The Faces of Dan DiMonte: A look into Iowa’s most dynamic rock star.
Red corduroys. A cutoff t-shirt. The American flag embroidered onto his bandana with sunglasses attached. Where others might feel awkwardly out of place playing at a jazz festival, he stands squarely in the middle of the stage as he and his bandmates perform a music set that squarely lands in the realm of rock music. But Dan DiMonte, along with his group the Bad Assettes, is acutely aware yet doesn’t seem to notice. As he finishes the final song, a nine-minute rock anthem with a screaming guitar solo and a full two minutes of swirling cymbals and floating saxophone notes, a man approaches to say that it was the best sideshow performance he’s ever seen at the Iowa City Jazz Festival in 25 years. Talking to friends of friends revealed a similar sentiment. DiMonte himself says it went alright, rarely being one to sing a song of his own praise.
Many of the greatest stories we tell involve the most distinct and dynamic people we know. In that sense, Dan DiMonte certainly doesn’t disappoint. Standing at slightly below 5’9”, sporting a boyish grin, and bearing muttonchops that rival John Quincy Adams, DiMonte does a great job of embodying the late John Belushi during his role in the Blues Brothers as Jake. He can certainly act the part; up on stage, he is prone to using a small horn section, dancing with kicks and splits, and even including his roommate Jared Poland (the peanut butter to his jelly, as he likes to quip onstage), whose height and voice accurately mimics the deep soundings of the other Blues Brother, Elwood.
What makes the comparison even more compelling is that DiMonte is one of those people that were clearly born in the wrong era. Driving in his car exposes the listeners almost exclusively to rock music that was released before 1985. This is reflected in the music his band plays. The Bad Assettes cover a range of tunes from Toto’s “Africa”, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”, Beck’s “Debra”, and even Mark Ronson’s recent superhit “Uptown Funk”. The latter two may seem to not fit the mold so well until you consider that “Uptown Funk” was modeled based on early 80’s Minneapolis music (of which Prince was the leading figure), while “Debra” is a straight parody of Prince’s music. Perhaps the best musical comparison to DiMonte is Bruce Springsteen. DiMonte’s shows often have the best reception at places that attract blue collared workers (a 4 hour performance at Mahoney’s in Cedar Rapids being an excellent example), and just like ‘the boss’, DiMonte will often go on in full force for 3–4 hours, glistening with beads of sweat and relentlessly roaring with energy.
Even beyond his musical influence, DiMonte would have been right at home being born twenty years earlier. Here is one who prefers phone calls to texts and refuses to use social media with the sole exception of managing the Bad Assettes Facebook page. Even then, his personal account is set to private and makes as little contact with others as possible. In other words, don’t be expecting any friend requests from him anytime soon. Of course, all these quirks are driven by a fierce ideology; that the best way to connect with others is to talk and interact face to face. He will chat or share a laugh with anyone who expresses any interest, meaning he is consistently the last one to tear down his equipment after a show.
On his debut album The Runner, The Ends, The Space Between, DiMonte’s influences are perhaps a bit more complicated. Certain songs, such as “Snake Alley” or “The Next Stage” are an obvious nod to Springsteen’s rock anthems and vocal fluxuations. Just the title “Song for the Working Man” screams about the subject matter in Springsteen’s music. Lyrically, the ballads from the album have the same intimacy that Billy Joel or Elton John would often forward. For example, the track “Blown Away” hits its high point with the lyrics “I like who I am with you much better than when I’m all alone… I love everything about you”. (In fact, the musical influence from Billy Joel has only become more prominent in the songs DiMonte has written since releasing his first album, albeit in a more rock-oriented sense).
But the main force behind DiMonte’s music is clearly the influence of jazz. Most of the tracks from the album would feel right on point if they were to include a solo from someone like Miles Davis, and tracks like “La Sombra” and “Safe From the Rain” are directly influenced by DiMonte’s time playing in the Latin Jazz Ensemble and the jazz big bands at the University of Iowa, respectively. Even the simpler tracks on the album, such as “Long Day” or “Smile”, feature jazz-like horn lines and intricate guitar solos. Yet for most of the album, DiMonte seems to almost make it a point to add every compositional technique at his disposal. One can expect to find complex chord structures rife with diminished and altered chords in nearly every song, where most bands tend to stick with major and minor chords. One unreleased track called “Things Ain’t So Bad” features over 30 distinct chords in a 4–5 minute rock song, while many of the songs on The Runner, The Ends, The Space Between easily hit the double digits.
The only reason DiMonte is able to accomplish such a level of complexity is because he surrounds himself with fantastic musicians. For starters, bassist Blake Shaw is talented enough to often perform with the jazz faculty at the University of Iowa, and has been known to play with multiple groups around town on any given week. In short, if there’s a local band in Iowa City who needs a bassist for a show, there’s a very good chance Shaw will be on the ticket. Guitarist Dan Padley is absolutely extraordinary; he is able to take solos that would make any famous jazz or rock guitarist nod their head in appreciation, both in terms of virtuosity and for how smoothly and tastefully each note is performed. And with Iowa City rising star Carlo Kind on drum set and future University of Iowa medical student Jonathon Birdsall’s more than capable hands on tenor saxophone, it makes being the keyboard player in the group feel quite intimidating at points. If you’ve never had the problem of being the weakest player in a talented band, it’s not at all a bad problem to have (assuming you can actually play the music).
And then there’s DiMonte himself. While he performed on trumpet as a teenager, he picked up guitar, piano, and self-taught vocals, with the exception of a single voice lesson. Here’s a man who is willing to spend the time and energy to learn a new instrument if he feels that it might be a worthy addition to his set: studying with the jazz instructors at the University of Iowa, constantly writing new tunes, and paying as much reverence to the great performers and composer that came before him as he can. And herein lies DiMonte’s greatest quality: he is willing to go far beyond what’s necessary to get a job done. Certainly, finding and maintaining a job as a nurse while making performing music a priority is a task, let alone helping out with the vocal-based alternative band Red Comet, performing in church every week, and being his own version of Mick Jagger with the Bad Assettes.
On top of his schedule, there are hints and little moments that he often downplays, but show just how far he is willing to go for not only his group but also for those around him. There have been multiple instances of him offering all the funds made to the other bands from a show if he feels there wasn’t enough of an audience to make it worth their while. Or an instance of driving an extra 3–4 hours to ensure that all the equipment would make it to a show while on tour for a group member. Or singing and playing all 12 minutes of Weird Al’s “Albuquerque” spontaneously, from memory after someone mentions they find the song humorous. Or giving albums away to those who might not be otherwise interested in buying one. Or even in the way he performs; it doesn’t matter if there are five people chatting in a corner or a 200-member audience that is taking in his every utterance. He will sing, strum, and perform like the rock star he is. Often, DiMonte’s banter between songs works as an attempt to draw more of a reaction out of his audience, despite how members of the Bad Assettes sometimes object after the shows. But then, that’s the man up on stage; dedicated, driven, and often willing to go to ridiculous proportions in the amount of effort he’s willing to show to make someone’s day a little better.
In that sense, learning he works his day job as a nurse becomes much less mystifying once you’ve learned the details of his personality. The role of a nurse requires an intimate connection with each patient, a large store of medical knowledge, and a willingness to deal with patients when they are at their worst. Sometimes, while on the road, he will talk about the families of patients who had passed away (without disclosing identifying information). There have now been multiple instances where he will write or record a song specifically for the families of his patients, even playing one at a funeral in rural Iowa. In one such instance, the lyrics “I wish that we were young, and we could dance again” were taken directly from a patient who couldn’t speak, but wrote it for her husband before passing away. Whereas the direct life events from his first album are still largely unknown to me (and there are definitely some specific stories that I can only speculate about), from the past year alone, it’s apparent how much of his life that he puts forward with his music. As an artist, it takes a lot of vulnerability to be so forthright about such things, and yet up on stage, he often allows them to direct the way he performs.
But for the majority of listeners, these details are just the padding to the show. One is much more likely to notice the little mannequin pointing to his albums at the front of the stage, or how he occasionally sits on his bright blue jeep to perform, or notice his new logo, which prominently features the outlines of his hair and massive muttonchops (which, amusingly enough, he often shaves, similarly to how Nick Offerman doesn’t always sport his iconic mustache). The listeners might even notice the band joking to one another and their many musical references during the show, or the many little musical shifts and misdirections that pervade his music. But deep down, it’s clear that DiMonte believes his music, while entertaining, is both unique and profound, and it isn’t hard to see why.
A few days ago, DiMonte had a few friends hang out downtown to celebrate his birthday, making sure not to draw too much attention to the ordeal. While we cracked jokes and had beers in the open summer night in the patio behind Gabes, the conversation shifted to the topic of fame. It was ultimately agreed between Poland, Kind, and myself that the ideal level of fame was to be known and respected in the circle that you do your work, while staying outside of the view of the general public. Yet during this conversation, DiMonte stayed uncharacteristically silent. I don’t know if he was nodding his head beside us, if he believes his music would be beneficial for the world to hear, or if he hasn’t quite decided. This conversation, however amusing or trite, is really defining of the man DiMonte is as a balancing act. He lives between his roles as a musician and as a nurse, a performer of both complex yet accessible music, and as someone who has to be able to both nurse patients back to health while helping others pass away humanely and comfortably. It’s clear that he is being pulled in multiple directions as life, and like so many of us, DiMonte walks a very fine line of professional obligation and personal fulfillment. Perhaps his lyrics say it best:
“And the bridge was calling telling me to come home
But my westward life was crying don’t leave me along
Just ‘cause I’m here don’t mean I’m here to stay
Turn around baby we’ll try it another day”
-Dan DiMonte, “Snake Alley”
The allure of the road is one he has mentioned a number of times. And it’s easy to see why; he puts on a fantastic show, and it’s easy to tell that his persona comes alive while on stage. It’s hard to know if he will stay in in Iowa when he decides to fully pursue that dream. but one thing is certain; if he does decide to leave, Iowa City will be losing one of its most unique and talented voices.