The Soul of Saint Paul (with a little help from our Minneapolis neighbor)

The Soul of Saint Paul

Pardon the delay on this submission. In terms of timing, it is rather late to be writing simply about last weekend. However, that is simply because parts of last weekend are still sticking with me like the scrumptious BBQ ribs I consumed at the First Trinity church. Nevertheless, it is time I recount this experience and try to piece together what I feel was a very satisfactory weekend, and a clue to the soul of Saint Paul.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to begin with Garrison Keillor, the arguably beckoning voice of Saint Paul (I disagree, but so would millions of listeners to my idea), and his bookstore, Common Goods. Or, was it the musicians who invaded and Common Goods was merely an observant? No matter what, the combination of accordions and cozy bookstore settings was discovered to be a compelling match. Thanks to some strings, or, in this case, boxes being pulled, performers from the “Think Outside the Squeezebox” accordion gathering at O’Garas stopped by for an “impromptu” flash mob. It was later revealed that it was the most orderly flash mob ever, with a gaggle of accordion players lined up neatly in the back of the store, and surprisingly anticipated, but, the results were rather pleasant. Traditional waltzes mixed with Tom Jones’ Delilah and a hint of audience-participation via kazoos made for a pleasant jam of a morning. A Macalester first-year even made his St. Paul accordion playing debut! While the spontaneity may have faded in the background, the community of music was a welcome addition to a beautiful, crisp morning.

I had intentions to go to the Festa Italiana, but, due to time crunches, I was unable to attend. On my way to my next event down Marshall Ave. however, I stumbled across an equally interesting tradition. There, I spotted smoke on the horizon and as I pulled to the corner of Marshall and Chatsworth Avenue, I saw a smoker that stretched almost the entire block. Ok, a slight exaggeration, but forgive me if my newfound hunger clouded my vision. There, two young church community members were roasting up many racks of delicious ribs. I bought the $12 dinner plate, which included a full rack, coleslaw, beans and Texas toast, and I helped myself to a heaping plate of BBQ goodness. The ribs were tender, juicy and came with a homemade sauce, simmered on the stove for hours. I was told that the “Ribfest” as they called it happens every couple Saturdays, and they start grilling early in the morning (that’s 10 am, so translate early/late as you please). All I can say is that it is definitely worth a drive-by every Saturday to see if they are grilling up.

Sharing community food was a continued venture on the next stop of this interesting day as my girlfriend and I took in a showing of The Return of King Idomeneo: A Picnic Operetta at Swede Hollow Park. The play was a tale of the return of a King Idomeneo onto his unfamiliar hometown, a question of an unfulfilled sacrifice to King Neptune, which just happens to be his son, and, of course, diners and doo-wop galore. Thanks to the injection of 50’s choruses and fashion, Mixed Blood Theater produced another spectacular performance and provided delectable snacks to munch on such as cucumber boats and kale bites that matched the soaring ships and algae monsters in the show. The performance was filled with energy, wonderful musical arrangements, and enough clever translation of the epic opera for even the least-read opera fan to understand. It was unfortunate that it was the second-to-last performance, but, it was quite a joy to enjoy such a unique spectacle in one of St. Paul’s most beautiful natural spots.

However, I believe I saved the most beautiful part for last, and that was at the Twin Cities Funk and Soul revival show hosted by Secret Stash Records at the Cedar Cultural Center. The event coincided with a new collection put out by Secret Stash that brings together songs from many groups that helped establish the scene in the Twin Cities. The event got major buzz as Mayor R.T. Rybak stopped by to visit with the old stars during rehearsals, and both cities declared through official proclamations last week to be Funk and Soul week in the Twin Cities. When I arrived, I had never seen a more diverse crowd. There were a lot more older people than I am accustomed to, including a rollicking seating section, but there were also a fair amount of younger folks, including kids. A lot of people appeared to share some sort of connection to the old bands, as there was a great deal of buzz as the house band was introduced, but, eventually, everyone became connected by the fantastic music pouring out. The main band was electric. A three piece horn section, guided by a sharp bass and guitar from one of the Secret Stash Records employees ripped through hit after hit as singers rotated in from groups and singers such as The Valdons, Willie Walker, Jackie Harris and amny more. My favorite was from a sultry starlet, Wanda Davis, as she wailed a passionate version of “Take Care”, a mid-tempo letter to a lover that got the crowd moving and grooving. Perhaps the most rewarding part of the evening was seeing the true emotion pour out of bandmates who hadn’t played together, let alone seen each other in over thirty five years. As the show became older, the crowd and the bands seemed to get younger. I was shocked that more dance songs occupied the set instead of slow jams, as burners such as “Thieves in the Funkhouse” and “The Maxx” got even the oldest groovers to shake off any rust and take a strut. In the end, I developed a further respect for those whose names may not have gotten big, but certainly made an impact in the community.

So, what do all of these events have in common besides making for an exhausting day? I think they show how well engrained St. Paul’s history is, and how tradition and reinterpretation can create a wonderful concoction. From two young men carrying an outreach tradition with time-honored staples, to a remix of a centuries-old theatrical tale, or a new vision of an old bookstore (with kazoos) and the reunion of classic singers with a familiar and foreign crowd, St. Paul (and a little help from Minneapolis) provided a vision of community give and take. As I told my twin brother visiting from Chicago, this line of events may happen in other cities, but, at once, on the same day, in a way that is accessible to all? Well, the next time that happens is when I finally start to get opera. Oh wait…

Edtor’s Note

The writer,a guest blogger for St. Paul SPOT is Harry Kent , currently a senior at Macalester College, and a student employee at Macalester’s Civic Engagement Center.  Prior to that time, he was a community outreach coordinator and eventually, serving  a brief stint as Office Manager of the University Avenue Business Association.

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