Weekend on the Train
Dear Linda and Shari,
Here's my piece. It's not a review and it's not an interview, either. I was sort of thinking about how Musician does features on bands (or how Rolling Stone used to, back when they covered music. Can you remember back that far? ;-) ). Sort of a travelogue, following the band from place to place.
Hope it works.
Winter is coming to Minnesota about a week or two ahead of schedule. The snow gets heavier as I make my way down Minneapolis' Central Avenue toward the New Union to catch This Train. With about 15 blocks to go, I come upon a car straddling the concrete center island. Not a good sign. I park on a side street around the corner from the club and try to remember what the cockamamie Minneapolis snow emergency parking regulations are.
The New Union occupies what used to be a VFW club until Living Word Christian Center purchased it a few years ago and transplanted their music club from an old bar a few miles south. The lower level is filled with pool tables, video games, a bar (serving coffee, soda, sandwiches, snacks, etc.), and a small record shop. To the right of the ticket counter (which isn't open yet), This Train vocalist Beki Hemingway is trying her skill at Ms. Pac-Man, with the head Train-man, vocalist/bassist Mark Robertson, peering over her shoulder and offering advice between sips of his coffee. Ms. Pac-man finishes off the little white dots on the current board and, while the game goes to the next level, I introduce myself. After Beki is devoured by the goblins a few times, Mark and I repair to a table near the bar to chat.
Mark tells me that twelve or thirteen songs are ready for the next This Train album, Mimes of the Old West. He says he'd like to have twenty ready to choose from. In a move similar to the old Broadway practice of road-testing a new production in New Haven, they're planning to do a show in Chicago in January where they'll play all the new tunes and ask the fans and friends in attendance to fill out surveys about which ones should go on the new record. A rock 'n roll focus group, I tease Mark, and I start making mental notes about travel plans or absentee ballots. We talk a bit about music in general--reeling off our favorite songwriters (we agree that Terry Taylor is one of the finest writers in the church); talking a little about his career stops with the Altar Boys, Rick Elias, the Stand, and Brighton; weighing in on our favorite Adam Again albums (he likes the funkiness of Homeboys, I like the alterna-rock of Dig) and which Rich Mullins albums I should pick up (Mark plays bass in Mullins's Ragamuffin Band.) .
As Mark starts talking about the Trains' love of prowling Midwestern pawnshops and garage sales for great guitar buys, he invites me upstairs to see Jordan's Richter's newest acquisition, a Jerry Jones (not the Dallas Cowboys' owner) guitar that, as Mark says, "looks like an old Danelectro, but it works." On the way up, we meet drummer Cobra Joe and stop into the tiny record shop. Mark spots himself on a poster for the Petra tribute album (an older band of his, The Stand, contributed a track to it). He shakes his head at how bloated he looks in the photo.
We go upstairs to check out the guitars and say hello to Jordan, who is tinkering with his guitar rig. Beki has migrated upstairs where she regales us with the previous night's activities in Willmar, MN (about 100 miles west of the Twin Cities) and shows off the fruits of today's shopping outing (a vintage polyester dress and a used World Party CD). The Willmar show, part of a week-long series at a teen club, was likely an audition for Sonshine, the western-Minnesota Christian-music summer festival. The show went well, but Mark drew some strange looks from the locals while slam dancing to the cover band at another club afterward. Then again, a 6'3"-6'4" guy with an earring and bright red hair probably doesn't show up in that prairie town everyday.
The Trains are a late addition tonight, sandwiched between a couple of local bands of high-school and college kids. Tinsel Cpin plays through a generic set of alternative rock, tossing a cover of Pearl Jam's "Better Man" amongst their originals. This Train's considerable stage experience is quite a contrast. Mark bobs up and down with his bass, mugs while singing, and offers stage patter that is funnier than most stand-up comics could ever dream of being. Jordan deftly peels off guitar runs, then smirks and rolls his eyes. Cobra Joe bangs his minimal drum kit with an unchanging grin. Beki closes her eyes and croons, gracefully waves her arms, and generally seems to be out of place with these three guys who look like they just came in from a garage.
They mix up some new songs with old favorites from their debut disc, You're Soaking In It (Etcetera). I like the darker, new "Who's Stopping You?" and Beki's catchy "All the Time." The hipster jazz of "The Wailing Wall," which includes a trivia contest that breaks up the seriousness of the song, is a treat, and seeing folks' reactions to the band's punk take on Amy Grant's "Baby, Baby," Mark's paean to Mr. Rogers ("Every Word You Said") and an unsuccessful marriage proposal ("Monstertruck") is almost as much fun as hearing them for the first time yourself.
After Bittersweet runs through
an impressive set of funky, bluesy, psychedelic rock that would imply that
these young men have been poking through their elders' record collections,
Mark sits down with some rec.music.christian acquaintances who have joined
me at the table. He talks about his Compassion International trip to the
American Indian reservations of the southwest and the Train-men's "boy"
vacation with Rich Mullins and band. Since our table is the only one left
up and the club help is hovering about with a vacuum cleaner, we make a
date for a bite to eat after Sunday night's show and Mark heads off to
assist the rest of the band with the snowy load-out.
A few miles due south of The Artist's lilac-hued Paisley Park complex, the Trains are booked to play for a youth group meeting in the distant suburb of Chaska. Tony, the youth pastor, has graciously allowed a few net friends and me to crash the gig. In the church basement, with its linoleum and concrete blocks, a small riser holds a couple of microphones, Joe's snare drum, Mark's bass amp, and a pared-down version of Jordan's guitar rig. One of our contingent is a college freshman who publishes a fledgling Christian music magazine, The Update. About five minutes before the show, he gathers Mark, Jordan, and Joe to try to get an interview that Mark's promised him. About the only thing useful is what Cobra Joe has learned on this trip ("Never eat chili with your hands," "Never use the word 'supple' when describing yourself to other guys" and "The human body is about 90% sour cream.") and Mark's favorite records. The band starts sarcastically throwing out mainstream CCM album titles, then Mark gets serious and insists that they really shouldn't be doing this. He mentions the Afghan Whigs' Black Love as the best album of '96 and lists The Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me and X's Under the Big Black Sun as major influences. Then it's showtime.
The set list is about half of last night's list mixed with some other tunes, both new and old. The "unplugged" format is a result of the small room and uncertainty about the church's P.A. system, and the concert does what an acoustic set ought to do--demonstrate that great songs are great down to the bone. Standouts are a lovely version of "We'll Never Know" with Jordan's fine Beatlesque guitar solo and the stripped-down treatment on "All The Time," "Who's Stopping You?" and "The Wailing Wall." Mark turns in wonderful solo performances of the just-written "We're Getting Nowhere Fast," a witty send-up of stardom eluding This Train, and "I Don't Mind," the beautiful closing track from Soaking. Though the kids don't get a lot of the jokes being thrown out from the stage, our row and the other adults behind us certainly do. On the other hand, the teens enjoy the intermission a lot more than we do. Contests led by Pastor Tony involving soda pop and belching, saltines and whistling, and who's had the most stitches (44 is the winning total) remind me of why I don't miss working with youth groups.
There's precious little activity at the merchandise table after the show, so we help the band load gear out to Jordan's unheated truck and determine where the nearest eatery lies. Mark climbs in with us and the conversation continues as he asks us about our jobs and families. As we pass Paisley Park, we conclude it's too cold to get out and snap photos or see if the Glyph is available for an audience.
At the local Perkins restaurant, the conversation is all over the map, and very little of what enters the young publisher's microcassette recorder will make for much of an interview. After a couple of hours, Beki, who has to leave for Chicago early in the morning, heads back to the hotel. Jordan and I talk a little, and I give him my phone number as we plan to go drool over guitars in the morning.
The next afternoon a friend and I meet the Train men at a vintage guitar shop in St. Paul. Mark and Jordan joke about having some extra cash to spend since selling Cobra Joe's drum kit. ("Yeah, you sounded great with just the snare drum last night, Joe.") After a quick survey of the shop, Jordan sheds his leather jacket, plucks a guitar off the wall, and plugs into a red and white leatherette amplifier that looks like it belongs in Ricky Nelson's bedroom. The rockabilly riffs he blasts out couldn't be more fitting.
We head next door to the authentically retro Snuffy's Malt Shop for "breakfast," leaving Jordan with instructions to inquire about the swap values of Mark's acoustic bass and the shop's pair of 70's Gibson basses. As we order Snuffyburgers, Mark talks more about his experiences in the Christian music business, playing with Rich Mullins, his girlfriend, and the studio he and Jordan run out of their house. I'm again struck by his unpretentious manner, his friendliness, and his reluctance to speak ill of others. Mark Robertson is simply one of the nicest people I've ever met. It's also evident in his choice of bandmates who share this attitude.
Jordan joins us shortly after the Snuffyburgers arrive. The store will deal one of the Grabbers for Mark's Alvarez straight up. Yeah, right. He did pick up a couple of amplifier parts, so he's pleased with the trip. Mark tells us about Jordan's obsession with guitar sounds. "I came home one day, went down to the basement, and Jordan must have rented every amp that had ever been made. He had 'em all stacked up against one wall, looking like something out of Spinal Tap. He's got mikes everywhere, including one in the air conditioning ductwork because he liked the sound he was getting through there."
I get the feeling we'd stay here shooting the breeze until the waitress shoos us out, but I have to get rolling to be home when my son gets off the school bus, so we grab the checks and head for the cashier. Everybody has either a ten or a twenty, and the cashier is very low on change. I take the tabs and write a check to cover everybody. Oh well, this is the age of checkbook journalism, isn't it?
By Dave Draeger
While this article was in the process of being written and edited, This Train passed through Minnesota again in early April opening for Rich Mullins and the Ragamuffin Band. (In addition to Mark being a Ragamuffin, Jordan toils behind the soundboard, and the Cobra is part of the road crew.) Due to some logistical issues with the management team shared by Mullins and This Train, Beki ended up not traveling with the band on the current tour. After much consideration, Beki and the guys will be parting ways. Beki and her husband Randy Kerkman will be trying out some acoustic material in some coffeehouses while they put together a band, and they'll be cutting an EP in Mark & Jordan's studio. Her fabulous "All The Time" is being pulled from the upcoming This Train album, Mimes of the Old West, for Beki to use in the new venture. The Train men will continue on as a three-piece.
Mimes of the Old West has been recorded and mixed. Artwork and mastering are in process and the disc should hit the racks in mid to late June. Listen for vocal cameo appearances from Ashley Cleveland and Rich Mullins.
Beki's last official show with This Train will be the first one up at Cornerstone '97 on Wednesday night, so you'd best get to Bushnell early and get over to the Compassion stage by 7 p.m.. And don't go home early, because she'll be rounding out the New Band Showcase on Sunday afternoon. Mark will be playing mainstage Friday with Rich Mullins.