Legion to host jam session for area musicians

Published 9:08 am Saturday, September 13, 2008

Live music needs a kick-start in Albert Lea and Todd Uptadel says the American Legion wants to get it going.

“We will be hosting a jam session for area musicians on the evening of Oct. 5,” said Uptadel, manager of Albert Lea’s American Legion Club. “It will be open mike and we are contacting performers in this area, hoping to drum up some interest. The jam session will be open to the public and if we get a good crowd, we would like to do this on a monthly basis.”

Uptadel is the lead singer and guitarist for Snowy River, a versatile band which performs at Diamond Jo Casino, in Worth County, Iowa, every fifth weekend.

Email newsletter signup

“Snowy River got back together in January 2007 because Diamond Jo was there,” said Uptadel, who originally formed the band in 1990. “We had a venue that we knew would always be there. Freeborn County has as much musical talent as anyplace I know of, but it is hard to find places to play.”

That wasn’t always true, according to Neil Lang, who performs each Friday evening at Blondie’s Grille in Albert Lea, along with his wife Barbara, as Lang and Lang.

“When Barbara and I started playing in the 1960s there were as many as a dozen clubs in the area which had live music on a regular basis,” said Lang. “Plus, there were a half dozen bars which had bands playing on the weekends. We could stay very busy playing within a 50-mile radius of Albert Lea.”

Things began to change in the mid-1980s, according to Lang. “The cops got a lot tougher on drinking and driving. They also became more strict on enforcing the 1 a.m. closing time for bars. We used to play way past the closing time, as long as people wanted to dance and hear us play. We would play as late as three in the morning, on occasion,” said Lang.

New musical competition began to arrive in the late 1980s. “The coming of disc jockeys really hurt the live music scene,” Lang said. “A bar or club owner could get noise and action for a lot less money. Karaoke also affected the business. The bands had a tough time.”

Brandon Krause understands the problems involved for local musicians. “It is tough to get gigs in this area,” said Krause, who works at Albert Lea’s Tone Music.

“You have to be creative in terms of organizing and promoting events. One thing that local musicians have learned is to not compete with each other too much. If two events are happening at the same time, you won’t get a good crowd for either one. It is difficult to get a band together if there aren’t enough places to play. To have success you have to go to the Twin Cities.”

There are some venues available for live performance in the area, said Krause. “The Lighthouse and the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center are probably the best venues, and a few bars such as Hot Shots and Bend in the Road, in Manchester, have bands on the weekends. Albert Lea Inn and Ramada Inn also sometimes have live music.”

There’s a lot more to live music than putting on a show.

“You have to love this to do it,” said Neil Lang. “The money is not that great, and there is more physical work involved than most people realize. A lot of our equipment is heavy, and hauling it around, up and down stairways, setting everything up and then breaking it down and getting it all back home is a lot of work.”

Making music is just one part of Neil Lang’s income. “Barb and I both have day jobs,” said Lang. “I’m an electrician and Barb is a special education teacher. That’s the only way you can support yourself as a musician. We have developed a lot of great relationships with people in this area through our music.”

Uptadel says he is concerned about the future of live music in the area. “Live musicianship is almost becoming a lost art,” said Uptadel. “There are some outstanding musicians around here who aren’t playing anymore because there are so few venues. I can certainly understand the bar and club owner’s position. With the cost of bands and low public turnout it is hard to justify paying for a band.”

Experience and versatility are cited by Uptadel as key factors in a band’s success. “Our seven band members started adding up our total years in music a while back. We had a combined total of over 200 years of experience. We can play anything from Stevie Ray Vaughn to Patsy Cline. We all come from different musical backgrounds so we are able to do many songs that our audiences request. We play the stuff we grew up with,” he said.

Uptadel hopes the jam sessions at the American Legion can help younger musicians. “Some of the venues have criteria for bands that the younger people can’t meet,” said Uptadel. “They don’t know the older music all that well, and that is what many audiences want to hear.”

And younger people don’t always come out to hear live music.

“We don’t attract the crowds for live bands that we used to,” said Dick Pumper, who books bands for the Albert Lea Eagles Club. “Karaoke seems to do better for us. We have a good variety of live music, including country, variety and old-time. We don’t have rock’n’roll. We have live bands every Friday and Saturday night. Most of our acts come from out of town. Two acts that do draw good crowds are the Blue Banners and the Memory Brothers.”

Pumper expressed concern over the small crowds the bands are attracting. “I wish we could get greater public support for our live shows,” he said.

Paul Williams has seen the live music scene in Albert Lea change over the years. “I remember bars like Name of the Game and Pour Boys that had bands playing very often,” said Williams, a native of Albert Lea.

“I was part the house band at Eddie’s Bar for 10 years, along with Tim Karn, Elliot Pagel and Mike Greiner, who is now deceased. Pagel now plays with a group called Cat Ballou. We played pop and country music every Friday and Saturday night. We would let the bar patrons sit in with us and sing. Of course it had be a tune that the singer knew well. We were good enough musicians that we could pretty well handle anything. We actually got pretty good at faking it if we really had to. It was a modified form of karaoke that we liked and which engaged the crowd.”

Blending old and new musical styles offers an exciting opportunity for area musicians, according to Jim Pilgrim. “I first remember picking up a guitar when I was 10 years old,” said Pilgrim, now 56 and living in Albert Lea. “My parents were musicians. They played at what is now the Aragon Bar as part of the group Two Kings and a Queen. The music we played in the 1960s was different from what they played and some people didn’t like it. Each generation has its own musical style and I think we need to keep an open mind about that. Some of these kids are playing terrific stuff and an open jam session could be a great thing for artists of all musical backgrounds. It also gives us a chance to swap stories and reminisce.”

Pilgrim said he thinks the modern music machines complement live performance. “The D.Js and karaoke offer a huge selection of music, so with live shows it seems to me that we have the best of both worlds.”

“What is now the Marion Ross Center was called the Teen Center back in the ‘60s,” Pilgrim recalled. “There were old couches along the walls and a huge open area where we could dance and enjoy the music. Bands would come down from the Twin Cities to play here. The Castaways, The Litter and TC Atlanta were some of the bands. We loved it.”

An accomplished guitarist, Pilgrim hit the road playing with the Prairie Schooners band in 1960s and ‘70s, and performed with many area musicians in different venues around Albert Lea.

“Plenty of people want to know why I didn’t try to take it to the next level,” said Pilgrim. “All I can say is that if you can get up on a stage in front of your own people and watch them have fun dancing and maybe make them truly happy for a while, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.

“I will always love to write and perform music,” Pilgrim said. “I think live music can make a comeback here. The Eagles club does a fine job of keeping band music alive around here. You need to pick your spots. In the summer, everyone is doing the backyard barbecue thing so they aren’t looking to go out. But the radio is playing at those barbecues and that helps keep the tradition going. It seems to me that winter is the time when people are looking for things to do. That’s when performance music has its best opportunity for success.”