The Bitter Spills
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The Bitter Spills

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"Bitter Spills Live Review"

Wednesday evening while many Twin Citians were still debating whether to go to the Oasis concert as they heard reports of scalper prices falling lower and lower until they were below face value, I was already making my way to the 331 Club. The words of wisdom that it’s “more important than the decisions you make in life is the reason you make those decisions” figured in heavily for me Wednesday night. The chance to show my support for Minnesota music legends Rich Mattson and “Baby” Grant Johnson and their acoustic duo The Bitter Spills outweighed my need to see the Gallagher brothers (Liam and Noel) or opener Ryan Adams. And in retrospect, I’m fairly certain sure I made the right decision.

A week or so prior to this evening, I had seen Rich Mattson’s other new project The Tisdales at First Avenue. The Bitter Spills, Mattson’s project with Grant Johnson, is almost the antithesis of that band. Where The Tisdales play grungy, often raw rock and roll, the Bitter Spills play countrified folk in the tradition of Koerner, Ray & Glover and Charlie Parr. They lean towards the old-timey even in their presentation of contemporary songs. If pressed, I might pin down the genre by calling it “foot-stompin’ good times music.”

In The Bitter Spills, Mattson’s co-conspirator “Baby” Grant is known from his time spent as the guitarist in Beyond Zebra in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and more recently for The New Vintage. “Baby” Grant has been at it locally as long as Mattson and I remember him wearing white belts when many of the current Twin Cities hipsters were still in grade school. I remember both Grant and Rich from what’s now arguably the previous generation of Minnesota music when Mattson was still in the Glenrustles and Johnson was still playing with Beyond Zebra. (Here’s one for Ripley’s Believe It or Not: My band My Boss Larry actually opened for Beyond Zebra once at the 24 Bar in September 1993 back when I was booking the bar.)

The Bitter Spills have a new album out this year called Folksong Favorites, which is a combination of their best songs off of a couple of their other albums. (They continue to sell The Bitter Spills sing Folk Songs Volume 2 and Volume 3. Though I understand Volume 1 is now out of print.)

When I popped Folksong Favorites into my music player, the first thing that struck me was the feeling of authenticity. Though that word is strewn around too loosely when it comes to so-called “old-timey” music, what it means to me is that the music has the ability to transport you to another time and place. The first track on the disc, an original song called “Sparta MN Blues,” sets the mood. Johnson and Mattson trade off on the vocal while Mattson strums and Johnson picks and does some slide guitar. Throughout the albums 14 tracks the two appear to share equally in instrumentation and singing.

On their MySpace page, The Bitter Spills proudly declare their mission to be “to find as many folk chestnuts as they could learn together, record them, and travel the country performing and selling CD's from the stage...always finding new tunes along the way.” Those chestnuts as they call them, include songs by Johnny Cash, Leadbelly, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Blind Willie McTell, Fairport Convention and even ZZ Top. Both accomplished songwriters, Johnson and Mattson work in plenty of originals along the way.

Though both musicians have been at it long enough to remember the days of plastering the town with paper handouts, both have joined the computer age and have caught the Facebook bug, and it was from there that I was fortunate to learn about this gig. The boys have gathered quite a lot of fans in the area over the years, so it was no surprise that the 331 was already busy when I arrived at 7 PM and only proceeded to get busier as the night wore on. The audience included other local musicians like Rob Skoro, Dana Thompson and Terry Walsh.

Though I was mostly on hand to take photos, I also took a few pages of notes on the songs, but suffice it to say they played dozens over the course of two hours, making the playlist up as they went along and relying on a hand-assembled “fake book” of chords and lyrics, including at least one song they said they’d never even played publicly before. Songs in the set included the aforementioned “Sparta MN Blues”, the Celtic-tinged 17th Century English folk balled (and one of my favorites) “Matty Groves,” the 18th Century American folksong “Oh Shenandoah, Sonny Terry’s “Diggin’ My Potatoes” Lead Belly’s “Sorry Mama,” and “The Wreck of the Old 97,” all of which appear on their most recent disc. Also played were Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” and Jonathan Edwards “Sunshine.”

The short version of this review is that this was a wonderful way to kick back for a couple of hours and listen to great music. Mattson and Johnson took turns on various 12 strings and 6 strings and even played a harmonica solo or two. I drank an ever so tasty pint of Bells, and it was a very good time. - howwastheshow.com


"Bitter Spills in San Antonio"

• Bobby Bare Jr., Chris Masterson, the Bitter Spills (9 p.m.); Los Mescaleros (6 p.m.), Casbeers at the Church: Country meets pop meets indie rock meets twists and turns in Bare Jr. Bare and his band will do double duty. The band has an Austin City Limits Festival set in the afternoon and then will drive south to play songs from Bare's various CDs. Chris Masterson, part of Bare's band (and a member of Son Volt) also will do some songs. And don't get there late because openers the Bitter Spills make some very cool music. The duo from Minneapolis, on the road with a CD called "Folksong Favorites," has a repertoire that finds originals bumping up against selections from Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt and ZZ Top. When the Bitter Spills sing and play them, the newest songs in the set sound as if they're from the '20 and '30s. - My SA Blogs


Discography

1. Minnesota Folk Tour CD-2004
2. The Bitter Spills Sing Folksongs Volume 2 CD-2006
3. The Bitter Spills Sing Folksongs Volume 3 CD-2007
4. Folksong Favorites CD-2008
5. The Bitter Spills Sing Folk Songs Volume 4 CD-2009

Photos

Bio

The Bitter Spills are Baby Grant Johnson and Rich Mattson, two performers with long and varied musical histories. Their paths initially crossed circa 1989 when they were performing in Rock and Roll groups such as the Glenrustles and Beyond Zebra in Minneapolis, MN. In 1997 Johnson began to focus primarily on a solo career as Baby Grant Johnson and released several recordings in the Folk/Blues vein. Mattson continued with the Glenrustles until the year 2001 when he formed his current group Ol Yeller. The Bitter Spills began as a means for Johnson and Mattson to get on the road and perform their original music as well as interpretations of traditional Folksongs old and new.
The Bitter Spills formed officially in 2006 and since then have released four albums of Folk Music and original material. The Spills perform somewhat in the vein of the New Lost City Ramblers a group that started in the late 1950's and recorded for Folkways records.
As well as being writers of original songs the Bitter Spills are also well versed in collecting and arranging old and obscure Folk material. Another influence is the Folk and mostly Blues trio, Koerner, Ray and Glover also from Minneapolis, who released several acclaimed recordings in the 1960's.
Besides their original material the Bitter Spills perform Traditional Folk, Blues, Country, Rock, String Band tunes and various other genres and styles.
Baby Grant Johnson is also co-founder with Mike McCoy of the North Versus South Music Festival which takes place annually in the Kansas City, MO/Lawrence, KS area.
In addition to the Bitter Spills Rich Mattson currently performs with the Rock and Roll Group the Tisdales.