By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
The band's debut, 1996's "Great Divide," slipped under the
radar of most music fans despite its shimmering beauty and
sparkling guitars. But when Semisonic tweaked their
recording approach and turned in a song that resonated with
a wide audience of nightclubbers, the follow-up record,
"Feeling Strangely Fine," inched toward platinum sales.
The clincher, "Closing Time," was catchy enough to
ensnare even the modern rock fans who didn't immediately
empathize with singer-guitarist Dan Wilson's tale of
precarious decision-making in a bar at 2 a.m., just before
everyone is turned out to the sidewalk sale. Some bars now
play the song at closing time as a cool nod to their
With that hit and the latest, the plucky "Singing in My
Sleep," on the resume, Wilson and his bandmates — John Munson
and Jacob Slichter — are now open for business, and this
month they venture out on another arm of a lengthy tour,
bringing them through Tulsa and points south. We caught up
with Wilson in a Santa Monica, Calif., studio — tore him
away, actually — to talk about Semisonic's success, the
makings of a good "bedroom album" and the latest generation
of crack rock bands coming out of Minneapolis.
Thomas Conner: You sound exasperated. Is this a bad
Dan Wilson: Oh, I'm just in the studio working on a
song, and it's very hard to drag myself out right now.
We've been on tour so long; it's so hard to find time to do
Conner: What's the song like that you're working on?
Wilson: It's upbeat, hard to describe. It's kind of got
a Lindsey Buckingham thing to it. I've been hearing a lot
of music lately, watching him play the guitar with his
fingers blazing. I'm trying to cop that.
Conner: Is this a break in the tour for you?
Wilson: It's kind of a multi-purpose trip to L.A.
before we go to Las Vegas to be on "The Penn and Teller
Show." The last thing I saw on that show was a man putting
this lighted wire down his nose and throat. It was all very
grotesque. Hopefully they won't ask us to do that.
Conner: This next leg of the tour brings you down south,
which I think you've missed thus far, right?
Wilson: Yeah, we're trying to hit some of the places we
didn't get to last year. We kept missing Texas, and we've
never been to Louisiana. We sort of saw the spring shaping
up where we could play some of these places. I value that
in a band — getting out there and playing the long shows and
giving the fans as much as we can. I have a wife and
daughter who I miss very much when we're on the road, but
there's something about that contact with the fans that's
really important. It lets you know if you're dealing out
the real stuff.
Conner: You once said that you wanted "Feeling Strangely
Fine" to be a "bedroom record." What's that?
Wilson: Well, not in the sense of turning it on and
having sex with someone. It's one that you put on with
headphones in a dark room when the rest of the family is
asleep and listen to the whole CD. I dreamed that that's
how people would use this record. I wanted it to be
something really intimate and inside your head.
Conner: So how do you go about crafting a bedroom
Wilson: I wanted to make sure the lyrics were really
apparent. On our last album, "Great Divide," we buried the
vocals in this swirl of guitar tones and intricate samples.
I was disappointed when the reviews came back — and I take
what they say pretty seriously — saying that the melodies
were great but the lyrics were meaningless fluff. Fact is,
I think I try to be as honest as I can in my lyrics, and
those (on "Great Divide") are some of my best. So I wanted
this record to have a really intimate vocal sound up
Conner: I would venture to guess that approach helped
streamline the arrangements, yes?
Wilson: Yeah. It put us in the situation of saying, "If
there's no room for the vocals, then take out 11 of the
guitar samples." It's looser sounding. It feels more like
three guys having an interesting, passionate, intense time
in the studio.
Conner: What are some of your favorite bedroom albums?
Wilson: "OK Computer" by Radiohead is a great one. "Hejira"
by Joni Mitchell. Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville." Tricky's
first album ("Maxinquaye"), though I don't like the whole
thing. John Coltrane's ballads album. I was the family
member who never came up for air. I was always in front of
the stereo listening through the headphones, and none of my
family members could get my attention.
Conner: I once heard "Feeling Strangely Fine" compared to R.E.M.'s "Murmur."
It started to make some sense when I thought about it,
mainly because of that intimate feel. Make sense?
Wilson: That mysteriousness is probably — hopefully --
there in our record. "Automatic for the People" is my
favorite R.E.M. record, and I was probably trying more to
emulate that kind of directness, space and emptiness for
the bedroom vibe. It just can't be a constant onslaught of
fun, you know?
Conner: "Murmur" hit the atmosphere about the same time
some of modern rock's seminal bands were coming out of your
hometown, Minneapolis. Were you caught up in the legendary
Wilson: My idols were the Replacements and Husker Du, plus Prince, Soul Asylum, Jimmy
Jam and Terry Lewis as producers. It was great — Minneapolis
was one of the few towns in America where, for about 10
years, all of your teen idols were from your hometown. A
lot of people in Minneapolis grew accustomed to having
their entertainment needs fulfilled by local musicians.
Conner: An enviable position, for sure. What's it like
up there now?
Wilson: Honestly, I think this will be a great year for
Minneapolis music. There's a new album by the Hangups I
think is incredible — a lot of early R.E.M. and Badfinger
and Small Faces in this really weird but personal
retro-sounding album. There's a provocative band called the
12 Rods that make some really weird sounds. My brother Matt
came out with an album last year that I think was
criminally underpublicized (Matt Wilson's "Burnt White and
Blue"). And, of course, I think we've added a lot to the
Conner: How so? What's the legacy there in Minneapolis?
Wilson: Anything we aspire to ends in this butt-shaking
WITH REMY ZERO
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main St.
Tickets: $13 at
The Ticket Office at Expo Square, Mohawk Music,
Starship Records and Tapes and the Mark-It Shirt Shop in
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
"Face in the Crowd"
Ol' Leon's voice is just barely hanging in there, crusty
and clogged and in need of some vocal Liquid Plumr. That's
never handicapped Bob Dylan or Neil Young, and whether or
not you think Russell measures up to those comparisons,
"Face in the Crowd" at least pushes that old, gravelly voice
of his hard enough to make it stand out in a crowd again.
His testosterone-fueled howlings in "Dr. Love" cop some
much-needed sexiness from Dr. John's bag of tricks. His
growling ups and downs in "So Hard to Say Goodbye" restore
some of the spunk of his hit-making days, too. Unlike his
last record, the third "Hank Wilson" incarnation, "Faces" isn't
rushed as much it sounds eager and comfortable — and seeing
or hearing a comfortable Leon is a special treat. Russell
could still benefit from the control and finesse of a smart
producer — the arrangements and recording of son Teddy Jack
tend to gum up in the speakers — but by reviving his
distinct songwriting voice, Russell is assured to remain
clearly identifiable in the crowd.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
It was way late in Las Vegas one breezy summer night,
and I couldn't sleep. Not that this is a problem in Vegas --
sleeping is uniformly discouraged in that mecca of mayhem
and momentum — but it was a predicament for me. My intrepid
party and I had spent the day riding an actual roller
coaster around the New York, New York Hotel and Casino
complex and a virtual roller coaster in the IMAX "Race for
Atlantis" ride in the Caesar's Palace mall. There was also
the harrowing bungee ride atop the Stratosphere tower and
the swooping simulation of Star Trek: The Experience. I'd
seen a lot of action, I smelled of muscle cream and the
after-dinner coffee at the all-you-can-gorge buffet was
furthering my punishment by holding my eyes open.
I padded downstairs to the lobby of our hotel, the
Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino. Unlike the other glitzy
amusement-park hotels in Vegas, you can actually pad into
the lobby of Debbie's place. There's a homier air to the
place, and we'd even run into Mama Reynolds herself in the
halls before. She'd begun referring to my companion and I
as "the boys."
Two elderly women were in the tiny casino, maintaining
looks of fierce determination and making a couple of nickel
slots sing their siren song. A lonely, bored bartender
slumped over the waitress stand watching ESPN across the
tables in Bogie's Bar. It was unusually sedate for 2 a.m.
in a Vegas hotel, and I didn't mind a bit.
I wound up in the movie theater, a small screen and
about 50 seats that was kept running 24/7. I sat down in
the middle of "The Tender Trap" and chuckled my way through
that wild party scene. After that, there was some
documentary footage of Bing Crosby. Reporters were asking
him questions as he walked into a Hollywood studio office
one sunny day in a crisp baby-blue suit and a neat straw
hat. He was talking about a new film project that would get
under way as soon as his co-stars finished their "gig in
Vegas." He was waiting on them because "Vegas is more fun
These days, the idea that Vegas is more fun than
Hollywood is a debate drawn on generational lines. The old
guard laments the recent Disneyfication of the Strip, the
blasting of landmark casinos to build live pirate ship
shows, and the odd transformation of gambling into "gaming."
The young families of the '90s, though, cheer the
family-friendly attractions and the covering up of the
city's inherent sleaze element. You can still have fun in
Vegas, but in vastly different ways.
Debbie Reynolds' hotel is a good example of the desert
city's molting. The dumpy little building still looks like
an excavated Holiday Inn and still stands on Convention
Center Drive just a block off Vegas' famed Strip, but it's
out of Debbie's hands and into a Bulgarian head-lock. A
debt-plagued Reynolds sold the struggling hotel and casino
at auction this summer, weeks after my charming visit. The
buyer: the World Wrestling Federation. We visited again
just before Christmas, and the switch from "Singin' in the
Rain" to "Wrath in the Ring" had already begun.
The once colorful staff has vamoosed, replaced by
neckless security men and empty floors where Hollywood
movie memorabilia had been gathered, its memories
flourishing in this humble cranny. The photos of classic
film stars that lined each floor's hallways were up for
grabs. Debbie's magnificent Hollywood Movie Museum was
vacant. When warm weather returns to the valley this
spring, an entirely new tower will be constructed over the
existing casino, which will be enlarged and remodeled. The
whole structure will be covered in black glass and boast a
giant neon lightning bolt running from the roof to the
entrance. Wrestlers and wrestling fans of every dimension
and shade soon will hoot and growl and yee-hah up and down
the formerly dignified hallways. There will be much ooh-ing
Which is not a bad thing. Vegas is all about ooh-ing and
ahh-ing, and the transformation of Las Vegas — from frenzied
flophouse to family-friendly funhouse — has rescued the city
from a slow slide into extinction. With hotel owners
constantly trying to one-up each other, the displays and
attractions are the most bold and dazzling you're likely to
find anywhere in the world. Vegas is now the most
iconoclastic city in history, determined to provide its
visitors with a one-of-a-kind experience.
Still, while Vegas erects an enormous replica of the
Great Sphinx, builds a sparkling new casino with a richly
Italian theme and opens countless buffets offering food
from around the globe, the city's uniquely American
heritage is disappearing faster than a roll of quarters at
the Wheel of Fortune slot machines. It's great to spend a
day or two wandering through the wonders of the southern
Strip, but even the most bubbly traveler eventually suffers
from stimulus overload. After a few days of costumed
chambermaids and animatronic waiters, you'll probably start
hunting someplace you can get a drink without an Egyptian
barge hanging over the bar. Such remnants of a more
grounded Vegas still exist. In fact, we found our favorite
across from the Debbie Reynolds hotel: the Silver City
Casino. Sure, it's got a theme, but unless you look up at
the dirty Western wallpaper over the gaming tables, you'd
never know it. The carpet and the change ladies have been
there since the '70s, and it's worth braving the entrance
for the cheap and tasty food alone (esp. the 99-cent
breakfast after 11 p.m.). The Silver City, on Las Vegas
Boulevard just north of Convention Center Drive, has a
compact floor of slot machines that pay off better than
most of the name-brand casinos. There are no attractions or
dazzling displays here, save the colorful blend of frat
boys and grizzled old-timers at the craps table. Drinks are
even cheap when they're not free to gamblers. The Silver
City is nothing but clean, hard gambling with nothing to
distract you from the simple and perilous joys therein.
Just south down the Strip is the elegant Desert Inn.
Aside from booking quality musical entertainment, the
Desert Inn sports the ultimate Vegas casino. Again, no
gimmicks or amusements here — just a beautifully decorated
room full of pricey tables. You'll see the vacationers in
Bermuda shorts at tables next to the oil barons in tuxes.
Nearby is the Sahara, one of the first hotel and casinos
built on the Strip. The casino there is pretty shabby, but
the breakfast buffet is an inexpensive lifesaver when the
harsh light of day rouses you from your hotel bed. Unlike
most of the city's notorious buffets, the Sahara's morning
spread is simple and hearty.
Most of the casinos downtown retain their former dignity
despite Fremont Street being turned into a pedestrian mall
covered for several blocks by an arched ceiling with hourly
light shows. This is where much of the city's hard-line
bettors have retreated — plenty of plaid sports jackets and
Foster Grants murmuring into payphones. The Gulch and the
Nugget still boast slots and tables worth the investment.
While you're downtown, enjoy a bountiful but affordable
continental meal at the Plaza. The entire Fremont strip is
your atrium view.
When the tables have taken you for granted, blow the
rest of your cash on shows. This is the real pleasure of
Vegas. Skip the overblown fads of "Lord of the Dance" and
impersonator Danny Gans and take in the classics before
retirement takes them away. Siegfried and Roy are still
taming tigers at The Mirage, and Lance Burton, Master
Magician, still tricks the eye at the Monte Carlo.
Two of the best shows involve the kicking up of heels.
"The Great Radio City Spectacular" at the Flamingo Hilton is
a classic Vegas extravaganza, full of feathers and thighs
and sequins. It stars the Radio City Rockettes plus Susan
Anton or Paige O'Hara, and it's running indefinitely with a
dinner show and cocktail show every night except, oddly
enough, Fridays. The other show features just as many
fabulous dresses even though the stars are really men.
"Boy-lesuqe" with Kenny Kerr is the longest running
headlining show in Vegas, and the drag is phenomenal.
Kerr's bawdy repartee with the audience and his crew will
have you in stitches, and if you're lucky he'll do
Streisand. "Boy-lesque" runs Tuesdays through Saturdays at
Jackie Gaughan's Plaza.
Also not to be missed is the Liberace Museum. Drive east
on Tropicana in search of it, but don't be hunting for a
palacial estate. The museum is housed in four different
spaces of an east Vegas strip mall, the main building is
probably an old IHOP. The cheap admission is worth the
chance to see the gaudy leftovers of this enormously
popular late performer. The rhinestone jumpsuits are one
thing, but the rhinestone Rolls Royce is a sight to
Check schedules for Debbie Reynolds, too — her show is a
spunky set of singing, dancing and movie memories. She'll
pop up for performances every now and then because she
still lives in Vegas, even though commercially — as the
wrestlers take hold — there's not much of a home for her
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.