Chan Poling rebounds from health issues for New Standards holiday show

Chan Poling has a new book, new beard and new plaid suit for the New Standards’ 13th annual holiday shows this weekend.

And a new reason to celebrate.

“The possibility was out there that we wouldn’t have the holiday show,” said bandmate John Munson. “It was a big fear for us.”

Poling, the revered Minnesota music maker, underwent oral surgery in June and canceled concerts by the New Standards and the Suburbs, the rockers with whom he made his name in the 1970s. The pianist/singer went four months without giving a full-blown concert — until last Friday at Lutsen ski resort on Lake Superior’s North Shore.

“My voice is fine — I’m not an opera singer,” he said Monday after his trio’s reunion. “I’m the only one who’s worried about it. No one seems to notice. I just rolled with it at Lutsen.”

As he contemplates his comeback, Poling seems more confident than concerned.

“It’s affected my singing,” he said. “The worst is a little lisping. All the doctors say the only way to get back is to practice and do it.” And the holiday show is the “perfect way” to return to the stage.

“The burden on me personally is minimal,” he pointed out. “It’s all about the guest stars. I’m singing four songs.”

As always, the New Standards — famous for their ingenious reinventions of well-known songs — won’t announce their parade of special guests in advance, but they acknowledge they got a late start in planning and rehearsing because of Poling’s health.

He wasn’t exactly idle during those months away from the stage. He and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, his collaborator on the hit musical “Glensheen,” are preparing a new show about Wild West outlaw Jesse James that’s scheduled to get a workshop presentation Jan. 18 at the History Theatre’s Raw Stages festival.

He and Hatcher purchased the rights to develop a musical based on an Oscar-winning film. (Sorry, they’re mum on specifics at the moment.) Poling saw another of his musicals, 2011’s “Heaven,” mounted at Park Square Theatre as well as the fifth staging of “Glensheen” at the History Theatre.

He wrote a few new songs for the Suburbs, and he traveled to France, Maine and California.

And he promoted his first book, “Jack & the Ghost,” a young-adult picture book illustrated by Lucy Michell and published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Appearing at bookstores, book fairs and even the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, Poling sang a couple of songs with Michell (a musician herself, aka Lucy Michelle), read aloud and autographed books.

“I’m a little humbled,” he said of his literary debut, which he likens to writing a song. “I feel compelled to apologize to all the hardworking writers who have been trying to find a publisher for years and I got one with my first try.”

“Jack & the Ghost” tells the fictional story of a North Shore fisherman who loses his fiancée in a boating accident (he was the lone survivor) and copes with life afterward.

Poling lost his own wife, Eleanor Mondale, to brain cancer in 2011.

“I think it’s a good book for an 11-year-old,” he said over lunch last week. “You can understand grief.

“It’s a self-help book. One of the guys at a reading said he lost his wife a few years ago.” He told Poling: “It really was effective for me.”

As for Poling himself, “It helped me. That’s why I wrote it; not as an instructive manual, but it was something I needed to work through myself. The fact that people are finding it useful is a bonus.”

Semiactive other Standards

Poling’s partners in the New Standards weren’t idle this summer, either.

“I shaved my mustache and grew my hair out,” joked Munson.

Actually, the bassist and singer not only performed three concerts with Semisonic, his semiactive band best known for the 1998 hit “Closing Time,” but recorded a new group album at frontman Dan Wilson’s studio in Los Angeles; it’s expected in March. Munson also worked on recordings with Dylan Hicks and Michell as well as a theatrical project that has been germinating for a while.

Vibraphonist Steve Roehm did something he’d been talking about for 10 years — he built mini-vibes.

Toiling in his garage workshop, he designed, sawed, buffed, assembled and tuned foot-long, eight-note percussion instruments (it’s a minor blues scale). And he crafted mini-mallets.

He’s built about 15 “Roehmeos” — signed and numbered — which will sell for $75 at concerts and via his website (steveroehm.org, launching soon).

“I’m going to sell them as kind of a novelty item and as art, too,” Roehm explained. “They’re all different. I’ll probably have some tutorials on my website.”

Each Roehmeo involves about $15 to $20 worth of material and three to four hours of labor. The real trick is getting the instrument in tune after buffing the aluminum and then assembling everything.

It’s been trial and error, including dealing with flying shards of aluminum and injured fingers.

“I swear to God this is what I’m supposed to do,” Roehm said proudly while showing cellphone photos of his workshop. “It’s fun. It’s not abstract. When it’s done, I can sell it. With music, it’s always practicing and learning how to get better at it. This is like mowing the yard. You get to a place when it’s done.”

After he unveils the Roehmeo at the State Theatre this weekend, he might have to spend the next few weeks making more for the New Standards’ annual pre-New Year’s Eve gigs Dec. 29 and 30 at the Dakota in Minneapolis.

While that seems challenging, Poling faces an even more daunting task: He’ll sing lead on all tunes — standing up, no less — at the Suburbs’ performance Dec. 28 at Pioneer Place on Fifth in St. Cloud before splitting vocal chores, while sitting at a piano, with Munson the next two nights with the New Standards.

Poling says he’s feeling “anxious” about the back-to-back-to-back gigs.

“It’s a good test for me,” he said. “If I make it through to the new year, I’ll be damn happy. I got to get back at it and push myself. The alternative is doing nothing — and I don’t want to do that.”

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