No Ill Noise from Illinois

Every smallish town across the country has a local cult band that deserves better, a band you swear would be loved by the masses as much as you love it, if only it could be heard by the masses.

In Springfield, Ill., in the mid- to late-'80s, that band was The Strand, later renamed Condition 90. As early as middle school my friends and I would sneak our way into the Crows Mill School tavern and shake our asses off on the bouncing wooden dance floor to the band, which was steeped in the sound of the times (read: quirky, punk-informed dance-pop), but armed with a barrelful of timelessly written songs. Basically we were groupies of a small-town local band, but we were too young and stupid to feel any shame about it.

The band's co-singer, bassist and leader, Tom Irwin, worked at a record store that was like my second home, one of those little independent stores where music junkies would hang out for hours, discussing and arguing music, turning each other on to their obscure musical pets ("You like that R.E.M. record? You should check out The dBs!"). Over the years I got to know Irwin fairly well, until finally I landed a job there myself during my high-school years.

Eventually, Condition 90 disbanded (co-singer and guitarist Jon Walter turned up later in San Francisco's Ya Ya Littleman, a onetime Tucson favorite), and Irwin set out to learn guitar, instead of the bass he'd played since his teens, in order to eke out a living for himself making music on his own. He wrote a batch of new tunes and reinvented himself as a singer-songwriter.

These days, every trip back home is not complete until I go see Irwin and his current crack backing band, the Hired Hands, play at the Brewhaus, which they still do every Sunday night. Irwin, now 43, has long abandoned the quirk-pop for a sound truer to his rural upbringing, mining the tradition of the country-folk-rock balladeer, still armed with a barrelful of timeless-sounding and timelessly written songs. He's still gigging constantly in the Midwest, where he is highly revered; August saw a career highlight as Irwin served as opener for Willie Nelson at the Illinois State Fair.

His current rotation of songs is documented on four self-released solo albums since 1994, the latest being Travel On, which came out in August. Irwin, whose voice bears a quintessential Midwestern twang, is equal parts John Prine, William Faulkner, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. He's unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve or dispense moral wisdom, but it's often done with a wink and a nod: "I loved you when you were / beautiful in pictures" is from "A Single Thought" (Roots in the Earth, 1994), whose refrain is "A memory forgotten."

Never big on self-promotion, Irwin is finally beginning to tour regions of the country outside of his safe Midwestern haven, and this week he lands in Tucson with fellow singer-songwriter Jason Eklund, whose twang, Irwin says, "makes me sound like a pop act." Eklund, most often compared to Woodie Guthrie, walks the walk of a troubadour, living out of his car and playing gigs and festivals wherever they take him (he's played the Tucson Folk Festival on three occasions). He's put out a couple of albums on famed Chicago label Flying Fish Records (his latest collection is the self-released Captain Stringbean), and bears the mark that every singer-songwriter of his stature longs for, the stamp of approval from the late Townes Van Zant, who said, "Jason is the real thing. He'll never quit." (He also told him to get a haircut.)

For their local appearance, Irwin and Eklund will both play their cherished acoustics, backing each other while trading off on songs. They'll be accompanied by a pianist friend, and hopefully a drummer, if they can line one up in time for the gig. Regardless, "It'll be a hoot," says Irwin, and I can attest that it will be, indeed.