Music and culture in the Kato area

This year, for Mankato residents, the Grammys ‘undercard’ is worth watching

I had the most wonderful conversation with a world-class piano player yesterday.

Jon Cleary is, well, kind of a legend. If you’ve never heard of the guy, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Most people haven’t. But if you love music, you’ll love Jon Cleary.Jon-Cleary-10

He’s a virtuosic piano player from Kent, England who came to the U.S. a few decades ago and immersed himself in the scene and sounds of New Orleans. He’s played with Bonnie Raitt, Ryan Adams, Taj Mahal, BB King and many, many others.

And — AND — he’s up for a Grammy this year for his latest album, Go Go Juice. It’s up for Best Original Roots Music Album, an award that doesn’t make the prime time show with its Taylor Swifts and Kendrick Lamarrs, but super important, nonetheless.

Why should you care?

Jon Cleary is performing in Mankato Thursday night as part of the Bunny Just Piano Festival, which was featured in the Free Press Sunday. Yep. This Thursday you could potentially have the opportunity to see a newly minted Grammy Award-winning musician.


Here’s the Bee Balm Fields newsroom show

They came, they say, they kicked ass.

Do music and politics mix? Of course they do

On Monday, after Bernie Sanders shocked the world and pulled off a virtual tie with Hilary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, he took to the stage and, before a rabid crowd of Berners, gave a very Bernie-like speech (he was in the zone, the Bernie zone, hand gestures flying).

And when it was over, they fired up some music. But not just any music. A very carefully selected song full of meaning, a song to suggest a certain sense of momentum for Bernie, a song written by another guy who came out of nowhere to excite the masses. That song was “Starman” by David Bowie. Check it out below. It was perfectly timed to come in at the chorus.

Lyrics (chorus)

There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
‘Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie

It was a genius choice. Not only is it a great song, but so many people are still mourning Bowie’s death. Bernie, the nicest guy in the race, the outsider (at least in the Democratic party) combined with a great song by a guy whose death brought his music to a new generation of listeners, young listeners, many of whom make up Bernie’s base.

Politicians have often employed music to aid their cause. Music is visceral. Take something with emotional power behind it and use it as a backdrop to a powerful orator, and it’s not difficult to see why they do it.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane, shall we?



Who could forget this moment? In 1992, Bill Clinton both began and ended his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention with the words, “I believe in a place called Hope.” This song followed directly after his speech was over and became America’s favorite song. Well … some of America, anyway.


The more recent Springsteen albums have produced ZERO so-called hits. Radio stations no longer play his new music. But this track from the Wrecking Ball album is one of that album’s best, and the song summed up Obama’s policy goals of making affordable health care available to everyone.


This was a delightful choice for John Kerry. As a person of means, he likely could have found a way around having to suit up for the Vietnam war. But there he was, getting dirty enough to be awarded three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star. This Creedence Clearwater Revival song champions the common man’s plight, the plight of having to go to war when our country demands. Say what you want about Kerry, it was pretty ballsy to enlist, and then fight in a war he could have easily avoided.


Gutsy move by McCain, picking the cheesiest of cheesy songs to play at his rallies. Then again, it’s hard not to like ABBA.


Leave it to Kid Rock to shun the conventional wisdom of his breathren. He’s always been on the conservative side, and when Mitt came calling, Kid was there to stand firmly in support of the Republican presidential nominee.

Now, it’s worth noting that there have been a candidates who try to use a song but are quickly issued cease and desist orders from the artists. Usually this occurs because the artist wants nothing to do with the political candidate. Here’s a list.

  • Ronald Reagan wanted wanted to use Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” in 1984 when he was running for re-election. Springsteen, “Nah, bro.” Plus, Reagan — or, perhaps more accurately, Reagan’s people — failed to grasp that “Born in the U.S.A.” isn’t exactly a happy, pro-America anthem.
  • George W. Bush was using Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down” for a while before Petty said, “Nah, bro.” It was a solid choice, though. Not only did Dubya use it, Hilary Clinton used it in 2008, and did Ron Paul.
  • Sarah Palin used Heart’s “Barracuda” during her campaign. It apparently was her nickname in high school. Anne and Nancy Wilson said, “Nah, bro.”
  • Paul Ryan in 2012 tried to use Rage Against the Machine’s “Guerilla Radio.” Rage said, “Nah bro,,” and guitarist Tom Morello had this to say: “Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”
  • The Romney campaign had been using the song “Panic Switch” by Silversun Pickups, until the Pickups said, “Nah, bro,” and issued a statement from their lawyer that said, basically, the band’s reputation would be compromised if their fans thought they were endorsing Romney.
  • And of course the lovely Adele recently delivered a very on-pitch “Nah, bro,” to The Donald, who’d been blasting “Rolling in the Deep” at his rallies.


Stung by the Bee … (balm fields)

We started something a couple of years ago here at the Free Press that is very fun and something we don’t do nearly enough.

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Bee Balm Fields

Ripping off a great idea from National Public Radio, we decided to start a little concert series in the quaint confines of our newsroom. Seemed like a great idea. This city has loads of musical talent. And our newsroom has a sort of weird/corporate/downtown feel to it. We launched it a couple of years ago with The Frye.

Since then, we’ve done this sporadically. But when we have done it, it’s usually been amazing.

Well, we arranged to do it again and, last weekend, we had the up-and-coming band Bee Balm Fields here. They performed to a mostly empty newsroom, which is fine because, even when the newsroom was fuller, the end result videos have never really shown it. We’ve all got faces for radio anyway. You’re not missing much.

Bee Balm Fields, though … Amazing. In a few days you’ll get a chance to see our video (produced by the talented students from Bethany Lutheran College’s Communications program!) and I think you’ll agree: They’re definitely worth your time.

As a non-musician, I’m always curious how musicians work. I find the entire process fascinating. For one of the songs in their newsroom set, bass player Ben Scruggs was unfamiliar with the tune. Within a few minutes of going through the song, he’d picked it up and off they went. Total pro. It was a simple moment for them … but I was sure impressed.

Lead singer and songwriter Laura Karels fronts the band. Her voice is powerful. Filled the newsroom better than a rant by the day news editor. Fast-fingered Pete Klug plays guitar. And then there’s Lehi Gertz, whose gorgeous violin gives this band a sound that sets it apart from many.

The other thing that sets this band apart is that its lead singer is about to give birth. She’s close you guys. Go see them now before she’s off on maternity leave! Don’t worry, though. Karels promises to be back. She says she can’t live without performing her music. Which is very good for us music lovers.

Let’s rock …

So I’ve been thinking for a LONG TIME now about starting a music blog.

I’ve hesitated, of course. It is, after all, more work. But I’ve found myself in so many situations where it would be GREAT to be able to just say a few words to my fellow music lovers out there.

Moments such as:ThinkstockPhotos-89700769

■ When a prominent rocker dies

■ When I sit in awe of the acoustics at the Good Counsel Chapel

■ After a great performance by a local band at a local tavern

■ When I unbelievably tired of hearing the same old music at hockey games at The Cell.

■ When Springsteen announces a new tour and I have to rejoice.

■ When my daughter brings her clarinet home and plays a piece just for me, and I cry.

So as you can see, there’s just a lot of material out there, material that doesn’t rise to the level of writing about in The Free Press. This blog will give me a place to dump those thoughts, and hopefully bond (virtually) with other music lovers in the region.

Plus, there’s simply a helluva lot happening musically in this town. From the local symphony to Fuzz Talk Radio, Mankato’s music scene is a rich one. Hopefully this blog will do it justice.

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