After all the mayhem, glory, trouble, acclaim and just plain craziness that Grant Hart has endured in his nearly four decades in the music business – not to mention the house fire he suffered a few years ago -- you would think nothing could surprise him anymore.
The Twin Cities rock hero had the rug pulled out from him pretty good on Saturday night at the Hook & Ladder in Minneapolis, though.
Thinking he was arriving at the converted firehouse just to share a bill with his pals the Rank Strangers (whose bandleader Mike Wist has been Hart’s main studio producer of late), the former Hüsker Dü singer/drummer and longtime solo artist instead faced an all-star cast of other friends and collaborators who showed up to pay their respects. They included Hüskers bassist Greg Norton, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, Run Westy Run’s Kraig Johnson, Arcwelder and Babes in Toyland’s Lori Barbero.
The celebration of sorts was actually the brainchild of Barbero, who also works at the Hook & Ladder. She wanted to “have everybody come out and show their love for Grant at a time he could really use it.” It seemed like Hart – who not surprisingly abhors social media -- was the only one in attendance who didn’t know about it.
“I was truly surprised and flabbergasted,” the man of the late hour said as he took the stage for a solo set to end the night. With a still-astonished look on his face, he also confided to Norton and I earlier during a break in the music, “I’m a bit overwhelmed.”
Last night. What an amazing night! Tribute to Grant Hart. A giant MN music love fest. �� Also got to meet @realnickswardson so cool! @grantvhart @migreggers @jsilverdust @joehastings3000 @lori_barbero @brianoake @porcupineband . . #gregnorton #davepirner #soulasylum #babesintoyland #hüskerdü #granthart #porcupineband #porcupine #music #punkrock #rock #rockandroll #loribarbero
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For his part, Norton -- who played with his new band Porcupine, and with a makeshift all-star lineup -- relished revisiting some of Hart’s Hüskers songs, including “Dead Set on Destruction,” “Standing by the Sea,” “What’s Going On” and even the early nugget “What Do I Want.” He was joined by Pirner and Barbero, which morphed into a blending of Pirner’s Soul Asylum bandmates Ryan Smith and Winston Roye, which then involved Johnson.
It was during that latter mix when Hart walked out on stage for the first time to join in on “All of My Senses,” the classic kick-off to his 1989 solo debut “Intolerance.” Looking frail and sounding winded, he complained about the feedbacking microphone as Pirner and Johnson flanked him to sing along, but otherwise he looked to be having a blast. In his typically wry way, he agreed to do one more song with them because, he said, “I got the lyrics sheet in front of me. That’s an indication of the song we’re doing.” The sheet was for another 1989 solo track, “The Main.”
Hart’s closing solo set was mellow and ragged, with a few forgotten lyrics and missed chords. But it was also one of the most moving hometown sets by him in recent memory, clearly involving ample emotion on his end. He played a couple dark songs that sounded like pieces from his pending concept album on Ted Kaczinski (aka the Unabomber), soon followed by the fallen-angel ode “Far From Heaven,” a highlight from 2013’s “The Argument” (also a concept record).
When Hart got to his first post-Huskers single “2541,” about a dilapidated house he rented at the time, he bluntly dispelled any romance behind it: “I don’t want to burst any bubble or ruin any myths,” he said of the place, “but it was just a [sex] pad.” Downtempo versions of two Hüsker Dü songs came near the end, “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” and “Green Eyes,” the latter of which found Pirner rambling back on stage to supply harmony vocals.
Hart himself has never been much of a harmonizer, but on this night he seemed to appreciate the camaraderie -- not just from the fellow musicians but also from the sold-out crowd.
“We’ll see you a bit further down the trail,” he said before exiting the stage. “Once again, I thank you. I truly am blown away by this.”