Let’s begin with a confession. I offered another TCM writer $20 to take this show for me. The day began over 400 miles and a long car ride away from the 7th Street Entry. The Polar Vortex had pretty successfully sapped whatever enthusiasm for anything right out of my bones. A lot of caffeine got ingested to get me over the hump.
But there were a whole bunch of reasons to be there. How many times have you had to rouse yourself up off the couch to head to a show and afterwards acknowledged that it would have been a big mistake to miss it? Live music, done well, has that amazing quality of providing sight to the blind and animation to tired, old bones. When in doubt, pick up the car keys and go!
The Twin Cities is currently awash in talented young bands cranking out music, mature beyond their years. For the most part, there is a spirit of camaraderie and mutual support which hearkens back to the 80’s scene around here. That sense of community launched a handful of bands to national notoriety. A couple of bands in the scene are the nexus. They connect everybody; they share their stages. If they aren’t performing, they are in the audience showing the love. The value the band Last Import brings to Twin Cities music goes far beyond their musical chops. Nobody deserved last night’s sold out album release more than they did.
The only problem with a sold out Entry in the dead of winter is that it takes awhile to get in the door. We arrived as opener The Aftergreens took to the stage. Much of that set was heard thumping through the black cinder blocks along 7th Street. Thankfully, rapidly rising mercury kept the wait from hurting too much. The waiting crowd was upbeat and the party was kicking off out on the pavement.
A favorite moment out on the sidewalk was the arrival of Mark and Sarah, two fans who walked up a bit unsure of where to go and what the long line was all about. Not only was it a first trip into the iconic venue, it was the first time they would see their nephew Mason Smith’s band Karate Chop Silence, slotted second in the line up. So we chatted about bands, the building and what a good time they would have sharing the joys of live music.
What I caught of The Aftergreens was thoroughly enjoyable. Their’s was a refined pop kind of vibe that quite frankly surprised me. Oftentimes, in one of these showcase type settings with a number of young bands is an opener getting a first shot walking out onto a meaningful stage. That inexperience often shows, either through a lack of material or nerves. The Aftergreens got after it and delivered the goods. The band was refined and I was impressed with the vocal efforts. There’s this old adage that young males tend to view vocals as a necessary evil when they first strap on an electric guitar. But not to worry here. These guys are vocals front and center. They rendered a pro performance.
Earlier in this article, I mentioned that Last Import was a nexus kind of band. Look no further than The Aftergreens’ inclusion on this bill. Rather than simply contacting friends to fill a slot, drummer Janey Jane Halldorson used her connections with band incubator venue The Garage in Burnsville to run a battle of the bands. The winner would play The Entry with them for the album release. What a wonderful idea! It’s pretty easy to hand out the largess when you’re an established band. It takes a lot of generosity for a band still scrambling on its own to make the effort to bring somebody else along with them.
By the time Winona based Karate Chop Silence took to the stage, the club was comfortably stuffed. They wasted no time in connecting with the crowd and served up a remarkably wide range of selections. Like all of the bands last night, it is nearly impossible to categorize what they do. At times I heard echoes of classic 70’s prog rock. Then they’d easily slip into straight up pop and rock stylings reminiscent of bands like Winnipeg’s Weakerthans. What was consistent throughout the show was the high quality of musicianship and unerring sense of melody.
Midway through the set, KCS brought a 5 piece horn ensemble to the stage and things turned into a stage party. There’s something infectious about watching musicians having fun with each other. The smiles and laughter make music accessible. I found myself wondering if the Entry stage had ever seen a tuba before. A tuba? Seriously, folks. That was fun. I also caught a glimpse of Aunt Sarah and Uncle Mark having a ball watching their family member kick out the jams.
A quick shout out to that city down Hwy 61. As a music scene, Winona punches well above its weight. Get yourself down to Midwest Music Festival in May. It’s one high quality festival with a wonderful small town feel.
John Chuck and The Class were next up and truth be told I was way outside my level of experience. Generally speaking, I don’t know the difference between a good rap and a bad rap. And the use of computers, loop stations and overdubs is often beyond my ken. But that’s my shortcoming, not the band’s. A lot of people in the audience knew these three guys and they engaged willingly. The mosh pit got going and got a bit sweaty. Young people were there to party. And this is the way they do it.
I do know enough to recognize and appreciate Minnesota hip hop. There’s normally real musicianship taking place and a sense of melody that’s a bit different, more interesting in my opinion, than rap served up over a DJ on the ones and twos. About halfway through the set the band dropped into an intriguing take on the old Bill Withers’ R&B classic Ain’t No Sunshine. From that point forward the band shifted gears a bit and mined a more melodic and harmonic vein. The crowd certainly appreciated it. The band went out with a bang singing Lots of money which had the floor jumping. I suspect this tune has been spinning on Go96.3 because the audience knew the lyrics and knew when it was time to join in.
The reason the crowd was out in force last night was for the headliner Last Import. There was a palpable buzz before they began. People were hollering as they came out to set up their gear and tune. The crowd wanted them and they wanted them right now.
For those who do not yet know this band, you will soon enough. Let me take a minute to lay out a bit of history, as well as some personal experience with these three ladies. The first time I saw them was probably 4 years ago or thereabouts. Each had come from the all girl rock camp She Rock She Rock. Frankly, they were rough. They dropped themselves squarely into the growing Twin Cities Grrrrl Riot punk scene. What they had going for them was an earnestness, a couple clever tunes and a lot of self belief. That kind of commitment pays off. Each time I’ve seen them, the band has been tighter. The material more sophisticated. The stage presence bigger. I pondered their journey and compared that early band to the one I saw sell out and command The Entry last night. Pretty damn mind blowing. Last Import Rocks!
Often we try to pigeonhole and label bands. These ladies have been called Grrrl Riot, Power Pop, Punk Pop and Surf Punk. At this point, it’s time to toss out the labels. They are a rock n roll showcase band. They play what they want and they roam the waterfront. The best bands have the ability to change gears and change styles to keep a show fresh and charging forward. It’s more about giving an audience a show as opposed to simply offering up your original songs (or somebody else’s songs) for consideration. There is this point in development when the songs being played become a walk in the park, muscle memory. At that point, the artists get inside the song and are able to breathe life into the performance. Last Import has crossed into that territory. It’s a show. And it’s as much fun to watch as it is to listen.
Frankly, most young bands don’t have the discipline to turn a series of songs into a performance. What goes on behind the scenes, controlling everything which is controllable and leaving little to chance is the hallmark of a pro band. Last night the band knew what they’d play, what they’d say and when they’d say it. I had earlier requested a set list from Janey Jane. When she delivered it after the show, I smiled to see the notes inserted between songs. When they’d introduce the band members. When they’d thank the other bands. When they’d promote their merch. It may not seem all that important but that level of preparation is critical because it allows a set to develop and momentum to continue. Rattling along without a purpose or engaging in inside band jokes or with a friend in the audience is a killer. It’s a product of nervousness and being ill prepared. None of that last night.
Unlike the other bands, who kicked off their sets as soon as the agreed with the sound board that things were about as good as they were going to get, Last Import set up and then vacated the stage. They lit the warmer lights and let the crowd call for them. To the strains of 2001 A Space Odyssey, the ladies hit the stage one at a time. Jane Halldorson first, followed in slo-mo by bassist and singer Grace Baldwin and finally front woman Emily Bjorke. It was a bit like a curtain call in reverse. Bask in the adoration and engage with the audience. Then strap it on and get to work.
Tracking along with the new self titled album, the band quickly ripped through Lunar Rhapsody, (Fast Times At) Space Mountain and the tried and true Money. By that point the ladies owned the crowd and they had a dance party going. They then dropped the first surprise of the evening and it was a good one with a raucous rendition of ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down. I’ve seen this band at least half a dozen times; I can’t recall another time when I heard them do covers. (With the exception of last year’s Replacements Tribute Show which is nothing but covers). I think this was an important step.
While delivering a keynote address to the national recording industry, E Streeter Little Steven Van Zandt once talked about how things were changing in the music business. How the proliferation of cheap software on the one hand was democratizing the industry. That’s a positive. At the same time, it also diluted quality and served to feed an insidious narcissism. After all, left to their own devices, what emerging artist or band wasn’t more interested in recording his or her own music rather than someone else’s? As if playing someone else’s music was somehow less.
Van Zandt’s question was why on earth any band worth a damn would only play their own songs when there were other songs out there which were better? It takes years for a band to be able to comfortably present a full show of just original music which is really up to snuff. Hard to imagine, but he made the point that for years The Boss and band made their bones playing other people’s music. Simply because the audience liked them more. And if you want to have a chance making it, you only survive if an audience supports you.
He also made the point that the best rock bands were, first and foremost, dance bands. If you couldn’t put an audience on their feet and get them to jump, forget about it. Rock n roll is participatory. It’s not the realm of the passive observer. What I witnessed last night was a choice of some really dynamite and surprising covers mixed in with the originals. And let there be no doubt, Last Import has become a dance band. They are infectious and audiences bounce and bang. Few things in my experience are more fun than watching electricity ricochet between a band and the crowd.
Out of the blue, the band dropped The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. It was a sublime moment. Pure fun, a band fully confident and in control of what they were doing. The crowd was in full throat supporting it. Those two covers were a revelation. Last Import had grown from a band that was desperate to be liked, to one that was held 250 people in the palms of their hands. And they were having a ball while at it.
The final cover which popped up in the penultimate spot in the set list was Aberdeen by Cage The Elephant. No doubt the crowd ate it up. From my point of view it was the least successful of the choices simply because it wasn’t a surprise. It played a bit to type. Both Don’t Let Me Down and Yoshimi went against the grain. They were songs, great songs, that one would never see coming. They demonstrated a range I’d not previously seen on stage from Last Import. The Cage tune was a contemporary choice done in a way which invited comparison. That’s a tough battle to win.
I spent the night reflecting on how far these ladies have come and tried to put my finger on what makes it work so much better as they’ve grown. In a word, it’s Emily Bjorke. Before anybody thinks this comment somehow diminishes the role or contributions by Baldwin and Halldorson, hear me out. This band would not be who they are without those two. They are really fine musicians and they throw down when the curtain goes up.
Here’s the thing about trios, in particular. Every member is critical. In most cases, you can’t replace a single piece without completely changing the character of the band. Audience members do, and should, have a favorite in the band. But the fact remains that there has to be a focus. That focus normally goes to the person handling most of the vocals and playing the melody lines on either guitar or keys.
Young bands often struggle with planting that spotlight squarely on one individual. After all, the members are usually friends. Any level of success obtained is through the concerted efforts of all three individuals. There is kind of an enforced democracy. But bands aren’t democracies. Somebody is driving every bus. Somebody needs to be the “star”. To do something other is simply a way to diffuse the focus.
Bjorke could not do what she does without Halldorson pounding away behind her and driving the band. Last Import would not be half as engaging without Baldwin’s posturing and high quality vocals. But the big development to me comes in the person of Bjorke. She is a developing into a fine writer and she’s the one carrying the white Strat. She sings most of the songs. On stage, people are going to look to her for leadership. I think a lot of hard work and experience has instilled the ease and confidence which she demonstrated in spades last night. Her presence was dynamite. Her guitar work was by far the most refined and interesting to date. The easy out for a rock guitarist, who is also singing, is to stick to chords. It’s hard work mixing in lead lines. She was up to the task and handled it like a walk in the park.
I found myself thinking about the current roster of rock n roll queens in the Twin Cities. It’s a short list. Not to slight some of our more R&B diva types like Annie Mack and Lady Lark, but names like Dessa, Haley and Pony come to mind. To me, they’re Minnesota royalty. But if there’s a princess in waiting it’s Emily Bjorke. What separates the really good ones from all the other weekend warriors boils down to charisma. Either you have it or you don’t. Even though it often takes years to refine it. Bjorke comes across as completely accessible. There’s a vulnerability that makes you root for her. Authenticity is impossible to fake. Last night I saw no reservation. During the song Per Aspera Ad Astra, she leaned into the microphone and screamed at the crowd to kick it up a notch. “Come On!” Unfiltered, unpretentious and a genuine exhortation. At that moment I felt like she had arrived.
At some point well into last night’s show, I found myself laughing as I watched the pit pogo for about the 10th time. As I studied the crowd, it became apparent that in the “under 25” world… girls rule. Certainly, Jayne, Grace and Emily are role models for a whole slew of young women who come to the shows and proudly sport their Last Import merch. But the pit was stuffed with young men. The humor came from the realization that watching the band was akin to watching one of Nature’s more interesting courtship behaviors on Animal Planet. It works particularly well when the three artists bashing through their set are all attractive young women.
The floor was like a Prairie Chicken lek. The instant the desired female shows up and cocks an eyebrow (do birds have eyebrows?), the males all begin to jump and juggle. All it would take from Bjorke or Baldwin was a nod and all the boys would commence to bounce. The ladies introduced their new song Hot Damn as their “most dance-able” tune and asked that the audience do their thing. Unnecessary. Just a wink or a nod works in the lek.
Last Import is a band on the brink. They’ve sold out The Entry. They’ve opened on major stages like The Palace. One of these days somebody is going to walk in, see how people respond to their live performance and give them a major break. This is no longer the cute little project of 3 teenage wannabe punk rockers. This is a legit rock and roll band that’s worth your time and money. If you’re a member of their growing fan base, you already know that. If you’re new to the party, put them on your to do list. Last Import is everything that makes what’s coming up the pipe musically in this town so great.