A night with Alicia Wiley at the 331: No joints in the joint, but double-Jack-rocks for just $4.50


If you’re looking for an enjoyable watering hole, try the 331 Club in Northeast Minneapolis. It’s got, right off the bat, two very good things going for it. There’s never a cover, and drinks—in addition to not being watered-down—don’t cost an arm and a leg. (This consumer reports that you can get a double-Jack-rocks for the low, low price of $4.50, and they’ve got a gigantic blackboard featuring some swingin’ drink specials.) The customer service is to be noted as well. You don’t have to flag the bartender down and remind him or her you ordered a drink so long ago you’ve already sobered up. Nor do they saunter over with a kiss-my-grits disposition like they’re doing you a favor to let you spend your bread. They’re casually, courteously professional.

The 331 Club is at 331 13th Ave. N.E. in Minneapolis. (612) 331-1746. Open 2 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 12 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

This particular night, I get something of a twofer. I finally get over to this place I’ve been meaning to check out and, into the bargain, will be catching a set by amazing singer-songwriter Alicia Wiley.

Alicia is at a table with Nathan Cole (bass player for Kymara, 2 Wurds) and a fellow I don’t know. Joining them, I take the place in. It’s packed, but not uncomfortably so: the room’s bustling, yet you can turn around without stepping on at least two people’s shoes and catching someone’s elbow in your ribs. No matter where you’re sitting, there’s a good view of the stage. If it didn’t mean taking the bus, I’d like to drop in from time to time. Alas, MTC’s 11 line runs once an hour and if you miss the last one coming back—which I wound up doing—it’s a healthy hike to maindrag Minneapolis.

In short order, me and Nate—a likeable guy with an easy-going air and a ready smile—are chewing the rag. I drag out my the-first-time-I-saw-Alicia-Wiley story (she’s heard it to death, but Nate hasn’t) and share with him how she blew me away at the Cabooze and I’ve been a slavishly devoted fan, an unashamed cheerleader ever since.

Wiley’s only drawback is you have to wonder if she’s cut out to be a musician in the conventional sense of the word. Not that she isn’t phenomenally talented—it’s her work ethic and personal habits. She doesn’t keep the crowd waiting, reading a comic book in the dressing room until she feels like being so bothered as to take the stage. To her, a 9 o’clock showtime means 9 o’clock, not whenever gets around to it. For that matter—and producer J.D. Steele will tell you—when she does session work, backing somebody up in the studio, Wiley arrives when she’s supposed to and cooperates like a true team player, giving the project her best. As an artist, she doesn’t take ages between albums, leaving her audience replaying her old CDs, wondering if and when the next one will ever come out. In fact, as last winter’s Changes hit the store racks, she was already working on Halfway Home, which she’s quietly releasing next month as a Christmas stocking stuffer before February’s official Valentine’s Day unveiling. You won’t find her carousing in clubs, drinking herself into stupidity, and it’s doubtful the woman knows what a joint looks like, much less that she’d be caught smoking one in the alley. Simply put, it’s her attitude: she has too much professionalism and sensible upbringing to be what generally comes to mind when you think of musicians.

Wiley’s only drawback is you have to wonder if she’s cut out to be a musician in the conventional sense of the word. Not that she isn’t phenomenally talented—it’s her work ethic and personal habits.

Shannon Johnson (who basically is Kymara) joins the table. Before you know it, banter flies all around, back and forth with everybody buying everybody else a round. We’re pleasantly talking up a storm by the time our well-oiled assemblage delightedly attends Alicia Wiley going up to do her thing. She transforms from a sweet, unassuming individual sitting around having fun with friends into a dark siren. Singing into the mic over her keyboard, her sardonic lyrics, stark melodies, and nuanced phrasing completely mesmerize. Except for the guy I don’t know, everybody else at the table has their attention glued to Alicia. He gives a running commentary on how good she is. Nobody pays any mind. That doesn’t stop him. When, between songs, he gets up to go do something, you can feel the relief.

Wiley does a wonderful set, and responds graciously to the crowd. Some drunk hollers out for her to sing “Halfway Home,” and she complies. After what you’ll never convince me was a full 45-minute set (time always flies when she performs), she’s done. The act after her is weak. I’m gone.

It’s been a rewarding night, except I’m highly insulted. Alicia, Nate, Shannon—none of ‘em told me how good I look without my beard. Hell, I don’t think they even noticed I shaved. Wait’ll I review their butts again. Aside from that, it’s been a real good evening at a real good club.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.