Peter Himmelman's music is hard to pin down, but it's popular


After more than a dozen years as a recording artist, first with Minneapolis new wavers Sussman Lawrence and then as a solo artist, Peter Himmelman has learned a few things about the music business. One thing he learned is that it's easier for radio and the rock press to take an interest in your work if there's an obvious angle to play up.

Another is that there are no obvious angles with his music.

"It's hard for them to find a little slot there," he says over the phone from his old hometown of Minneapolis. "They haven't done it yet."

True, his albums -- like the recent "Flown This Acid World" -- tend to be favorably received by the rock press, and Himmelman has turned up from time to time on TV shows like "The Tonight Show." But even as Himmelman admits that being without a publicity peg has caused problems, he's sure to add that being seen as undefinable is "part of the joy of it for me."

How so? "Because I can come and re-create myself a thousand times," he answers. "People who might think it's going to be a really sad folk night get a blistering show that's also really funny. Or there are people who want to come and hear some funny stuff, and I give them this really super-introspective thing.

"Usually it works. I remember once I read a quote from Steve Martin: 'It's easy for somebody to be a genius once in a while. The real talent is consistency.' "

Consistency is not a problem for Peter Himmelman. People who have caught his show when he is on -- which is to say, most of the time -- tend to come away not as fans, but as converts. Indeed, the five words most frequently used to describe his show seem to be "You gotta see this guy."

For instance, there was the night he and his band played the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, deep in the heart of Orange County, Calif. "It looks like a big steak house, actually," says Himmelman. "They actually serve food before you go on, and there are all these tables in long strips.

"Orange County's known as a conservative, Republican type of place, and these people looked like conservatives -- they were in ties, some of them. Just nice people with their wives, having a good time.

"Apparently there's a law that you cannot dance in Orange County in a nightclub. This is what I'd heard. So I brought a lot of people onstage to dance. We played just a simple song, they danced, and it was kind of silly.

"So then I said, 'OK, now I want to see everyone get really loose.' I told the band, 'Just play some avant garde jazz, no rhythm.' It was just nebulous sounding, a big orb of sound with no beat, and the people didn't know what to do. But they started to get into it. They started to dance like hippies, which was unbelievable. I wish somebody had filmed this."

It's that sort of thing that creates converts, and may eventually win Himmelman enough of an audience to become a certifiable rock star. Yet where other artists would salivate eagerly at the prospect of mass-market success, Himmelman has his reservations about ending up on the pop-star circuit.

Blame it on Neil Diamond. "I really liked him for a while," says Himmelman of rock's most famous solitary man. "I started really looking at all his records, and trying to copy his songs. So I saw his show -- it was great. He did all these bits and things. I thought it was hilarious.

"And then I saw him about three years later with more free tickets. Every single breath was identical. It was a carbon copy of the one three years prior. And that was the end of my infatuation with Neil.

"My fear is, if you got in these huge venues and you were really rich and you had all these people working for you, would you have to start doing that? If that's the case, I'd rather go into veterinary sciences or something."

Peter Himmelman

When: 8 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Walters Art Gallery.

Tickets: $18.50.

Call: (410) 675-6297 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets.

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