It's quiet on the prairie. A lone tumbleweed scratches a path across two lanes of empty highway. Late at night. A whitetail quits its salt lick and disappears over the next hill. I can hear the crickets sing. A neon motel sign zaps VACANCY in some imaginary Morse code like a mosquito light, periodically blinding the last of the bar crowd stragglers, who shuffle home to bed. Sad songs. This is South Dakota in all its loneliness. Its receding horizons, its winds, its desolation, its beauty. And no one conjures it quite like native Darren Jackson, better known on the independent music scene as Kid Dakota.
Moving to Minneapolis after college in 1994, Jackson began combining his music performance background with an aptitude for storytelling. Mostly recorded on a 4-track in his bedroom, the resulting songs languished for a while on mixed tapes mailed to friends scattered across the country, but managed to find a voice in solo gigs now and again. Then Jackson met local drummer Christopher McGuire (John Vanderslice, Qurili), and discovered his kindred musical spirit. The pair's unique personal styles blended auspiciously, and in 1999 the two began collaborating in the studio and on stage, reshaping some of Jackson's song sketches into a moody fusion of rock, folk, and country that has garnered comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel, Elliot Smith and Sparklehorse.
The result of Jackson and McGuire's efforts spawned Kid Dakota's self-released 2000 debut, the sparse 5-song EP So Pretty. Legendary Duluth band Low re-released the album as an LP two years later with three new songs on their Chairkickers Union label. A Fall 2003 tour with Low frontman Alan Sparhawk’s blues band The Black-Eyed Snakes added to So Pretty's growing popularity and a successful run on the CMJ charts.
By then, Kid Dakota had developed a rotating cast of regular contributors. There was the classic Jackson/McGuire incarnation, as well as persistent solo appearances. There was also a 4-piece that added Erik Appelwick (Vicious Vicious, Olympic Hopefuls) on lead guitar and Zak Sally (Low) on bass, out of which grew the band's second release, The West is the Future, recorded live at Minneapolis' now-defunct Seedy Underbelly and due for release in June 2004. Occasionally, Andrew Broder (Fog) would drop by to fire up the turntables or tickle the ivories, as on the Fall 2003 seven-inch release "Get Her Out of My Heart"/"Two Fronts." For now, the solid trio of Jackson, Appelwick (bass) and drummer Ian Prince (Story of the Sea) holds strong as the official lineup.
Regardless of the configuration, Kid Dakota songs always come across as simultaneously vulnerable and intellectual. They span the entire available spectrum of human emotions, from quiet contemplation to pure agony, and translate them through complex drum sequences, myriad guitar effects, and passionate vocals. Lyrically, the songs read more like Dostoevsky than Dylan, and Jackson often uses his favorite fiction or philosophy as a springboard for lyrical content, channeling timeless ideas through his own experiences. It sounds ambitious, but Jackson's gift for irony and humor places his poetry squarely in the realm of the accessible. Because he understands the bigger picture is really all about pretty songs and about moving a listener to tears. Or to a jealous rage. Or to kiss the person standing next to you at the show.
Underlying each of these dynamically emotive songs, though, is a common thread. It's a rare Kid Dakota song that doesn't have some element of the high plains blowing through it, whether in the serendipitous crackle of an amp, the strident tone of a Telecaster, or the dusty hum of an old organ, if not overtly in the lyrics. It's a technique mostly employed by literary types these days, and one that few musicians bother with anymore--that of evoking the character of a particular time or place through their music. Jackson has made an entire career of doing exactly that. Somewhere in western South Dakota is a tiny town called Bison. You've never heard of it, but if you’ve ever listened to a Kid Dakota song, you've already been there.