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Gary Burger at the 331 Club

by Andrea Swensson

January 10, 2012

“It feels like we’re at SXSW,” laughed Star Tribune music critic Chris Riemenschnedier last Friday night, who waited in line to get into the overflowing 331 Club in Northeast for Gary Burger after high-tailing it from the also-sold out Buffalo Moon homecoming show across town at the 7th St. Entry.

That so many shows were at capacity in the first weekend of January, historically a dry time for live music, was yet another testament to how ravenous concertgoers in the Twin Cities have become in recent years and how capable our local artists are of filling venues without the support of high-profile touring acts. At the 331 in particular, there was a vivid sense of anticipation for Mr. Burger, who has achieved cult hero status among Minnesota music fans in the wake of a reissue of his band, the Monks’, only album, 1966’s Black Monk Time.

For those unfamiliar, a quick primer: The Monks consisted of five American GIs who were stationed in Germany in the mid-’60s, not long after the Beatles made a name for themselves playing the same small club circuit. They started as a garage rock band called the Torquays, but eventually took a more experimental route when their manager suggested they change to the more conceptual Monks. At the time, they got a lot of attention for their image -- they would wear black robes and ropes tied in nooses around their necks, shaving the hair off the tops of their heads -- but in the years following their brief and intense career they’ve gained notoriety for their vast and resonating influence on contemporary rock music. Artists as disparate as the Fall, the Beastie Boys, and the Dead Kennedys have cited the Monks as an influence, and they have even been attributed to accidentally discovering guitar feedback.

All of which is to say that the idea of a member of the Monks making a rare appearance to play a live show is a wet dream for avid audiophiles, and as such the 331 was overflowing with the musically obsessed. The once-in-a-blue-moon show was booked by KFAI DJ Jackson Buck and his wife Angie Pykonen, and the turnout made it clear that interest in Burger’s music is only continuing to grow since the band’s reissue.

The night started off with back-to-back sets by garage rock bands the Conquerors and the Floorshakers, who changed over by bringing out a new lead singer, John Beggs, for the Shakers’ set, but otherwise keeping all the players the same. Burger’s set, too, featured omnipresent guitarist and Conquerors lead singer Keith Patterson and a few more musicians from the opening sets, who backed him billed as the Spectors. Both opening acts did a great job setting the mood, but after two sets of fairly straightforward, howling garage rock tunes, it made it all the more obvious how bizarre and unprecedented the Monks’ style was in comparison to the other rock music of its time.

After carefully strapping on a pair of around-the-head reading glasses, Burger and the Spectors launched into a set of blistering, speed-banjo- and organ-heavy tunes off Black Monk Time. As soon as Burger stepped up to the mic and started scoffing the opening lines of “Monk Time” the crowd roared with exhilaration. Many of us in the room had spent years playing and re-playing those tracks from 45 years ago, and many of us had no real expectation that we would ever hear those songs performed live. And with Burger’s voice almost fully intact all these years later and his guitar playing better than ever, the songs came to life with the same jagged splendor as their recorded counterparts. It was like the rush from discovering an out-of-print gem while crate-digging had been translated into 3D and surround sound.

Burger didn’t do much talking between songs, instead taking the time to switch between two different electric guitars and asking a nearby concertgoer to help him de-fog his reading glasses (with the 331 fuller than I’d ever seen it, the room was sweltering), but he did ask the crowd to respond to his songs “like an audience in Germany in 1966,” which to him meant a loud chorus of boos. As the set pressed on and the songs got tighter and tighter, the boos grew even louder, and the antagonistic punk-rock spirit of the taunting lead singer versus the roaring crowd served as a nice homage to the Monks’ underground legacy and their reputation for breaking all the rules.

At one point near the end of the night Burger let loose with a fiery guitar solo and then dropped his guitar down to the ground, crouching over it and groping it as it screamed back in protest. The rest of the Spectors followed suit, abandoning their own instruments to wrestle with the guitar and coax unholy noises from the small club’s buckling sound system, and Burger threw his head back and laughed. “The object is to ruin a perfectly good guitar,” Burger explained afterward, a mischievous grin creeping onto his face. If the obvious joy he got out of Friday night’s performance was any indication, something tells me Burger might be coming around to ruin guitars on Twin Cities stages more often in the years ahead. He looked like he was having the time of his life.

Set list:

Monk Time
Shut Up
Drunken Maria
Boys are Boys and Girls are Choice
Blast Off
Pretty Suzanne
Oh, How to Do Now
I Hate You
Monk Chant
There She Walks (Torquays)
Ride In My Car (“A song the Torquays would have liked to play”)
Count on Luck (Gary Burger solo song)


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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.