Patches & Gretchen CD Release with Kevin Bowe, Adam Levy and Dan Israel at The Varsity Theater

Gretchen Seichrist of Patches & Gretchen - Photo by Pamela Diedrich (Click the photo to see more of Pamela's photos from this show.)

I arrived at the Patches & Gretchen Sugar Head Pie CD Release Party so early that the recently remodeled (yet again) Varsity Theater (it’s still not done, but it’s awesome – you must check out the bathrooms!) was still mostly empty.

My promptness paid off, however, as at 8 p.m. sharp, Dan Israel took the stage, filling the room with an incredibly good vibe right from the start. Sounding and looking great under the Varsity’s incomparable stage lighting, Israel’s short set was intimate in the best sense of the word. You could easily make a case that this guy should open every bill.

Marc Percansky, a key member of the Patches & Gretchen entourage, decked out Vaudeville style, complete with walking stick, was playing emcee for the evening’s festivities and introduced Adam Levy’s new project, Liminal Phase. (The band name refers to various “in between” times, where one project or period may be complete, but the next one has not yet really begun.) I’ve always been impressed when already busy people still find time to develop new projects, and Levy, already playing in Hookers & Blow, The Honeydogs and the children’s music ensemble, Bunny Clogs, definitely qualifies as busy. Liminal Phase plays the kind of surrealistic fare which makes you want to “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” as the Beatles said in “Tomorrow Never Knows,” incidentally a song the band covered in their set, and that song established the tripped out tone for the entire set. The band included a bassoon, an oboe and even what appeared to be an antique, hand-operated pump organ. The set also featured a thought-provoking song I look forward to hearing again soon called “We Need a Better Word for Love.”

As Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets took over the stage from Levy, Percansky and Bowe engaged in the toast “l’chayim!” (to life!) as had Dan Israel and Adam Levy before him. Bowe was playing tonight in a three piece configuration which consisted of him on guitar and vocals, Peter Anderson on drums, and Steve Price on bass. Bowe told me later this is a lineup he really enjoys. He played his own originals, including a song which wore so much Paul Westerberg influence on its sleeve that it sounded even more like Paul Westerberg than even Paul Westerberg does. Fans of Alison Scott may note that Bowe, Anderson and Price comprise the core of her backup band, so it was not a total surprise (though surely a bit of one) when Scott joined the trio to sing lead vocals on the final song of Bowe’s set, “Smash and Grab,” a song I understand she is currently recording with the same line-up.

But the star of the night was, of course, Gretchen Seichrist, the artistic force and voice of Patches & Gretchen. Having seen Seichrist and her band at least half a dozen times now, I’ve come to understand that every Patches and Gretchen show is a unique, thoroughly planned out production, down to minutiae like props and the costuming of each band member, which is different show to show. Though their music and performances are really nothing alike, this is something Seichrist shares with Mark Mallman, whose shows also have themes as well as set lists. In the case of either artist, seeing one show definitely doesn’t mean you’ve seen them all.

For Patches & Gretchen, tonight’s CD Release show for their second full length album Sugar Head Pie was even more of a multi-media experience than usual and included a video screen behind the band and a full length mirror dangling from the ceiling draped in cloth. Band members tonight consisted of Terry Eason, Tommy Tousey, Jaime Paul Lamb, Paul Mcfarland, Shane Huston and Todd Newman who were decked out in various garb that could only be called eclectic and fell somewhere between cave man and medieval prince. There was also a man in a red flower costume (Geoffrey Trelstad) who wandered the stage for the duration of the set.  David Wynn of the London Underground (yes, really, he works as a signalman for the Tube) and one of Seichrist’s biggest international fans, had flown in from England for the show and was honored by his own special introduction pre-set from Percansky.

Well before Patches & Gretchen started their set, the Varsity had filled up nicely with fans. Seichrist and band opened with a couple of songs played from a seated position including “Sunrise – Sunset” and “Everything is Indian” and then stood for the rest of the set which included most of the key tracks off Sugar Head Pie. Sugar Head Pie, Patches & Gretchen’s second album, has been getting much-deserved rave critical reviews from well-respected members of the Twin Cities press and music scene, including writer Jim Walsh, The Honeydog’s Adam Levy and MPR’s Chris Roberts. I, personally, have placed the album at the top of my list of the best albums to be released in Minnesota this year, and given its relevance, power and refreshing honesty, it’s not likely to slip from that spot.

Expanding on the groundwork she laid down on her debut The Big Pink, Sugar Head Pie makes it all the more evident that Seichrist’s artistic vision comes from living in a world that few of us ever even visit. (Some of us never go there, if we’re lucky, or unlucky as the case may be, as it’s a place of often beautiful, though often harsh realities.) As way of metaphor, I found myself relying on how Bill Burroughs described the title of his novel Naked Lunch, which came to him via Jack Kerouac: “A frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Seichrist tells it like it is.

Seichrist rounded out her show with a Dylan cover (“Positively 4th Street”) and one of the more emotionally raw songs from Sugar Head Pie, “Tired of Chicken.”  The post-show vibe I picked up was that of satisfaction all around, both on-stage and off. The crowd seemed to be made up almost entirely of people who really care about Seichrist, believe in this project, and are determined to get behind her as an artist. (If you hadn’t guessed already, I’m in that group.)

I hope Seichrist seriously considers taking this show on the road (worldwide, if possible) to get these songs in front of a wider audience. People need to hear these songs, and I think they will respond.

Patches & Gretchen’s Set list:
sunrise – sunset
everything is indian
blood suitcase
time of the lilacs
sugar head pie
black market
sweet wolves
ghosts i love
big things
gauze- short version
positively 4th street- bob dylan
tired of chicken
( crying states – encore)

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