By Tanner Kent
---- — The photo is hazy, a bit blurred on the edges, the way you might expect something to look an hour or two after a Merle Haggard concert.
Still, the image tells the tale true enough: There, on Midtown Tavern's well-worn stage, is Shooter Jennings playing guitar in a spontaneous moment of musical combustion witnessed by only a couple hundred lucky after-partiers.
Without the photographic evidence, some may not have believed the story. Because, just 15 or 30 minutes after the photo was taken, Jennings was out the door and gone, likely to never come back again.
"He said 'Thanks,' shook our hands and left," said Dave "Ocho" O'Connell, the ubiquitous Mankato musician who, on this particular night, was playing drums for The Station Wagons during an after-party to celebrate last week's Haggard performance at Riverfront Park. "And that was it."
With its close proximity to the outdoor musical destination that was recently ranked a top-five outdoor venue by respected Star Tribune columnist and music writer Chris Riemenschneider, Midtown Tavern plays frequent host to post-concert parties.
Ocho has played a few such parties (and his pop-rock three-piece The Full Setup is playing another on Friday after Everclear's performance at RibFest) — but he's never shared the stage with someone like Shooter.
"I don't know how he found out," Ocho said. "But during our first set break, (my bandmate) said, 'Shooter is here.' A few minutes later, one of his people asked us if we wanted to play with him."
And play they did — an extended cover of Bob Dylan's enigmatic "Isis," a song that Shooter claimed as one of his favorites in a 2009 interview with Entertainment Weekly. The tune was simple enough to learn on stage and Ocho said he and the Station Wagons mostly stayed out of the way anyway while Shooter and his bandmate stretched into a 15-minute rendition.
Such moments don't seem out of character for Shooter, a musician who has garnered a reputation for championing independent and grassroots music. His show on Sirius XM's Outlaw Country station heavily promotes such artists and he's expressed strong sentiments — both musically and in interviews — about the deplorable state of the music industry.
Still, Shooter has been accused of moments of hypocrisy. His decision to promote an $85 meet-and-greet package for this September's Muddy Roots festival drew rebuke from at least one critic who dubbed him the "Svengali of Country Music" and his recent Twitter rant against John Mayer only raised eyebrows farther.
But, in a relatively rare moment for Mankato — that is, an artist of national renown sticking around longer than is required to familiarize themselves with the local scene — Shooter proved himself capable of an authenticity that caught the attention of at least one person in attendance.
"I was just excited and happy he wanted to play with us," Ocho said. "I was impressed by his decision, in general. It showed he didn't have to be on a big stage in front of thousands of people to play music."