman) who offered beer and dinner menus.
At 9:10, there was no sign when the band would go on. They were there—hanging around, walking back and forth from the stage, sipping brews, chatting. Who knew when they would go on? At least the washboard player was warming up, test-driving his instrument and accessories. Eventually, the rest strolled up and I was hopeful that it would be showtime. Nope. They decided to test microphones (God invented sound checks for a reason). It was easily 9:30 by the time they were ready to take care of business…except they still weren’t ready. They got into a number and one found his mic wasn’t working, then moved to another guy’s mic to sing the song. It was a decent bluegrass cut, followed by a sho’ nuff hoedown that could get a dead man tapping his toe. Next one was pretty good, too. Then, it was the first guy’s turn to sing again and he returned to the faulty mic (why’d he think the thing would fix itself?) before switching again. The engineer finally replaced the mic and the band ran through a handful of tight tunes: though not overly concerned about professionalism, they can pick it.
Then, one announced their names with a spiel about how they’re all from separate bands and something-something-something. No longer listening, I was bugging the soundman. “This ain’t Urban Hillbilly Quartet”? He answers, “No, they go on at 10:30.” It was a wash. The listing said nothing about an opening act (seeing four guys playing bluegrass, I figured it was UHQ—though I wondered why they sounded different than on the CDs). Added to which, I had domestic responsibilities. So, I left.
That said, this article was designated for the Urban Hillbilly Quartet and, dagnabit, that’s what Um gon’ write about. Bandleader Erik Brandt, God bless ‘im, had sent some discs from their catalog. So, here’s a mini-review for those who’ve yet to hear UHQ.
Bring in the Sails is a fine EP, leading with the sardonic, strutting “Revelation Blues,” honky-tonk rock in the first degree. “Escape Route” jams bluegrass, an energized free-for-all. “I Knew” is a honey-sweet ballad. The full-length Amelia’s Boot flat-out kicks from beginning to end without a stroke missed anywhere in the middle. You want to talk sharply inventive songwriting and excellent musicianship, talk this disc. Burning country rock to a beautiful turn, Amelia’s Boot brings it: hard-edged foot-stompers and sweetly reflective tunes, all admirably acquitting this band’s pedigree. They also throw in tastes of Gaelic roots, jazz, and poetic prose. (For a full discography, see urbanhillbillyquartet.com. As well, Brandt has the solo outings Sometimes and Green Eyed Alone, which features, along with fellow UHQ-ers, members of the Jayhawks and Romantica. It’s an incredible band with an amazing output of recordings.
Wish I could’ve stayed around to catch the Urban Hillbilly Quartet in action. Next time, I’ll call ahead.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.