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With a full moon outside and a full house inside, the Jonny Lang and the Big Bang reunion shows at the Cabooze were a rousing success. There was electricity in the air for the Friday night show. It was so thick you could almost cut it with a knife. Both the audience and the band were keyed up and excited with anticipation of what was about to take place. You could see it in their faces, hear it in their voices. Even though the band had been practicing all week for these two performances, it had been almost four years since they last played together in front of a crowd--tonight was THE night. Did they know enough material to last the entire night? Would they still sound good together? These may have been some of the questions going through the band's mind but the audience KNEW tonight was going to be something special.
Both shows were sold out (with many attending both nights) and the audience was packed in like sardines. It was so crowded, that it took one friend more than 15 minutes to fight, twist and squirm his way from the front door to the back of the club by the pool tables where there was some breathing room. He was sweating and out of breath by the time he got there. But no matter, the show had already begun and any crowd discomfort was soon forgotten.
The Keller Brothers Band, the Twin Cities' NEW Fargo connection, by way of Austin, Texas, opened both nights and quickly let everyone know there would be no prisoners taken this weekend. Any fans in the audience who had come just to see Jonny or the Big Bang, were quickly converted and found another young band that they could also rally behind. It seems the same people who follow Jonny just fall in love with the Keller Brothers Band after they see them for the first time. And with good reason--these young musicians are that good.
The band is made up of Mike Keller on guitar and vocals, brother Corey Keller on Drums (both originally from Fargo), Matt Farrell (from Texas) on piano, organ and vocals, and Scott Nelson (from Fergus Falls, MN) on bass. These are four exceptionally talented musicians who quickly gained a reputation in Austin as "the" band to see and play with. It wasn't long before they caught the ear of Clifford Antone and picked up a regular weekly gig at Antone's club playing with, and opening for, all the major blues bands who came through the area. Since moving to Minnesota the band has been making quite an impression, performing almost non-stop with local club dates and national tours. They were runners up at the recent Buddy Guy's Legends best unsigned band competition, have a Live CD out (recorded at Antone's), have been booked at the prestigious Bayfront Blues Festival in August and are working on their second recording. These guys bring a fresh, energetic vitality to the stage and are one talented bunch of musicians.
After the Keller Brothers Band had worked the crowd up to a fever pitch there was a slight pause as the Big Bang readied to take the stage. The calm before the storm. There must have been as many people from the Fargo area in the crown this night as there were from the Twin Cities and beyond. Some people traveled thousands of miles just to be here for this weekend. Friends, family, long-time fans, new fans, you name it, they were all here for this "event."
There were really two reasons for this reunion show. One, obviously, for the fans. But a second, even more important reason, was for the band. Ever since Jonny and the Big Bang parted company almost four years ago there has been some unspoken tension between some of the players. When Jonny landed his major recording contract and was first starting to hit the national scene it was decided that the band needed a new drummer. Not wanting to break up the Big Bang the rest of the members (Jeff and Ted) also decided to leave and stick together with Michael who was let go from the band. Even though Jonny was not behind this personnel change, he felt bad about the situation and wanted to make amends. Jonny, Ted, Mike and Jeff were all like brothers back in Fargo when they first started playing together, even before they called themselves Kid Jonny Lang and the Big Bang. As Ted said, Jonny spent so much time with them, playing music and hanging out, that they were really Jonny's best friends during his early teen years. They were like a family, they were like his big brothers, and this reunion show was a way to mend a rift, that if left untended could only lead to a further widening of the gap that now separated them. This weekend was necessary to bring them back together, not only as musicians, but as friends and brothers.
Michael Larsen first took piano lessons when he was 12 and when he was 17 or 18, after realizing he enjoyed playing air drums while sitting on his bed, decided to buy himself a drum set with the money he was earning from his first job. At the same time his younger brother Ted got an acoustic guitar for a birthday present and it wasn't long before they decided to form their own band. They asked themselves who do we know that can play bass and thought of friend Travis Lance (whose brother is in the Blenders) to join because his father had a bass even though he didn't play.
Ted also stated taking guitar lessons from a neighbor, Kent Anderson, who played in an alternative group called the Vagrants. High school friend Jeff Hays was playing bass with that group. Ted said one of his favorite groups at the time was Led Zeppelin and he realized that the songs he liked the best were the blues based songs. So he looked at the writing credits for one he liked, "I Can't Quit You Baby," and went and bought an album by Willie Dixon. After listening to that album he realized that Dixon wrote a bunch of great songs and that led him to other blues players including Stevie Ray Vaughan.
During this same time Jeff Hayes had been playing bass for several years, having started when he was about 15 years old. In 1988 when Mike and Ted started playing some Fraternity parties, their current bass player wasn't able to make some of the gigs so Jeff filled in. The fit was a natural one and it wasn't long before Jeff joined Ted and Mike and they started calling themselves the Bad Medicine Blues Band. And according to Ted, in
1989 when Ted and Jeff were 18 and Michael was 19 they had their first paying club gig at Kirby's in Moorhead. Ted laughed when he said they earned $80 for the night. Not apiece, but for the whole band.
They continued playing around the Fargo area and Ted began giving guitar lessons in his apartment. In early 1993 a 12 year old Jon Langseth stated taking guitar lessons from Ted and quickly showed an aptitude for music and was turned on to the blues for the first time. According to Ted, Jonny knew some Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana songs but told Jonny that he couldn't play that stuff when he was around him. He gave Jonny some Albert Collins tapes and turned the impressionable youth down a new musical path. Jonny already had a pretty good voice and liked singing R&B so it was a natural progression. Lang picked up quickly on Collins' style and was soon soaking up the blues.
Jonny's vocals developed quickly and he was playing the saxophone at the time too. When the trio decided to add the young Langseth to the group as their vocalist, they decided to change his name to something that was shorter and came up with a new name for the band at the same time, Kid Jonny Lang and the Big Bang. Ted said they went ahead and booked a gig two weeks out before they had actually done any serious rehearsal with the new group. So with the new band's first gig looming ahead they quickly set to work on preparing for the show. They were a little nervous about the outcome but according to Ted, they did okay. During this first show Jonny only sang and later played a little saxophone. Before long he was playing some rhythm guitar and later started doing solos. A quick learner, Jonny was soon participating in the exciting guitar duos that he and Ted became well known for during their live shows over the next few years.
Just two years later, June 10, 1995, they moved to the Twin Cities and became an immediate sensation. It was actually a phenomenon at the time. Kid Jonny Lang and the Big Bang were the hottest group to hit the Twin Cities in a long time. Two months later they debuted at the Bayfront Blues Festival where the band electrified the audience and Jonny gave them an added thrill as he climbed to the top of one of the speaker stacks to play his guitar. This meteoric ride lasted for the next year and a half. It was in September of 1996 at Rascal's in Winona when the original Big Bang played their last show together. Ted and Jeff had made the decision they would quite if Mike wasn't going to be a part of the group. That was four years ago.
So how did this reunion come about? It started almost a year ago with Jonny asking Ted if the band would be interested in getting back together for a reunion show? Ted said sure as long as all of them agreed and were a part of it. That was exactly what Jonny had in mind too. Everyone was asked and everyone agreed on the spot. The only question was when? Jonny and Bruce McCabe spend a great deal of time touring with the Jonny Lang show, Ted Larsen is playing a full schedule with the Lamont Cranston Blues Band, Jeff Hayes has his own band in Austin, Texas where he moved after spending a year on the road with Bernard Allison. Michael Rey Larsen is the only member who is not actively playing in a band right now. But in anticipation of this reunion, Michael has been practicing on his drum set on a regular basis at home and even working out. He knew it would be a physically demanding gig and wanted to be prepared. He was! So a date was set and they all made plans to make this a reality. They spent 4 days in rehearsal prior to the show and felt pretty confident with what they could do. They were a little nervous, but still confident and ready for the show. After just a few minutes of playing together again at their fist rehearsal, the years melted away and it felt as if they hadn't been apart at all. It all felt so natural. According the Michael, it was just like the old days. In an instant they were right in the groove again as if it hadn't been almost 4 years since they last played together. There wasn't a moment lost, the sound was right there.
By the way, Ted, Michael and Jeff wanted to make sure everyone understood that they always felt that Bruce McCabe was an integral part of the Big Bang (even though he joined them after they had moved to the Twin Cities). They looked up to Bruce and respected his exceptional musical skills and were honored to have him as part of the band.
So the stage was set…the lights were dimmed…the band made their way to the stage…Jonny's father shouted out his short introduction over the rising noise, and as they say, the CROWD WENT WILD. They opened with songs from their first CD, Smokin' like, "Changes," (written by Ted), "Louise," (written by Jonny and his dad), "It's Obdacious," and "E Train," (written by Ted and Michael). They also played blues standards that they used to do in their live shows like, "Every Day I Have The Blues," and some Buddy Guy songs.
All of the songs were also very familiar to the audience. If the band was a little nervous about forgetting some of the lyrics they didn't have to worry because the crowd just helped them out. In fact, after the first song, it was like "old times." Just like putting on an old familiar glove, it fit perfectly and felt real comfortable. The band was so keyed up they may have rushed through the first few songs but soon settled into a groove that didn't let up until the night was over. And what a night it was. The energy was high, songs came fast, the sweat was flying, the smiles were big, the crowd was boisterous in their appreciation, and the music was actually better sounding than I remembered it. I asked Ted Larsen about this after the show and he said I was probably right. All of the musicians are more mature and more experienced than they were four years ago, plus the song selection helped. They rehearsed just enough songs to last for this one-set show and were able to just focus in on those specific songs. They picked out songs that they all could agree on doing and that they really liked after all these years. Songs that still moved them. They even played my favorite Big Bang song (written by Jeff Hayes) "Love Me Tonight." And Jonny and Ted "Lightnin' Boy" did their segment of dueling guitars which was always one of the highlights of the Big Bang shows.
For the encore (at the suggestion of Clem Duffy) the band played "Cold Shot," the same song they used to close out their shows as the Big Bang. A nice touch.
So who got the most out of this weekend? It was definitely fun for the fans, those of us who watched Jonny grow up on stage with the Big Bang, but it was even more special for the band. After the show Jonny, Ted, Michael, Jeff and Bruce were all hugging each other on stage. You could tell there was some strong emotion and love there. This was a memorable weekend! Can it happen again? You never know?
Jeff, Ted, Jonny
Jeff, Ted, Jonny
Ted, Jonny, Michael
This review is copyright © 2000 by Ray Stiles, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.