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Papa John Kolstad plays again
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Papa John Kolstad stopped performing and recording 25 years ago. Now he's back, saying he has a better feeling for the music. (Image courtesy John Kolstad)
A Minneapolis musician is releasing his first recording in 25 years. Papa John Kolstad's roots go back to the beginning of the Minneapolis folk scene. Now at 61, he returns with a CD of up-tempo blues and swing songs and a renewed vigor for making music.

Minneapolis, Minn. — In the 60s and 70s John Kolstad sang and played his 12-string guitar in Minneapolis coffee houses. He performed at New England folk festivals and on a new radio show called "A Prairie Home Companion." For a while, he was also popular on the midwest community college circuit. He admits it was initially a struggle to attract kids weaned on AM pop stations.

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Image Papa John

"'Why should I listen to you?'" he mimics. "'You're not on the radio, I've never heard of you, you couldn't possibly be any good.' I mean that was the attitude. And I understand that. So, I had to convince these people I was worth listening to and entertain them. And I was very good at that. And so I got asked back to many of these colleges semester after semester."

Kolstad recorded on the Swallowtail label. In the early 80s he bought out the owners, and started his distribution business. It turns out he was pretty good at that too.

"All the touring and what not it sort of gets old," he says. "And the music...I was doing something else successful so why spend my time doing something there was clearly something missing in."

Kolstad's distribution business handles names like Lori Line, Katie McMahon and violinist David Wilson. But now, after 20 year hiatus, Kolstad has started performing and recording again. This week he officially released his first record in a quarter century. It's mostly songs from another era, written by the likes of Washboard Sam, Leroy Carr and George Gershwin.

I really would like to spend more time honing music and taking the time to put it together the way I want it to sound.
- Papa John Kolstad

"Going through the recordings and listening to the mix and what I played and how I sang and how I phrased, how it was all constructed, it was an enormous learning experience for me," Kolstad says. "I think I'm a much better musician now because of having done this project. I didn't know this was going to happen to me."

Fans packed the Artists Quarter in St. Paul last Sunday for his CD release party. Kolstad may not have known everyone in the audience, but he at least greeted them as if he did.

He plays with three other musicians he started jamming with informally about four years ago at Molly Quinns, an Irish bar near his business on Lake Street. The band's name, the Hot Club of East Lake, is a passing tribute to Django Reinhart.

Molly Quinn's is closed now, but those jam sessions inspired the disc.

"I've studied science. I've studied physics. I've studied music," Kolstad says. "But there's this quality you can't put into a formula when that magic happens with an artist, a performer. Why does the audience feel it? What is this magic?"

For the 61-year-old Kolstad the experience echos his early days, playing at the Ten O'Clock Scholar in Dinkytown where Bob Dylan and Koerner, Ray and Glover played, and the legendary parties at Red Nelson's place, dubbed Ground Zero. Nelson remembers them fondly.

"I became literally the man who just furnished the space, he says. "And I sorted it all out--their guitars didn't walk, there wasn't any trouble, there wasn't any heavy drugs, lots of beer and good music."

Forty years later, Nelson says he and Kolstad are still close friends.

"He and I have the same, same thoughts except he's a musician and I'm a real estate broker," Nelson says. "But our hearts are in the same place. He sings, I talk. What can I say?"

Nelson says Kolstad has returned to his calling.

"This is what he really loves. This is really where he's at. And now I see him in his own element. Second career if you want to look at it that way. But I see it as sort of a hearts desire kind of thing. And you can see that in his music."

Kolstad says performing and recording again is not the chore he thought it might be. Instead he's inspired to do more.

"I really would like to spend more time honing music and taking the time to put it together the way I want it to sound."

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