LET’S SET ASIDE FOR A MOMENT THE DEBATE on whether or not Venus DeMars and Lynette Reini-Grandell are professional artists. For one thing, the details and ramifications of the couple’s battle with the Minnesota Department of Revenue have been covered thoroughly in both local and national forums, and this piece is unlikely to bring any new facts to light.
It seems more important, now, to focus on their work. Whenever an artist becomes a cause célèbre, there’s a real danger of the cause eclipsing the art. For instance, thousands of casual observers know Robert Mapplethorpe only as that photographer who got that museum in Cincinnati charged with obscenity. It would be tragic if this current unpleasant business with the tax man led to Venus DeMars and Lynette Reini-Grandell likewise becoming “those artists who got audited.”
That’s a big part of why the recent “Audit Hell” fundraiser at Triple Rock was such a vital event. Its stated purpose may have been to raise funds and awareness for the couple’s tax fight, but the night was just as important as a timely reminder of the work they do that gives meaning to the whole thing. The first half of the night was structured much like one of DeMars’ lesser known recent projects, a series of artists’ salons hosted in her Warehouse District studio space. Those gatherings are endearingly intimate affairs where a rotation of poets, writers and musicians take the stage to share warts-and-all artwork with a room of sympathetic listeners. The work itself can be hit-or-miss, depending on your personal tastes, but the gatherings themselves succeed on the strength of the supportive community they draw, eager to embrace each other’s art. Here’s the thing: It’s one thing to pull off a cozy vibe in the confines of one’s private studio and quite another to swing it in a venue like Triple Rock. But our hosts pulled it off admirably, with Reini-Grandell serving as an affable emcee and DeMars working the room with a soft-spoken sweetness belied by the leather, feathers and nipple tape of her iconic stage suit.
Still, in the early going, the Triple Rock audience seemed divided between those who came out to immerse themselves in the art and those who came to support some friends and have a party. A small klatsch of engaged listeners watched intently at the front of the room, while back by the bar glasses clinked and voices roared. At times the din from the rear threatened to drown out the poets and singers on stage. It’s a real shame, too: not only were the rowdier folks missing out on some fantastic work, such a dismissive reaction to the performances effectively undercuts the substance of what’s at stake. They’re making a show of support for the cause, maybe, but not so much for the art.
Despite the urgency of the cause, overt political statements didn’t dominate the evening. There were plenty of “Screw you, taxman” asides, but it was evident that the folks on stage and most of those in the crowd were there for the sake of the art first.
And you know what? Those who did pay attention really got their money’s worth. Reini-Grandell’s personal, expertly observed poems covered subjects from sexual congress to the inconvenience of updating internet passwords with equal grace. Kris Bigalk wrung laughs and thoughtful nods from the room with poetic observations on motherhood and a clever excoriation of people who claim “my dogs are my children.” Trailer Trash frontman Nate Dugan took his usual act down a notch with an elegant acoustic set which culminated in a rousing, ’60s-style protest song.
And, good as that song was, it was another mark in the event’s favor that overt political statements didn’t dominate the evening. Yes, there were plenty of “Screw you, taxman” asides – most vociferously delivered by an admittedly soused Jim Walsh. It’s powerful that, despite the urgency of the cause, it was evident that the folks on stage and most of those in the crowd were there for the sake of the art. That made Andrea Jenkins’ presence in the lineup all the more welcome. A powerful political poet, her thundering ruminations on racial, economic, and transgender justice finally silenced even the buzz coming from the back of the room. She struck a searing chord that carried us all through the rest of the evening – it was political art done right.
Financial concerns be damned (as real and as scary as they may be), the strength of the work on stage declared the “Audit Hell” tour stop at Triple Rock, once and for all, to be a celebration of art and artists. If the crowd wasn’t galvanized already when Venus took the stage for a brief acoustic solo set, they certainly were by the time she wrapped up her chilling take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” People flocked to the silent auction tables to bid on donated artwork as the full band portion of the evening drew near.
The rest of the show was all sound and sweat and an increasingly out-of-control dance floor. Magneto Effect cranked out an affably dark set of gloomy glam, and Pennyroyal came awfully close to stealing the whole show with their effervescent, energetic indie pop. But of course the night belonged to Venus DeMars and All the Pretty Horses. If the stress of the audit is wearing Venus down, it sure didn’t show in the performance -- a muscular set that spanned the band’s nearly two-decade existence. DeMars’ deep, distinctive growl rolled around the room and pushed aside thoughts of anything but the music. From the slow burn of “Crystalline” to the ferocity of “White Horses” to a “Where Are We Now?” that arguably eclipsed David Bowie’s original, this was a valedictory statement from an extraordinary artist.
The Audit Hell fundraiser served its stated purpose, raising money, awareness and spirits at a time when all were sorely needed. Even more vitally, the show put the art of Venus DeMars, Lynette Reini-Grandell and their friends front and center. Whether professionals or hobbyists, martyrs or heroes, these are indisputably artists. Reini-Grandell will always be the poet who turned Tennessee Williams’ undignified death into a penetrating reflection on mortality and legacy. DeMars will always be the songwriter who penned the lyrics to “Crashed Again” and the guitarist who laid down a devastating solo on “White Horses.”
Those are things no taxman can take away, and in the long run that’s what matters most of all.
Related links and information:
For more about the artists and to keep track of current gigs, visit: http://www.venusdemars.com/. Details about White Horses: A Tribute to the Music of Venus DeMars, an album whose sales will help defray the costs of the couple’s tax troubles: http://www.venusdemars.com/whitehorsestribute/
About the author: Ira Brooker is a writer and editor residing in Saint Paul's scenic Midway neighborhood. He has been published in a number of venues both local and national, several of which you may have even heard of. He currently edits Minnesota Playlist, maintains an archive at irabrooker.com and occasionally prattles on about pop culture at A Talent For Idleness.