Casablanca Orchestra offers ‘soul’ salvation at local clubs
by Tad Johnson
Name a dance party song — any song that makes you want to shake your rump, swing your arms and lose control of your wicked dance moves.
If it’s “Dancing Queen,” “Superstition” or “Funky Cold Medina” that propels you out to the hardwood, then Casablanca Orchestra (CBO) is your “soul” salvation.
While there are many bands that rock the south metro area in clubs on the weekends, there probably isn’t one that’s as intimately intertwined with the rise of rockin’ in the suburbs than CBO.
When Bogart’s Place in Apple Valley took its current name in 1992, the nightclub picked Carlotta and the Kool-lots to be its house band under the condition that it change its moniker.
Taking a cue from Humphrey Bogart’s most famous role, the group, upon adding two more horn players, became Casablanca Orchestra.
CBO was the house band at Bogart’s for nearly two years, before it started to branch out in its gigging.
In the summer of 1995, the band and Gatlin’s Music City, formerly at the Mall of America, invented a weekly ’70s dance party, which took the band in a new direction.
With costume changes and high-energy hits from the ’70s, CBO had tapped into a thirst for music to move closet American Bandstand dancers.
Since that time, CBO has expanded its repertoire to hits from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and the set list has grown over the years to include hundreds of songs and everything from the swingin’ the ’40s to hits of the current decade.
CBO is not only tied to the south metro through its frequent shows at local clubs, but two of its members live here.
Guitarist Patrick Thorsteinson, who grew up in Northfield, has lived in Eagan and then Farmington since 1999. After bouncing around the Twin Cities for many years, keyboardist Rich Lake has settled in Savage for the past six years.
Thorsteinson and Lake joined CBO as the band was in its infancy. Both say they have stuck with the band because it is so much fun and they’ve formed close bonds with their co-conspirators in rock ’n’ soul.
“I didn’t have a clue it would last this long,” Thorsteinson said. “It’s fun. When you’re in it for that long, you become family with the other members of the band.”
Lake, whose family lives on the East Coast where he was raised, said CBO has become his extended family.
“We’re laughing a hell of a lot,” Lake said. “That’s why we’re a family. And if someone needs something, they know they can come to us. Everyone has each other’s back.”
“It really is something I look forward to,” Thorsteinson said of the shows. “If I was in it for the money, I would have quit a long time ago.”
The fun the band members have on stage instantly transfers itself to the crowd, no matter how large or how small.
“It’s all about the audience,” said Lake, who has bust his musical chops at venues such as the Stillwater prison (as a visitor) and the piano man at a suburban Holiday Inn. “Whether it’s 2, 20 or 20,000, it’s the same show. Sometimes it’s challenging if there’s not a huge crowd.”
Since the band’s set list can range from Frank Sinatra to AC/DC, the group can tap into the dancing sensibilities of nearly any crowd and have them gyrating by the end of the night.
“More than any other band, we’re going to deliver to 10 people and to 10,000,” Thorsteinson said. “On the nights when the crowd wasn’t as ready to go, they eventually were forced into submission.”
“We have the flexibility to change gears,” Lake said. “It’s like a football team making adjustments.”
Going to a CBO show is like being on a giant dancing treadmill. While sometimes the floor really is moving, there are so many bodies in motion, you can’t help but join in.
If you are standing on the sidelines with a belly up to the bar, friends often manage to put a spur under your barstool to agitate you out to the dance floor.
When that guy who’s twice your age is boogying to “Shook Me All Night Long,” you won’t have to worry about embarrassing yourself. CBO has been known to handle even the toughest of audiences.
One might think that U.S. senators and representatives would be a little stodgy in the face of a Bee Gees tune, but during the 55th presidential inaugural “Freedom Ball” held at Union Station in Washington, D.C., in January 2005 proved otherwise.
After horn player Schroeder, aka Davidson Smith, had a chance meeting with one of George W. Bush’s daughters, the band secured the unlikely gig.
“It was the most amazing thing,” Thorsteinson said. “We went there and kicked some butt.”
He said the inaugural parties often lose steam after the commander in chief comes and goes, but the Union Station party continued well into the evening.
Thorsteinson said it was probably the most people the band had ever played for.
“(Lead vocalists) J.B., Jerry, Richie and Mel really lit it up in front,” he said. “People really enjoyed watching the show as much as listening to it.”
Aside from playing for the nation’s president, Thorsteinson said he likes the outdoor festival shows the most, such as those at the Minnesota State Fair or Dan Patch Days in Savage.
While the band plays many local club dates, including a pre-Thanksgiving Day show at Bogart’s last week, they keep packing in the audiences.
The attraction is the music and the mood.
“We’re able to laugh about ourselves, but we don’t shortchange ourselves as musicians,” Lake said.
The band is as tight as any around as the covers sound as though it could be the original artist performing.
“A lot of these tunes have morphed into something that isn’t stock,” Thorsteinson said. “There are some very talented people in the band. … A lot of that kind of stuff happens spur of the moment.”
Much of that improvisation has to do with the band members’ extensive musical backgrounds.
Thorsteinson started playing guitar at age 14. He said he took to the instrument right away but should have stuck longer with lessons.
He spent much of his time learning by playing along with the recordings of hard-rockin’ strummers, such as Jeff Beck and Eddie Van Halen, along with jazz virtuoso Pat Metheny.
“There’s a serious lack of method learning by ear,” Thorsteinson said. “Because of this band, I’ve developed some weak chart-reading skills.”
Lake started playing piano at age 7 after hearing Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.”
After that and years of lessons, a steady diet of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on the radio imparted to him the essential components of a hit song.
His first band, Stiff Kitten, scratched his hard-rock itch at age 16. He later attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston and eventually wound his way to Minnesota.
Now he is rockin’ the suburbs in a way he never imagined. It still mystifies him.
“You know you have the right feeling when you’re playing the music and not the notes,” he said. “It’s all about the feeling.”
Tad Johnson is at email@example.com.
Other CBO News Articles:
CBO's New Rock & Soul 'Vue! (12/17/2008)
Keeping tabs: RNC winners, losers (8/28/2008)
CBO WINS TOP HONOR! (3/6/2008)
New Years Eve with the Miracles of Mitch Foundation! (12/31/2007)
Rosemount Leprechaun Days' Mid-Summer Faire bands to rock (5/11/2007)
Souling out - Casselton native fronts for nationally-famous orchestra (10/4/2006)
Casablanca Orchestra to Headline at KDWB Stage on Grand Old Day (6/4/2006)
Celebrate the Grand Re-opening of Detroit Lakes Pavilion with CBO!! (5/12/2006)
New CBO Website is Launched (4/11/2006)
"It was so great having you and the rest of the band at the Steiner wedding. You were a huge hit and everyone is still talking about "that band". I can’t wait to refer you to future clients. You guys are great. Also, the sound guys Ben and Ben were so great to work with. Please pass on my kudos to Tom at Festival. It was great working with you and I hope to do so again in the future."
Mother of the Bride
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