From South St. Paul to Memphis: Blues duo hits career high note

Donna Dahl, of South St. Paul, and Dave Lambert make up Brother Sun Sister Moon, a 2-year-old blues duo that recently competed at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis — a career highlight for the local musicians. (submitted photo)
Donna Dahl, of South St. Paul, and Dave Lambert make up Brother Sun Sister Moon, a 2-year-old blues duo that recently competed at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis — a career highlight for the local musicians. (submitted photo by Doug Jenkins)
Donna Dahl, of South St. Paul, and Dave Lambert make up Brother Sun Sister Moon, a 2-year-old blues duo that recently competed at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis — a career highlight for the local musicians.  (submitted photo)
Donna Dahl, of South St. Paul, and Dave Lambert make up Brother Sun Sister Moon, a 2-year-old blues duo that recently competed at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis — a career highlight for the local musicians. (submitted photo by Gary Eckhart)
Brother Sun Sister Moon performs Jan. 23 at the International Blues Challenge Quarterfinals at King’s Palace Cafe on Beale Street in Memphis. (submitted photo)
Brother Sun Sister Moon performs Jan. 23 at the International Blues Challenge Quarterfinals at King’s Palace Cafe on Beale Street in Memphis. (submitted photo)
Minnesota folks gather at the International Blues Challenge recently, including members of GRAB ME (Greater Rochester Area of Blues Music Enthusiasts) and the Minnesota Blues Society.  (submitted photo)
Minnesota folks gather at the International Blues Challenge recently, including members of GRAB ME (Greater Rochester Area of Blues Music Enthusiasts) and the Minnesota Blues Society. (submitted photo)

Donna Dahl’s long, red hair and Dave Lambert’s gray mustache, which extends into two long braids, help them stand out in the local blues scene, but their look isn’t what makes them unique.

As a guitar-drums duo called Brother Sun Sister Moon, their rare setup, raw sound, and palpable chemistry on stage set them apart in April at the Road to Memphis in St. Paul. Their win at the state competition recently sent them to the International Blues Challenge in Tennessee — called the Olympics of the blues world, and a networking opportunity that’s career-changing whether participants win it or not.

Dahl, 51, of South St. Paul, only in recent years came back to drumming after an 18-year hiatus to raise seven children. She and Lambert, 57, of Ellsworth, Wisconsin, were still on the road Jan. 28 in their van, reeling from the several days they spent performing, jamming and doing radio interviews in Memphis and Clarksdale, Mississippi, surrounded by hundreds of blues musicians, fledgling and legendary.

Fresh from recording their first album, they spent months rehearsing, gigging and fundraising to get to Memphis, where they were flanked by dozens of Minnesotans.

“We immersed ourselves in the musical landscape there,” Dahl says. “I can truthfully say I don’t think there will ever be another trip like this, in that there were so many firsts.”

Both started at 7, listening to 45s

Spinning old 45s from 1950s blues musicians as a kid in the small village of Otisville, Michigan, Lambert easily fell into the genre.

He first picked up a guitar at 7, though he knew he was going to play it by 4, he says. He’d play along to the radio or records, setting the needle back over and over until he got the hang of a tune, usually something guitar-based from ZZ Top or Jimi Hendrix.

“That’s how I learned,” Lambert says. “It’s kind of like a language.”

He had his first gig in sixth grade with a three-piece band of kids around his age. Mostly self-taught, Lambert was determined to make music a career.
In the early 1980s, he moved to the Twin Cities, and has since become ingrained in the state’s blues scene.

Dahl started playing at age 7, too. She recalls hearing a 45-rpm recording, and the dt-dt-dt beat on it, and asking her brother what it was. He explained, and she declared, “I want to play drums!”

She took lessons for three years, not even playing on a real drum set for the first two years.

She soon racked up prestigious performances playing percussion and the string bass with the All-city Elementary Orchestra and the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies.

“I remember I used to drag her all around town, it seems like, with a big drum set in the car,” says Lois Leisz, Dahl’s mother. “She has always really loved playing drums.”

In high school, in the midst of her own little “punk rebellion,” Dahl played whenever and whatever she could — punk, funk, heavy metal, avant-garde jazz — even drumming with a lounge band at 17. She took vocal lessons as part of the year of college her mom required, and realized, “Oh my God — I could sing.”

Heard each other first

Lambert and Dahl met two years ago.

On New Year’s Eve Dec. 31, 2012, Lambert and Dahl joined an “all-star” jam at Covered Bridge Restaurant in Zumbrota, orchestrated by Tom Harkness of The Swamp Kings, whom Dahl actually first met playing in the All-city Elementary Orchestra.

Lambert heard Dahl before he saw her. The stage was so full all he could do was focus in on the sound of Dahl’s drumming, wondering who it was in the crowd holding the drum sticks.

“It was a unique, solid style,” Lambert says. “I locked into that groove.”

The next day, they each separately asked Harkness:

“What can you tell me about Donna?”

“What can you tell me about Dave?”

They quickly decided to form a band.

Without a bassist, they each played bits of the bass part to compensate. Meanwhile, Lambert worked hard to get Dahl and her drumming in winning shape, taking every gig they could get.

For a while, they were fixated on forming a larger band, but it took them winning the Road to Memphis at Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul to really realize their unique guitar-drums combo was something worth keeping.

“The walk up the hill was actually the gift,” Lambert says. “It wasn’t until the Road to Memphis...”

“...until we figured it out,” Dahl says, finishing his sentence.

Writing, producing an album

Lambert and Dahl wrote and produced an album, which they put out in December.

“Donna is a tremendous writer,” Lambert says, followed by Dahl: “I was just going to say that about him.”

Andrew Crowley, their co-producer and the owner of Organica Recording in St. Paul, recorded and mixed the album using Organica’s Neve Console, which used to be at Electric Lady Studios in New York, then Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls; it was used to record the last Nirvana album, Crowley says.

Crowley says Brother Sun Sister Moon was easy to work with in the studio.

“They came in already knowing the material,” Crowley says. “They knew what kind of record they wanted to make.”

Working with just guitars and drums was a “unique” challenge for Crowley, he says.

“One of the benefits to having only a two-piece like this is there’s more of a sonic palette,” Crowley says. “I could make things bigger. ... [and] got a sound that was pretty natural, but yet eclectic at the same time. We kept the vocals pretty raw.”

Crowley sent the album to the Bahamas to be finished.

Renowned producer Terry Manning, who has worked with the artists who inspired Lambert in the first place, such as ZZ Top, mastered the record.

Crowley says Manning “can really do anything,” but he really understands blues and a “rootsier” style.

“I thought he was a perfect match for the album,” Crowley says.

Throughout the recording process, Crowley says he witnessed the duo’s originality:

“What’s special about it is I hear their personalities coming through the music.”

Tangible chemistry

Whether on stage or in the recording booth, Lambert and Dahl show off who they are.

“They bring their personality into everything they do,” Crowley says. “They have a very good chemistry. It’s very sincere.

“It makes them more easy to connect with,” he adds. “They’re offering something that’s unique.”

For Jim Pinckney, the co-chair of the Road to Memphis, which is sponsored by the Minnesota Blues Society, he hears their chemistry come alive with their vocal harmonies.

“One of the things about their music that I’ve found extremely captivating is that it’s just a real, raw sound,” Pinckney says.

From his several years running the state competition, Pinckney went into 2014’s thinking Brother Sun Sister Moon was a “dark horse.”

They changed his mind when they performed.

“As they played, I thought, they won this thing,” he says. “There’s an intensity to what they’re doing. It’s like all hell breaks loose.”

He says he knew Lambert, due to his “unique, bearded look,” and experience leading Dave Lambert and the Motivators. Pinckney says he was impressed with relative newcomer Dahl.

“She puts about 185 percent into her performance,” he says. “She’s just overcome, I would say, by the music. When they won, she was just all tears. I don’t think she thought they had a chance.”In Memphis, Dahl says they played the best show of her life at King’s Palace Cafe on Beale Street.

“It felt completely natural,” she says. “I still had control of my voice and myself as a musician and a partner in the duo with Dave. At the same time, it was completely exhilarating.”

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.


Jam with BSSM

Brother Sun Sister Moon hosts a jam at 7 p.m. Sundays at the South St. Paul VFW Post 295, 111 Concord Exchange S. Follow the duo through their Facebook page or website, bluesmotivators.com.


 

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