Every Halloween musicians don Kiss makeup or torture their hair into Misfits devil locks, and all year round a herd of mersh cover bands plays the hits of the 70s, 80s, and 90s to cash in on the Lincoln Park/Wrigleyville knucklehead circuit. But it's something else altogether to cover a band as fearlessly inventive as the Minutemen—reigning champeens of musical thunderspiels, hailing from San Pedro, California.
It takes courage and chops to tackle the Minutemen at all, but covering all 45 songs from the band's 1984 double album Double Nickels on the Dime—an evergreen punk masterpiece, with a seemingly limitless range of styles, moods, and genres—is nothing less than an epic endeavor.
But three local musicians have set out to scale that mountain: guitarist Nathaniel Braddock of the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International; drummer Colby Starck, best known from Head of Femur and his years backing Bobby Conn; and bassist Paul Kelvington, a social worker who hasn't been in a band since 2003. They're calling themselves Econoline, after the Minutemen's preferred model of van, and on February 20 they're going to perform everything on Double Nickels on the Dime at Lincoln Hall.
The Minutemen were populists and activists—guitarist D. Boon, who died in a van crash in 1985, was involved with organizations fighting to end the U.S. military presence in Central America, and the group made it a point to book early shows so working people with morning shifts could see them play. They also believed in the power of self-expression, and that anyone can and should start a band. Econoline are honoring that legacy by donating all proceeds from its Double Nickels show to Girls Rock! Chicago—a nonprofit dedicated to the proposition that "rock music can be a crucial tool in allowing young women to respond to preconceived notions of what they can do and what they can become."
Charity is all well and good, but Econoline have another hurdle to clear: they've got to satisfy die-hard Minutemen obsessives like me, for whom Double Nickels on the Dime exists in a sacrosanct musical space shared only by A Love Supreme and Trout Mask Replica. A lot of us really love this album, and they'd better not half-ass it.
Double Nickels, like the Minutemen's output in general, is aging better than much of the music from its era, emerging as the flannel-clad working-class punk-rock kid brother to Beefheart's daring and iconoclastic oeuvre. This was the band that most stubbornly challenged listeners' preconceptions about punk rock, and ultimately gave the world the gift of punk as idea rather than sound or fashion—the message was that it can be whatever you make it to be. With Double Nickels in particular, the Minutemen demanded that anyone who heard it reassess their juvenile loathing of certain types of music (country, funk, Steely Dan). More important, the band inspired people to pick up instruments themselves.
Die-hard Minutemen obsessives can breathe easy knowing that the members of Econoline share their feelings about Double Nickels. "It's the greatest punk-rock album of all time," says Kelvington. "If not, it's in the top three."
"This band and record represent the deep friendship and love that is unsung in the history of bands hacking it out in the basements, garages, and warehouses of small U.S. cities," says Braddock.
"Double Nickels on the Dime is my favorite album of all time," says Starck. His Facebook picture is a re-creation of its cover photo—he had it taken in LA in 1994, and in the image he's playing the role of bassist Mike Watt.
Econoline owes its existence to Kelvington, 43, who was born and raised in Pennsylvania and discovered punk as a 15-year-old in 1983. He moved to Chicago from Nashville in 1994, but he hasn't been in a steady band since '03. In May 2009 he started posting ads looking for musicians, hoping to find a creative outlet that would help him survive an unpleasant job in the locked psych ward of a local hospital.
"I was working a really horrible job as a social worker," Kelvington says, "and I was looking for something to occupy the dead space after work. . . . One day I just said, 'Let's see if I can find two guys to do a one-time-only performance of this entire album from top to bottom, and help throw some money to people who really deserve it.'"
One of Kelvington's ads was for a drummer who "can drum like George Hurley" of the Minutemen, the other for a guitarist who "can play like D. Boon." He'd been reposting them for almost a year with no response when in April 2010 a friend of Starck's forwarded him the Hurley ad.
"I thought, 'Wow, this looks really amazing,'" Starck says. "But I wasn't sure if this guy was 17 or 65, if he had ever even played in a band before. But then I realized: You know what? If I found out that this was happening, and I wasn't the guy playing the drums, I would be pissed off. So I am not going to pass up that opportunity."
Kelvington and Starck hit it off, and as they began their search for a guitarist, the Reader handed them a lead. In June a Gossip Wolf column mentioned an upcoming ensemble class Braddock would be teaching at the Old Town School of Folk Music, devoted to songs from the catalog of the Minutemen's legendary label, SST Records.
"I see that and I say, 'Oh my God!'" Kelvington says. He found Braddock's website and e-mailed him; they met two days later.
"We spent a couple hours talking one day," Kelvington says, "and then we spent a couple hours in a basement having a musical conversation."
The three of them got together for the first time in June and began regular rehearsals in late summer. They hung up posters on the wall that listed all 45 songs, and as they started learning each one they'd check it off. Until late November they made do with one weekly session, but since reconvening at the first of the year after a holiday break they've doubled up—and at each practice they run through the entire double album twice.
"I've been playing bass since I was 13, and I've never played the bass without a pick," Kelvington says. But Watt didn't use a pick on Double Nickels, and Kelvington discovered that he couldn't re-create Watt's fluid sound or get his notes to breathe the same way unless he played with his fingers too. "Switching has been a challenge." He estimates he's been practicing on his own for almost 20 hours a week, starting even before he met Starck—he says he's worn out two commercial CD copies of Double Nickels and is now on his third burned version.
Starck figures he's been giving the project an average of three or four hours of his own time every week. He starts working on each song by listening to it with headphones, picking out the different patterns and air drumming along. He's also scared up bootleg Minutemen videos so he can study Hurley's style and get a feel for how he spiced up the songs onstage. The biggest challenge, though, has been getting inside Hurley's head. "These songs average around two minutes long," Starck says, "and in those two minutes, there are so many ideas, ideas I wouldn't necessarily think of, that surprise me as a musician and challenge what I would normally do.
"George Hurley?" he continues. "Not afraid of the crash cymbal. That man hits the crash cymbal on every measure." He shifts into the drummer's universal language of onomatopoeia, sounding out the syncopation characteristic of Hurley's style.
Even Braddock, who'd learned a few Minutemen songs already as part of his Old Town class, had to spend two or three hours a week on Econoline. "Learning D. Boon's guitar parts presented a couple of problems for me," he says. "First, there are a lot of solos, and they are a little more 'classic rock' than I would myself choose to do. Second, Boon is known for his excessive use of treble, and dialing that in took time. There's a unique type of amp distortion you get when you really push the high frequencies, which I had never understood. It's cool! But it's very hard to make out the chords he plays sometimes. It's as if the guitar parts are more composed as sound and texture than as conventional harmony—and that is incredibly cool and ahead of its time."
Despite the difficulty of playing this music the way the Minutemen played it, Kelvington insists that Econoline isn't just about learning the nuances of the parts. "It's the challenge of capturing the feeling of what songs like 'History Lesson—Part II,' 'The Glory of Man,' and 'June 16th' were written around," he says.
"We're doing this out of respect and love," Starck says, "to get it to other people so they can experience this music live. We don't dress like them. We're not doing this to make a buck. It's for Girls Rock!, whose goals and credo are definitely in alliance with the Minutemen."
"It's the only way to do it—it's part of the politics of the original punk movement," Braddock says. "When Paul approached me about the project he had conceived of a 'D. Boon Scholarship.' I suggested Girls Rock! because, unlike other organizations, they're about getting their kids to write their own original music, not regurgitate corporate rock. I think Boon would approve."
Without the blessing of Boon's brother Joe, who didn't respond to attempts to contact him, Kelvington didn't want to name anything after the late guitarist. Instead he and Econoline set up the Double Nickels Music Fund, whose aim is to fund one Girls Rock! camper each session who might not otherwise be able to go (tuition is $400). They're hoping to make enough money at Lincoln Hall to last five or six years, and donations can be made online indefinitely, not just at the show.
When Econoline take the stage, they won't be doing everything the way the Minutemen did—Braddock won't sing all of D. Boon's lyrics, and Kelvington won't sing Watt's. They've recruited guest vocalists instead, each of whom will deliver one, two, or three songs: their crowd of coconspirators includes Nels Cline from Wilco, Bobby Conn, Damon Locks from the Eternals, Miss Mia and Ratso from Chic-a-Go-Go, Tim Kinsella from Joan of Arc, Azita Youssefi, Jeanine O'Toole from the 1900s, Jim Cooper from Detholz!, Rebecca Flores from Tyler Jon Tyler, poster maker Jay Ryan, and teenage Girls Rock! camp alum Ruadhan Ward. After the show, the venue will host the first midwest screening of A History Lesson—Part I, an hour-long SoCal punk documentary by LA filmmaker Dave Travis.
During the weeks Econoline spent putting the show together with their partners at Girls Rock!—outreach director Melissa Oglesby and fund-raising coordinator Jennifer Czajka—Kelvington contacted Watt, Hurley, and contemporaries of the Minutemen, hoping they'd want to participate. He reached out to Greg Ginn from Black Flag, Joe Baiza from Saccharine Trust, Paul Roessler from the Screamers, and many more. Everyone was supportive, but everyone declined: "They're all still profoundly affected by D. Boon's death," he says. Ginn explained that getting involved in a Minutemen tribute would hit too close to home, even after 25 years—and that out of respect for Hurley, Watt, and the Boon family, he wouldn't feel right doing it without Joe Boon's OK. Given how strongly many Minutemen fans feel about the subject without having known D. Boon at all—except through his music and the personality in his lyrics—it hardly seems unreasonable that his old friends would hesitate.
That's not to say that what Econoline are doing is somehow disrespectful. Like the Minutemen, they're about musicianship, audacity, and altruism. As they get closer to their big night, Kelvington is cautiously confident and obviously elated.
"We're playing great, but it really comes down to the challenge of it," he says. "Can I be disciplined enough? Can I care enough to follow this through to the very end?
"I don't feel any more alive than when we play these songs."