Photos by Jay Gabler/MPR
“I don’t play that much, and I don’t go out of town. I don’t like having a manager. I wouldn’t mind having wardrobe and makeup.”
Curtiss A paused. He was midway through a costume change backstage at the Minnesota State Fair — to be precise, in the broom closet at the Ramberg Senior Center. After four decades of interviews, he knows when he’s given you a good quote. “Is that going to be in italics?”
The Minnesota music legend is onstage this week at the Ramberg Center (“they’ve agreed to remove the ‘senior,’ just for me”) — and not for the first time. Is there anyone who’s played more local music venues?
“I’ve seen him everywhere,” said one fan, waiting for the band to start this morning. “I go to the Lennon thing.”
The “Lennon thing” is the rocker’s annual tribute to John Lennon, stemming from a spontaneous concert he pulled together on the night the Beatle was assassinated. Since his days at the heart of the local indie rock scene in the ’70s and ’80s, Curtiss A (née Curt Almsted) has been involved in a wide range of musical projects.
His State Fair band, this year, are the Cold Cold Hearts — or the Long Gone Daddies, whatever. Both names are on Johnny Haga’s bass drum. The project first came together for a 2013 Hank Williams tribute show, and they reconvene a couple of times a year.
“It’s great to look out and see these people,” said guitarist Dale Strength. “They just love this material, which is so much fun.” The band has a special significance for Strength, whose father played in Williams’s band and whose godfather was Ernest Tubb.
Strength, his brother, and his father left Nashville behind and settled in Minnesota decades ago, and Strength was quick to start his own music career. “My friend said, ‘The first time I saw you was at the teen center, and now you’re at the senior center.’”
A couple hundred listeners were already in place when the band went onstage in natty Western wear for their first of three sets, standing behind a row of potted plants, at 10:30 a.m. Some listeners filled the benches in the middle of the no-frills building, and others relaxed on the rocking chairs that lined both walls. Many were in Almsted’s mid-60s age range, but there were also some younger fans — and some older ones as well.
Minnesota music legend Curtiss A with the Cold Cold Hearts, celebrating the music of Hank Williams at the Ramberg Center.
Posted by Local Current on Thursday, August 24, 2017
“I don’t know if Smokey the Bear is here,” said the frontman of the seven-piece Cold Cold Hearts. “He used to show up regularly, but I think he’s passed on. Anyway, this song is just a metaphor about the birds and the bees.” Having issued that disclaimer, Curtiss A swung into “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.”
At one point, he commented wryly on an audience suggestion that the band tour to Missouri — a suggestion perhaps prompted by the Branson tourism booth set up in back of the room, across from the Outstanding Senior Citizen wall of fame.
“We ain’t good enough for Branson,” said Curtiss. “I’d need better jokes.”
Being as it was 10:30 on a Thursday morning, the band refrained from tossing back the kind of strong beverage Williams liked to enjoy. With the explosion of craft beer at the State Fair, though, some of the seniors were going ahead and getting the party started.
“It’s too early for drinking,” said Curtiss as he prepared to play a drinking song.
“Says who?!” came back a shout from the crowd.
It didn’t take any liquid encouragement for most of the crowd to howl along with “Howlin’ at the Moon.” Curtiss grinned, clearly enjoying himself.
“You get a certain feeling from it, and it’s almost like a drug,” said the veteran of Jay’s Longhorn Bar and First Avenue, about playing live music for an appreciative crowd.
Does he play today for the same reason he did back then? “Yeah,” he said, “but I never had a reason. The reason is just to do it.”
Curtiss A and the Cold Cold Hearts return to the Ramberg
Senior Center on Friday afternoon at 3:15, 4:30, and 5:45. Join The Current and Minnesota Public Radio throughout the Fair for more music and other programming.