What am I doing in downtown St. Paul during the High School Hockey Tournament and not making my way to the Xcel Energy Center? OK, I was there last night. And with an all-age show that got started nearly an hour earlier than advertised, I should be able to walk over to catch most of the Edina-St. Thomas Academy semi-final. Plus I wasn’t going to miss a chance to see rising star grandson playing some new material at one of my favorite venues, the Amsterdam Bar and Hall. Arriving just before 7pm for a show with “doors at 6pm, show at 7pm” I thought the opening act was still setting up when I entered. But when Des Rocs kicked off their set at 7:15, I realized I missed the first opener, BarlowLN. A young security guard explained the show must have started early since it is an all-ages show that had to over by 10pm. They must have adjusted the starting time after doing the set-time math. Asking him what BarlowLN sounded like he said pretty much like this band (Des Rocs). Sorry, best report I can give after the surprise early start. Thankfully our wonderful photographer Alexa was there early to at least show you what BarlowLN looks like.
Rocco sang, “Minnesota, what would you do if I sang out of tune?” Continuing, Des Rocs changed it up with a fun cover of the Beatles “With a Little Help From My Friends.” You could just as easily picture Rocco covering Elvis, Roy Orbison, and other greats up on that stage if he could, but they only had time for a couple more. One was “Let Me Live/Let Me Die” which reminded me of Welshly Arms, a cool band that was in town in the Fall. Rocco announced it’s the band’s one-year anniversary and this would be their last song before someone that rhymes with “and son” will be taking the stage. Des Rocs had some fun wrapping up their set with a game of repeat what I do between the drummer and singer. Finally Rocco lifted the cymbals to give his drummer moving targets before standing on top of the bass drum and jumping down to the stage on the final note. Des Rocs is definitely a band to keep tabs on.
As the lights dimmed at 8:20 the crowd chanted “grandson, grandson” and cheered when there was a sign of life. Red, white, and blue stage lights turned on and a recording of “The Star Spangled Banner” played. The anxious crowd pushed closer to the thigh-high, barricade-free stage and roared when grandson took the stage. With grandson’s back to the audience and hoodie up, his guitarist, Ramon Blanco, kicked off “Stigmata”, one of my favorite songs from the new EP, A Modern Tragedy Vol. 2. With outside temps warming to 30 and a full house, it was plenty warm in the Hall and grandson (Jordan Benjamin) quickly lost his jacket before the first song finished with some wild red lights. The crowd responded instantly to the familiar song “6:00” from the first EP before the singer spoke for the first time. At a grandson concert you should be prepared to hear more serious talk between songs as most of the songs are written with less-than-subtle references to some of today’s hottest political issues. Benjamin asked, “Minnesota, if you think we are getting answers, we’re not. Just more questions. And the big question is, what do you do when the system fails?”
For some the theme of the night may have been grandson’s political interjections but for me it was the incredible guitar playing of Blanco. The Spaniard carries the band musically and is a show all by himself. If you want more Ramon Blanco you can also find him as a member of the alt-rock band Disciples of Babylon. Blanco took behind the back guitar playing to another level making it look and sound routine.
After “Kiss Bang” the frontman told the audience, “This is the first time we’ve been here. And I think we’ll be back!” Continuing he said, “We will talk about power tonight. And right here in this room is a collective group of young power. We don’t have all the answers but we will give you the soundtrack and let you figure it out.” Then it was “Overdose” to again get the mob bouncing.
The 25-year-old musician was born in New Jersey but moved to Toronto as a young child. At some point he decided on the stage name grandson. He seemed comfortable here in Minnesota, saying “We are going to play some new songs from our new EP. We just got back from Canada after finishing that tour. They don’t understand gun violence like we do here. Here it’s our brother, or co-worker, or friend. This song, “Darkside”, is about gun violence.”
One of the highlights of the night was another song about this issue. “thoughts & prayers” was written after the tragic Parkland mass-shooting and calls on politicians to do something instead of just offering thoughts and prayers. “We need to hold our elected officials accountable,” grandson said. “Who here is a student?” After the vast majority affirmed, he said, “Any of you might not come home from school one day (unless something changes).” This sparked emotions as fans sang along to the familiar tune they’ve likely seen grandson perform online with the West Los Angeles Children’s Choir.
The furious “Bury Me Face Down” required guitarist Blanco to towel off his face afterwards as grandson introduced Blanco along with David Rehmann on drums and Renzo Bravo on bass, saying “Please thank these three guys.” Before “Best Friends” Grandson also cautioned the fans about some unsuspecting influences, saying “You need to watch out for enabling influences which may even be your best friend. And while sex and drugs are always out there tempting us, one of the biggest things we need to look out for is our own ego. I wrote this song, “Fallin”, about that.” This catchy song goes “I’m fallin, aye, aye, aye” and has the clever verse “I said it was the last time last time.”
We learned this was only the second show of the US No Apologies Tour so the band wasn’t stuck in a routine like they might after show eight of a 27-show tour. Grandson shared with us a really cool thing the band did earlier in the day. “Today we were hanging with the gang at 93X and helping some people out at a homeless shelter (Catholic Charities Higher Ground in St. Paul). It’s not as difficult as you might think to go there and help. And you will realize what a small margin of error we each have before we could find ourselves in need of those same services. That’s why I started the XX Resistance movement. It’s part of being a grandkid.” Very impressive and a great example of volunteerism for us all.
“Minnesota, we have three more songs left for you. Do you still have some energy left? We are going to find out!” Of course they did. Especially for fan favorite “Stick Up” during which the singer asked everyone to get down on the ground. Then for popular new single “Apologize,” he asked the crowd to light up the room with their phone lights. Finally we were down to the final song which everyone (and their service dog and 11-year old cousin) knew would be the final song, smash hit “Blood // Water”. The crowd sang along loudly with grandson to the words they know so well “We’ll never get free/Lamb to the slaughter/What you gon’ do/When there’s blood in the water?” Fans alternated between singing along and going crazy when the band rocked out on the all-red stage. Then grandson jumped down from the stage and made his way out into the crowd to continue the song with fans mobbing him. Grandson put on a great show for these youths but also proved to this veteran listener that they are more than a gimmicky political act. They are a top-notch group doing a great job of opening fans ears and minds with the songs they play. And the show was much better than Edina’s fairly easy 5-3 semi-final win which I did make it over to watch after the concert.
grandson Setlist: Stigmata/6:00/Kiss Bang/Overdose/Darkside/thoughts & prayers/Bury Me Face Down/Best Friends/Is This What You Wanted/Fallin (Temptation)/Despicable/Stick Up/Apologize/Blood//Water.