American Master: Spider John Koerner kicks off MWMF 6

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Minneapolis legend Spider John Koerner launched the 6th annual Mid West Music Fest with a crisp solo set at the Winona Historical Society Thursday, April 23.

After brief introductions from MWMF organizers Jacob Grippen and Parker Forsell, Koerner played “Careless Love” then told a joke about a child drawing a picture of God, when informed by the teacher that no one knows what God looks like, the young artist replies, “They will in a few minutes.”

It was an apt opener because in the pantheon of living country bluesmen and folkies, Spider John is pretty much Zeus.

As part of Koerner, Ray & Glover  he helped ignite the folk revival with their seminal 1963 release Blues, Rags, & Hollers.  Playing the songs and picking up the guitar styles of original bluesmen like Josh White, Peg Leg Howell, Blind Lemon Jefferson and others, Koerner kept their songs alive and introduced them to a huge new audience.  Koerner was also, famously, a friend of, and influence on, the teenaged Bob Dylan when they were both playing Dinkytown coffeehouses. Koerner has been a West Bank fixture ever since, playing with Ray, Glover, Willie Murphy and countless others over the years. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that every act at MWMF has benefited from the musical legacy Koerner has fostered and shared.

Despite being in his mid-70s, and playing a fraction of the gigs he did in his heyday, his playing and voice were sharp.  Plucking his 12 string Gretsch percussively and singing with gusto and nuance, he brought energy and warmth to each song.  His set included the folk standard “Stewball”, Woody Guthrie’s “More Pretty Women Than One” which Koerner has added a verse to, “Ezekiel” the folk tune the lyrics to which Robert Hunter later reworked into the Grateful Dead’s “The Wheel”,  the gold rush song “Days of ’49” which Koerner delivered a cappella with the audience’s feet keeping time, “Good Time Charlie”, his bird song “Phoebe”, “Jack of Diamonds”, the murder ballad “Delia”, “The Leatherwinged Bat”, “What’s a Matter With the Mill?” and Leadbelly’s “Good Night Irene.”  For his encore Koerner belted out “Rattlesnake,” a song made popular to MWMF audiences by Koerner’s protege, fan, friend and festival stalwart Charlie Parr, who was in attendance.

The event was held for MWMF organizers, volunteers, patrons and friends, which included Winona mayor Mark Peterson, to launch the sixth annual festival. Pearl Street Brewing was on hand and Luke and Brandon from Red House Records (https://www.redhouserecords.com/index.html) were selling cds and vinyl from Charlie Parr and Pieta Brown, and the Historical Society workers had the gift shop open as the crowd mingled.  Prior to the show Koerner signed some old vinyl for record aficionado and Broken World Records owner Will Challeen.

After the show Koerner chatted a bit, packed up his guitar and strode off into the Johnson St twilight.

 

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