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Soul Men at the Fair

Photo by Michael L. Smith

If all you know of Soul Asylum is a touching little torch song called “Runaway Train,” listen up: Long before that unexpected hit was released in 1992, Soul Asylum had achieved a rare kind of cult status among fans of guitar-heavy alt-rock — a status founded largely on the soulful songwriting and indubitable white-boy groove of frontman Dave Pirner. 

Birthed in a Minneapolis scene that also gave us Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, Soul Asylum has been labeled “one of the most criminally underrated bands of the ’80s” by Spin and dubbed the “best live band in America” several times by Village Voice. Most notable, perhaps, is the survivalist ethic Pirner and crew have shown right up to the present, continuing to churn out great music despite the vacuum created by the lapse of Total Request Live fame. The band’s latest record, 2012’s Delayed Reaction, is one of its best, with another due to drop in spring.

EW caught up with Pirner by phone during the band’s stop in Austin, Texas, for the second half (or “the Louisiana Purchase” leg, as Pirner jokes) of the Summerland Tour that brings them to the Lane County Fair July 23. Having weathered the multi-platinum success of their breakthrough album Grave Dancer’s Union and all the shit and shinola that comes with three decades of being a working band, which included the death of founding bassist Karl Mueller, Pirner says Soul Asylum is firing on all cylinders.

“The band is way better than it’s ever been,” he says of guitarist Justin Sharbono, bassist Winston Roye and drummer Michael Bland. “It allows me as a writer to stretch out a little bit. I think we’re sort of back in the saddle and I just want to keep going and making new music. The band is able to turn it around so quickly. It’s kind of ridiculous.”

Pirner says that surviving as a musician means constantly evolving. “You keep it fresh because you don’t know how to do anything else, and it’s better than working at a taco shop,” he says. “The new stuff we’re working on is super fresh. That’s pretty exciting to me, because music is more interesting than a lot of things, and it does sort of evolve by itself.”

Soul Asylum plays with Everclear and Eve 6 Wednesday, July 23, at the Lane County Fair; $20 or free with fair admission.