City Mouse

1999 KBA Award Winner
Achievement for Blues on the Internet
Presented by the Blues Foundation

After about 28 years of performing, or so, City Mouse has released its first Compact Disc ""It's About Time."" This band--hailing from the Mankato area all of these years--is largely an undiscovered gem of Minnesota music. Any fan of live music who has spent any time in the Mankato area, is, probably very familiar with this band. Being one of these people, I need to make a couple of confessions at the onset of this review. The first is that over the years everybody in the band has become friends of mine and I am thus somewhat favorably biased in their favor, notwithstanding the fact they have put out a very good release. The second is that this cannot be called a ""Blues"" release in total, as it is broader than that.

Some background for those people not very familiar with the band. This band has played around Mankato since 1971. Almost every musician in the area has been in the group at one time or another. However, the lineup has been stable for the past thirteen years or so. The members of the band are: founder and leader Billy Steiner (harmonica); Dale Haefner (keyboards); Ron Arsenault (acoustic guitar); Mike Pengra (drums); Dave Pengra (base) and Tim Waters (electric and pedal steel guitars). All but Dale share in the vocals from time to time.

They call their format ""Good Time"" music, something you might call a blend of blues, pop, folk, jazz and even country music. They had to be a variety band to survive in the hinterlands all these years. They play everything very well (after playing the same songs several years you get them down). They usually come in a six person lineup. Electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, drum, keyboard, fronted by a harmonica player. The electric guitarist (still) plays a pedal steel guitar frequently (what else would you do with one?). I'd seen this band so many times I was thoroughly tired of them. But then I began to appreciate them as something of an area musical icon. Shit, there were a few years during those dark days of disco where these guys were the only band playing around Mankato. They'd do whatever it took to scrape up a gig now and then.

The CD is 69 minutes long. Fifteen cuts. About half studio and half live. About half originals (including a tribute to Luther Allison called ""Luther's Blues""). One is even done with the Mankato Symphony Orchestra at the ""Quarry Concert"" this summer (did you know this type of concert -- in a quarry of some sort with a pop band backed by an orchestra -- is something of a rage? I've seen them advertised several different places, mostly in California).

The disc opens with a moody, acoustic treatment of the blues standard ""Sitting' On Top of the World"" and blends into Steiner's own ""Luther's Blues,"" a raspy blues number written in honor of the late Luther Allison. Other original works by the band include Arsenault's ""Alcohol,"" Steiner's ""Moonlight Baby,"" ""Means To An End"" and ""When Trouble Came Home,"" and Waters' ""Smile All Over."" Covers include: ""Drivin' Wheel;"" a jazzy arrangement of ""Eight Miles High;"" ""Perpetual Blues Machine;"" a poignant version of ""Goodbye;"" and the traditional ""Trouble,"" a City Mouse staple sung a cappela. In addition to studio work, the disc contains live recordings as well, six from St. Peter's Rock Bend Folk Festival in 1998, one from the tornado-relief concert at the Kato Entertainment Center the same year and one from the past summer's City Mouse concert with the Mankato Symphony Orchestra, recorded June 12 at the Southern Minnesota Construction quarry on the Kasota prairie. The two bands perform ""Moonlight Baby,"" a song Steiner wrote in 1971 and the oldest tune on the disc. Some of the studio recordings on the disc were first-takes - a luxury that veteran bands such as City Mouse can acheive.

BUT, a few words of interest (to musicians, at least) about the recording studio. Two Fish Studios. Some enterprising techies have put together a state-of-the-art recording studio in an old (on time) church, right in downtown Mankato. They've done a lot of good work. And staying (right at the studio if you want) and recording in Mankato is much more economic and much less distracting than most locales. They even have one of my Hammond B-3/Leslie combos on hand on long term loan to facilitate my drive to have that instrument on every recording.

-by Mark Halverson,

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City Mouse