Ex-Minn. polka-punk rocker returns to stage in 'Of Mirth and Mischief'

Steve Kramer and Kevin Kling
Steve Kramer with Kevin Kling. Kramer leads the music for "Of Mirth and Mischief."
Photo courtesy MPR

This weekend, Twin Cities rocker Steve Kramer returns to the stage some two decades after the demise of his best known band, The Wallets.

Kramer is collaborating with storyteller Kevin Kling in "Of Mirth and Mischief" at the Fitzgerald Theater, a show which examines the modern world through the lens of fairytales.

The Wallets, a punk-polka band, were popular in the late 1980s. Accordionist Steve Kramer led the band, and wrote much of the music.

After a couple of albums, and probably more bar gigs than they cared to remember, Kramer decided to fold the Wallets in 1989. For most people he then dropped from sight.

Kramer is unromantic in anticipating how fans may react to his return to the stage.

"'That guy? I thought he was dead!' " he surmised.

The musician may have stepped back from playing live, but his work now has a much larger audience. He moved into the advertising jingle business with clients ranging from Target and Buick to MTV.

"For me it's been a good thing, because I've just been writing pretty much daily for really a long, long time, so I've had a chance to learn some things," he said. "So this [show] kind of dropped in at a perfect moment."

Commissioned by MPR and set in the 1960s, "Of Mirth and Mischief" is the story of a little boy enduring a long stay in the hospital over the holidays. As he struggles to recover the people around him morph into elves and other magical beings, who help him heal.

Both Kramer and Kling have had their share of hospitalizations in the past as the result of serious accidents. As Kling wrote the story he drew on the mythic power of fairy tales to wrestle with the reality of injury. Then Kramer began developing the songs, and together they created a world of slapstick, and wordplay, humor and pathos.

"Kevin have never really tried to force this anywhere, although we both like to do things just to be weird," said Kramer. "We'd kind of say, 'That's kind of weird, that's a good idea, but what does the story want?' So it really developed in a pretty organic way."

Steve Kramer
One-time rocker Steve Kramer disappeared from many people's minds when he disbanded the Wallets back in the day. But he kept writing everyday, he says, and now he's doing the music with Kevin Kling in "Of Mirth and Mischief."
Photo courtesy MPR

"Sometimes the story would inform the music, and sometimes the music will inform the story," Kling added. "It goes back and forth. As I write, and I am still putting the text together and will right up through it. I listen to the music constantly because there are little secrets popping up out of the music."

Kramer pulled together an all-star band for the show, and enlisted vocalists Haley Bonar, and James Diers of the band Halloween, Alaska. They liked the music so much they recorded it in advance. It's also available as a free download.

Kramer and Kling have been friends for many years but this is the first time they have actually worked together. "Of Mirth and Mischief" is far from being a typical holiday show, but Kramer hopes people will relate to it.

"The oddness will be interesting and engaging, " Kramer said. "As opposed to 'We are really odd, we are not going to tell you why.' "

"I think everybody feels odd though," Kling said. "It's like when you are in junior high nobody feels normal."

"But you just think that 'Oh man if I could be like them I wouldn't feel so bad,' " said Kramer. "But they are thinking the same thing."

Kramer said he expects maybe not thousands of old fans of The Wallets to show up, but definitely tens of them.

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