Music legend Spider John Koerner contemplates his legacy

Spider John Koerner in the MPR studio
After more than half a century of musical innovation, Spider John Koerner is retiring.
Nate Ryan | MPR

Few musicians get to celebrate their own legacy, but at 78, Spider John Koerner is no ordinary musician.

After more than half a century of musical innovation, Koerner is retiring. The guitarist and singer, his collaborators and some of the younger artists he has influenced will appear in concert Sunday at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.

Spider John can be blunt, particularly when it comes to this weekend's concert.

"First of all, it wasn't my idea," he said. "Some people have been calling this show a retirement thing. But what I tell them is that I am already retired, and I retired some time ago with no fanfare."

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But can a musician who has played all over the world since the early '60s, influencing generations of younger players, really retire?

Koerner rose to prominence in the blues trio Koerner, Ray and Glover. With Tony "Little Sun" Glover, and the late Dave "Snaker" Ray, he toured the United States and wowed the crowds at the Newport Folk Festival. They performed their own material and interpreted classic tunes. It was a mixture of respect for a great tradition, with a thirst for experimentation.

"I don't like to leave anything the way it was, exactly," he said.

In 1969 he and another West Bank denizen, Willie Murphy, teamed up to release "Running, Jumping, Standing Still." When they went into the studio the idea was to experiment, and experiment they did.

"A major part of the quality of that is due to Willie," Koerner said. "He understands music way better than I do. But also, some of that rubbed off on me." He realized he could not only use unconventional time signatures, but switch back and forth between them. "And if you made it interesting it all worked."

Spider John Koerner in the MPR studio
A concert on Sunday will give young and old players the chance to pay their respects to, and play with, Spider John Koerner.
Nate Ryan | MPR

The disc became a classic of the folk-rock amalgam of the time, drawing huge respect particularly from other musicians. It didn't make them rich, though. Koerner has played the folk and blues scene ever since, producing eclectic recordings. He's played with a lot of people over the years. He and Bob Dylan were a duo early on. He worked with Bonnie Raitt and a host of others.

"I've had a lot of things which were impressive," he reflected. "The Newport Folk Festivals, to me was really something. I've played in Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall in London, which, boy, how do you go up from that?"

Yet Spider John always returned to the Minneapolis West Bank. You could often see him just walking around the neighborhood. Just another guy on the avenue, he says, but he doesn't say "guy." As he mentioned, this Sunday's concert wasn't his idea. But he's warming to it.

"There's a bunch of young folks who have appreciated my work and influence, if you want to call it that, and it was kind of their idea to have something, with them performing and paying respect, I guess you want to call it," he said.

The list of youngsters on Sunday's bill includes the Cactus Blossoms, Jack Klatt, Dave Babb and Grant Johnson, and Lonesome Dan Kase. The oldsters playing include Tony Glover, Willie Murphy and two friends from Boston: Chip Taylor Smith and Paul Strother. An after-party at the nearby Palmers Bar will feature Charlie Parr.

When asked about his ambitions, Koerner, who is a keen astronomer, said this:

"I'm trying to live for 1,000 moons, which turns out is just short of 81. So I've got two and a half years to go."

After that, blunt as ever, he said he doesn't give a rip. Only he didn't say "rip."