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Do NOT Miss Leftover Cuties

Best Beloved took me to see Leftover Cuties Wednesday night at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. Actually, we saw the cutest cutie three times, not just once.

Stopped at the light at 10th and Nicollet, I watched Shirli cross the street, a pair of high (really high) heels in one hand.

As she stepped to the curb on the northwest side of the intersection I thought, Shirli . . . Shirli. Wait. I just watched Shirli McAllen cross the street.

I felt like I should run after her and apologize for not saying hello. (She later told me “You should have!”) As we were seated at our table near the stage, there she was again, scooting between the tables toward the backstage rooms. I started to stand and apologize for my earlier rudeness, but she was just too quick.

Leftover Cuties are the kind of band which feels like you really ought to run after them and say hello.

Shirli McAllen is that rare combination of a beautiful face, a powerful and perfectly controlled voice, and musical and songwriting talent. Back her (well, side her, because the band lines up along the front of the stage; no “drummer and bass in the back” stuff) with Austin, Stuart, and Mike, and it’s a show to delight a professional musician and songwriter like me, or a plain old music lover like Best Beloved. Everyone from little kids to seniors (by that I mean even more senior than me) were having a ball the whole evening.

Rarely have I seen anyone having as much fun onstage as Austin Nicholsen. Half of the evening, it looked like he was sharing a private joke with his big ol’ upright bass, laughing and leaning and generally having a good time. Stuart Johnson plays a minimalist drum kit plus a handful of noisemakers like bird chirps and little rattly things. Rather than becoming a bad disk jockey from the 50s, he shows enough restraint that the little extra bits are fun and distinctive rather than becoming goofy. Mike Bolger seemed too busy playing half a dozen instruments (sometimes two at the same time) to join in the general clowning and levity. It’s okay; playing the trumpet and piano simultaneously is good enough. (I’ll let you read more of the band’s history and future at their website.)

If you’ve listened to the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ album Perennial Favorites, you have a good feel for what Leftover Cuties do, though the Cuties don’t have that occasional dark undercurrent SNZ was capable of. It’s all on the plus side of the fun scale, happy even when it’s sad. Mostly upbeat, even on the albums, with the occasional torch song or ballad. Nothing that’ll drag you down; more like a breather between dances.

The last song of the evening was a real highlight for me: You Are My Sunshine, a lifelong favorite to harmonize on and sing to my little girl, done in a minor key which felt so much more authentic than the perky major key original. It’s on Departures, along with respectful but totally Cutiefied covers of Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice and the torch standard At Last.

After the show, the band heartily encouraged one and all to come say hello (and maybe even buy some merchandise . . . ) Shirli was just as warm and friendly has her onstage persona made me expect. Had an educational chat with Austin about ukuleles and upright basses, and moved down to Stuart and Mike to chat about my grandfather’s Harmony Montery tenor guitar. It honestly seemed they were enjoying themselves, and in no hurry at all.

One thing I appreciated was that, with the exception of one word ad-libbed during the final moments of Should Have Left You the entire show was clean enough that if we’d brought my mother or our little girl, I wouldn’t have been distressed. These days, finding entertainment sans profanity is rare, making the Leftover Cuties an even more special show. Our Little One has been listening to the CDs nonstop for the 6 days since we got home. She especially likes Places to Go and Sunnyside, and approves the minor key arrangement of You Are My Sunshine.

Check their list of shows and see when they’ll be in your area. I suspect it’ll be the best musical event of your year.

Here’s a partial set list; we listened to all four albums on the 100-mile drive home and made note of the tunes we recognized. Many of these songs can be streamed free at their website. Go do that now. I’ll be here when you get back.

Leftover Cuties at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis on Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

From Game Called Life

  • Game Called Life

From Departures

  • Fidelity
  • Poker Face
  • You Are My Sunshine

From Places To Go

  • Lost in the Sea (also on Game Called Life)
  • Places to Go
  • Everything I Got
  • Should’ve Left You
  • Sunnyside

From The Spark & the Fire

  • Thick and Thin
  • One Heart (watch the video!)
  • Once Again
  • Clarity
  • What’s the Matter?

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