Jim Hall chases time after five decades on stage

Jim Hall played a Halloween party at the Duluth Owls Club last month. On Saturday, he’s playing at Sacred Heart Music Center, a celebration of his 50 years on stage in the region.

Those familiar with the music of Jim Hall over the years would be right to do a double take when they hear one of his sets these days. The already basso troubadour has kicked his voice into even lower gear, and with a growl. That’s how Hall has been fighting an alarming and mysterious change in his vocal chords earlier this year. Even his talking voice changed.

He struggled with the sound at first, telling people he was a bit miffed at the transformation. This wasn’t a gimmick. Why change anything after more than 50 years on stage?

He then grew accustomed to it as more of those listening told him it was an interesting new sound for the 68-year-old.

Now, Hall is holding fast after a diagnosis of emphysema.

“It’s really hard,” Hall said of keeping up with regular gigs. “I’m not going to last much longer.”

It adds a bit of a morbid touch to a Saturday concert honoring Hall’s five decades on the scene. Dubbed a “50th Anniversary Celebration,” the 7 p.m. concert at Sacred Heart Music Center will open with Hall solo and end with him playing with one of the many bands he’s muddled together over the years, Jim’s Country Laundry.

Sacred Heart is Hall’s favorite place to play, the rich sound there filling his lifelong theory of why he was drawn to music.

It goes back to his days in the crib. His aunt told him that his crying eventually morphed into what he calls “throat singing.” The wail becoming a mantra, a different way to express his grief.
He was born while his dad was in the war in Korea.

“I was sleeping with my mother and the world was a beautiful place,” he said. Then his father came home and he “pulled me away from my mother.”

“All of a sudden, bam, I’m in the closet, bawling my head off.”

Hall and his father did not get along, those first impressions were difficult to shake.

“Crying is like the first prayer for love,” he said. “For me, it was answered by a great mystery.”

Vibrations. The throat moan. And eventually music. He was mesmerized by the throb of the world around him. “I think it’s something that goes through the universe and it can alleviate some of the traumatic trauma I was going through as an infant.”

Hall’s treatise on the origins of his musical life comes easily and earnestly. He’s always been considered a nice guy. He waits for his openings. You can sit with him for moments or hours and hear nothing but “OK,” “yeah,” “uh huh,” and “Oh yeah?”

Then he drops a bit of that philosophy on you. And when he gets going, you marvel at his careful consideration of words and timing.

“I just started playing guitar. I went to this music, this vibration thing, to express things I can’t express with words. Express things I don’t even understand.”

He said he’d take trips to the Boundary Waters and, with no instruments, orchestral movements “would just start playing in my head.”

Like any rebel of the late 1960s, Hall says he doesn’t remember many specifics of his early years in music. “It was LSD,” he plainly says.

Young bands in Duluth at the time got gigs opening at the Armory, which had a yearly “Battle of the Bands” to showcase the up-and-comers. The ideal situation then was to land a permanent gig at a bar and play six nights a week. If you drew a crowd, you stayed on.

One of Hall’s first bands played “acid rock,” and he merely sang and “danced around, jumping into crowds.”

He was still learning guitar and finding his fit into music. It was leaning into blues and folk. He had dropped out of high school because it wasn’t doing much for him, he said. He later got a GED and spent time at classes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The Duluth music scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s “was cool,” he said. “There were lots of bands. There was competition and camaraderie.”

He recalls playing at Darlene’s in Superior. Other gigs included high-school dances, private parties, UMD events, and at bars like the Silver Hammer, Mr. Pete’s and the Cove.

Hall hasn’t always been based in Duluth. He was hitchhiking across the region in the early 1980s and found some regular gigs at the Red Carpet in Ely. He also spent some time in Minneapolis polishing his folk and blues sound.

He’s worked as a longshoreman and for railroads.

He achieved an ultimate goal after being hit by a truck in 2002. Wandering minstrel. He got an accident settlement and then packed up a minivan and headed south. He hopped around Texas asking to play in whatever bar he ended up at.

“It was fun,” he said. “No pressure.”

And not much to show for six months, he admitted. He got Lyme disease and probably had $200 in his pocket when he returned.

The music remained. “You had to do it to eat,” he said.

Hall is known today for his solo act but has also played with a slew of people across the years. The bands are a scrapbook of time spent here: Azure du Jour, Blue Healers, Wet Dog, Red Cowboy Hat, Spotted Mule, Lo-Fi, Forget Me Nots.

He’s played in all but the first Homegrown Music Festival. “I guess I didn’t hear about it,” he said of that historic inaugural.

There’s a mixed bag of genres in the collaboration, but he always finds himself retreating to the solo work, the folk and blues, where he has his songs about the environment and the way we should get along in the world.

His solo work is where he finds himself melding to the music. He said he’s not big on showmanship, partly because of his reverence for the music but also, admittedly, a bit of stage fright.

“There’s still some of that,” he said of his confidence on stage. “I kind of put that aside and closed my eyes and tried to get into the lyrics and what was going on with the song.”

“Then I’d open my eyes and see a pretty girl and that’s it. The song is gone.”

He said he’s a long way from those drug-induced days flopping around on stage.

“I’ve never been into entertaining. I don’t really like entertainers. I like music to be honest, and real.”

The Sacred Heart event Saturday is touting Hall’s music as “from the gut.” It’s apt. It’s also from the head, and those damaged vocal chords and creeping emphysema.

Hall doesn’t record music anymore. He likes things live. Real.

“You’re really on the spot,” he said. “You just gotta get totally into the song and let it take you and move to it any way you want to and have fun.”

On the Radio

Jim Hall will perform a “Live From Studio A” session on 103.3 FM KUMD at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14.

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