The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
I discovered a little gem of a live music venue on Saturday night, and I’ll lay odds you’ve never heard of it. Creek House is tucked into a heavily wooded cul de sac in an outer ring suburb of St. Paul. By day, it’s home and studio to artist, furniture craftsman and avid amateur guitarist Glenn Elvig. I found my way there by way of a musician my husband introduced me to during my grad school days in Iowa City, blues man Catfish Keith. Creek House was listed on his website as a Twin Cities tour stop, and that was enough to get me in the door.
If you haven’t heard of this musician, stop reading right now and give a listen to the video clip above. Like David Hasselhoff, Catfish Keith is big in Europe (he spends a good chunk of each year touring the U.K. alone), but he gets too little acclaim here at home (okay, so maybe the David Hasselhoff comparison isn't so apt after all). He's a superlatively gifted player with a distinctive, Delta blues growl-and-stomp, string-snapping twang.
So, on Saturday night I find myself in an upscale New Brighton neighborhood, walking up the front drive of a stranger’s house. Inside the entry way and down a long hall, I take a stairway that descends into a generous performance space where a modest crowd is already gathering. The edifice is stone and glass; the floor is thickly carpeted, and a stage is set up at the front of the room. There’s not a 90-degree angle in sight – the exterior wall, lined with generous windows looking out onto the woods outside, arcs up and over the seats. The sound set-up is formidable. Designed by Elvig’s buddy, luthier Marty Reynolds, it offers a listening experience comparable to other, much larger venues in town. (“When Glenn asked me to design this he told me he wanted ‘wow,’ so that's what I gave him," Reynolds says.)
There’s no ticket to buy, no cover charge. The honor system rules; we’re all asked to put a $20 donation in the Quaker oatmeal canister sitting on the merch table to help pay the musician and defray the cost of the show. Potluck-type appetizers and sweet things are set up in a kitchen at the back. About 60 people have come, some of them obviously known to our host. Little plates are loaded with watermelon slices and lemon bars; a pair of barefooted kids blaze through the room, hopped up on sugar and excited by the hummuna of a crowd. The vibe is informal, homey even, despite the fact I don’t know anyone here.
Turns out I do know of a few folks though: I end up sitting next to acclaimed guitarist Phil Heywood and his wife; Roberta Carlson, composer of the music in last year’s Children’s Theatre Company production of “Harold and the Purple Crayon” is here, too. Looking around, in the crowd I notice a number of other musicians I recognize from gigs around town.
And when Catfish Keith takes the stage and picks out his National Tricone steel guitar, there’s no more shuffling around: we’re all here to listen. He starts big, with Bukkha White’s “Jitterbug Swing” – his foot keeps time, his hand raised in the air between licks and held there for a moment, like a preacher about to lay down the Good Word. Croon or holler, everything about his playing is expansive, assured. After a jaunty original tune, “I’m Gonna Roll You In My Arms like a Wagonwheel," Catfish swaps his steel guitar for a straight-ahead, acoustic rendition of Jesse Mae Hemphill’s melancholy, Mississippi hill country “hypno-blues” ballad, “Eagle Bird.”
From there, he gives us two packed-to-the-gills sets, spanning nearly three hours of playing time, including original songs and covers of traditional Delta blues tunes he’s collected like treasure over years of playing: Hambone Willie Newbern, R.L. Burnside, Lead Belly, the Otis Brothers, Johnny Shines. The night’s line-up featured plenty of slide guitar twang and string-snapping barnburners – songs with magnificent titles like “I’m Going Up North to Get My Hambone Boiled, Because if I Stay Around Here My Hambone’s Gonna Spoil”; or, “I Got 19 Bird Dogs and One Floppy-Headed Hound, and it Takes All Them Puppies to Run My Baby Down” (“It’s kind of a love song,” Catfish winks).
At the request of an otherwise mild-mannered looking woman in the crowd, he played the hell out of the gleefully raunchy “Salty Thang (Poon I Want, Tang I Crave)” – all sexy growl and throbbing beat, sly wit and ferocious finger-picking. He closed things down with a haunting Blind Willie Johnson medley, “By and By I’m Goin’ to See the King” and an indelible, searing version of the slide guitar instrumental “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” (fun fact: it’s one of the songs sent into space on Voyager’s “golden record”).
Creek House doesn't look to be a passing vanity: by Elvig's count, he's already hosted 38 concerts in the past two years, featuring some of the best blues, roots and bluegrass musicians playing around the country. Some shows have drawn close to a hundred, he says, while others have played for a cozy room of just 10 or 15. There’s virtually no promotion, no marketing to spread the word; audiences convene here by word of mouth. Elvig asks everyone who comes to kick in their fair share, but he has also been known to subsidize the kitty if there's a shortfall. He says he's seen too many musicians, "national treasures" he calls them, get too little for their work, so he tries to ensure the folks who play his stage get a respectable wage for their trouble and talent.
Creek House is taking a hiatus for a few months (he’s having some work done on the house), but Elvig’s already got Catfish Keith booked for another show next summer. The concert series returns this October, when blues guitarist Roy Book Binder will celebrate his 70th birthday with a show at Creek House.