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John Lamb, Published October 09 2012

John Lamb: Soul Asylum co-founder leaves group after 30 years of rockin'

Word this week that singer/guitarist Dan Murphy left Soul Asylum, the group he co-founded 30 years ago, was met with more of a whimper than a roar.

Unfortunate, but fitting, as that’s the way any news from the Minneapolis-based band has been received lately.

Originally called Loud Fast Rules, and tagged “the best live band” by a number of publications in the late 1980s and early ’90s – even before they blew up with “Runaway Train” – Soul Asylum had slowed to a crawl, releasing just two albums in the last 14 years.

To those who only know the group from the ubiquitous “Runaway Train” or the video to “Just like Anyone,” which starts with Claire Danes sitting in an outhouse and ends with her sprouting wings and flying above her prom, the news was likely met with an uninterested,

“meh …”

After all, over the past half-decade the group had taken to the Rib Fest and casino circuits – not the arenas for bands that “matter.” Soul Asylum’s last date in Fargo, at The Venue in December 2009, sold so poorly the show was made free.

At their best (1988’s “Hang Time,” in my opinion), the group’s guitar-driven ferocity was matched by quick-witted lyrics that emphasized humility, humanity and even mortality. Granted, the group was more than two decades removed from their best work, but their recent local shows still mattered to me.

Sure, part of it was nostalgia, banging my head to “Sometime to Return” or trying to harmonize with Murphy and frontman Dave Pirner on “Cartoon” and feeling like a teenage fan as I did at that last show.

It was also great to see two guys who had worked together for more than 25 years still having fun, whether they were playing to a half-house as they did in ’09 or RibFest in ’08. At that show Pirner cracked a rack of saucy jokes like, “I haven’t seen this many ribs since I partied with Kate Moss.” Cheesy, sure, but coming from the guy who once dated Winona Ryder, kind of funny in a corny way. You got the feeling Pirner and Murphy fully understood their days of playing big arenas like the Fargodome were long gone and now they played a food event in the Dome’s parking lot. And still they had a good time.

That was always a hallmark of a Soul Asylum show. Whether they were playing the 7th Street Entry or President Clinton’s inaugural party or the ’97 Grand Forks prom in an airport hangar, the only thing they took seriously was having fun.

Pirner, the last original member, is soldiering on with Soul Asylum, but it won’t be the same without his right-hand man, lead guitarist and harmonizer. Murphy was Keith Richards to Pirner’s Mick Jagger – not the frontman but the heart of the group.

In a statement posted on the group’s fan site, www.enterthesoulasylum.

com, the 50-year-old Murphy stressed there was no split with Pirner, just time to give up the rock ’n roll life.

“To survive in the game of music in this current incarnation of digital downloads, short attention spans, tabloid-style press wrought with desperate headline-grabbing antics, it occurs to me that one needs an unhealthy and combustive internal combination of two seemingly distant attributes – naivety and swagger. I no longer have either and am looking forward to a quieter life with family and friends and my adorable chiweenie Lily Belle.”

Not very rock ’n roll. Nor is the fact that Murphy will be focusing his energy on his antiques business.

Soul Asylum’s early music will always make me feel young, but Murphy’s departure makes me feel kind of old.

Scratch that – it makes me feel my age, and that’s not all bad.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533