In one of the Twin Cities’ most beloved annual traditions, local artist Haley, nee Haley Bonar, brought her alter ego project Gramma’s Boyfriend back to The Icehouse for their Halloween celebration. If you have never been, this one is much more than a rock show. It’s an extravaganza. Theatrical production, party, haunted house and audience costume party rolled into one.
For reasons beyond me, I’d never attended a show at Icehouse. It certainly is not because there was any lack of great bands coming through those doors. More likely, it’s the traditional late start times. Ironically, that should be a positive. It’s simply a matter of being elsewhere beforehand and not getting there. Kind of an early bird gets the worm scenario. After last night, this bird is more likely to wait around for that later worm. What a fantastic venue!
Despite four days until All Hallow’s Eve, this is a holiday that has evolved, like Christmas, from a day to a season. Too much work goes into decorating lawns for wandering bands of little ghosts and goblins. Too much work goes into adult costumes to relegate them to a single work day evening. You can always find a grown up costume party on whatever Saturday night is lucky enough to fall immediately prior to the actual date.
The first surprise of the evening came with openers Loki’s Folly. The very young sister punk duo hit the stage at 11 dressed as mythical Nordic creatures. If you want an audience’s attention, you can get it by opening a set with a twenty second shriek. Welcome to the newest addition to the uber popular Grrrl Riot scene. These two know what they want to get across. And they succeed.
Part of that formula is being loud, brash and fearless. A big part of it is being able to write accessible songs. In my own opinion, the most important ingredient is no different than it is with any band trying to entertain an audience. You need musical chops. Often, young bands treat musicianship as a necessary evil. Are these two accomplished musicians? Not yet. But that’s simply a function of their youth and inexperience. The chops will come.
Another critical aspect to any young artist’s success is depth. There really is nothing new under the sun. Shallow bands copy a style or other band with whom they are enamored. Bands that hear and incorporate a wide range of influences develop deep roots. Those roots allow them to develop their own signature style. I was particularly impressed by their utterly original reinterpretations of Lou Reed’s Rock n Roll and Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation. Despite the young ages, when they sang it…I believed them.
That said, when judged by their state of development and stage presence, they are a joy to watch. There are a million little garage bands that find their way onto a significant stage in support of a known artist. Some get boo’ed. Some are ignored. And a few, like Loki’s Folly engage and entertain an audience. Bottom line is passion and commitment. There is a big difference between “Look at me, I want to be a rock star!” and giving it everything you’ve got to drive your music into the audience.
Ultimately, the break out quality of any band is some kind of charisma. These young ladies certainly have that. It’s hard to imagine the sister drifting off into other typical school based, peer driven activities. They are already doing what other hope to someday do. Expect to continue to see them around town getting better and better.
I don’t know what Haley’s connection is to these young artists. Perhaps the connection comes through GB’s guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker since he joined them on stage. Yet these established pros seem to understand that young bands become really good bands only through stage time. Stages that continue to challenge and teach. Those opportunities are incredibly hard to find for those just setting off down the rock n roll highway. Kudos, however, to them for supporting Loki’s Folly in such an overt manner. The influence an established artist can have on a young one cannot be overstated.
Between sets the club continued to fill. Shortly before midnight the dance floor was packed. Dry ice smoke began to fill the space. Songs like Bowie’s Scary Monsters occupied the bumper music. There was a buzz as experienced fans awaited what was sure to be something completely over the top.
I first caught Gramma’s Boyfriend in 2012 when they played First Ave’s Best New Band Showcase. Frankly, I was bewildered by that performance. Haley Bonar was already a known commodity and rapidly emerging songstress. This side project was an unexpected foray into punk/performance art that seemed more designed to provoke than engage musically. I resolved not to build an evening around the band in the future.
Some five years later, I’d been hearing music on the radio that I really liked. I caught them in a Dinkytown performance space as part of a video release hosted by The Minnesota Music Coalition. The band blew me away. So the combination of an over the top performer, Halloween and a venue I needed to experience was a combination I could not resist. Boy, am I glad I didn’t.
There may well have been a cash prize award for best costume which took place midway through the set. However, nothing in the audience could hold a candle to what walked out onto that stage. Guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker appeared in Devo gym shorts replete with flower pot. Second guitar Jakob Hanson was a well turned out sailor in whites. Bass John Erickson was poured into a long trained wedding dress. Drummer Luke Anderson out did himself with a composition of boxes, paint, Tupperware and red flashlight as 2001’s AI, run amok computer HAL 2000.
And Haley was…something else. She’s always something else. She hit the stage in a signature unitard, boots, Red Riding Hood cape and startling black and white make up. I’m not sure what it was. At one point she called it her man-eater make up. I think the boots pulled the whole ensemble together.
Gramma’s Boyfriend is the frame that features Haley. Yet, she shares the stage so effortlessly with her band mates. They have an undeniable chemistry. Their bent sense of humor radiates from the stage. It seems the signature mischievousness was amplified by their delight in each other’s Halloween get ups on Saturday.
How do you describe what this band does? It’s a mash up of Devo-like pop punk. Rattling off tight little ditties with surprising sophistication. Haley rummaging through a full bag of vocal treats ranging from screeches to Dolly Parton crystal. It’s a guerrilla band. Hitting fast and hard for about two and a half minutes before fading into the mist only to reappear a minute later from an entirely new direction. And they make you dance. You just have to dance.
The band is really as much performance art as it is music concert. There’s nobody else doing anything like them. You are whipped from the absurd to the sublime. The coarse to the refined. Theater first or music first? It’s impossible to separate the two. Haley is the conductor and she’s mesmerizing on stage.
Just like the band name, a combination of words which put you off kilter, she is also a contradiction. Why would someone with a gorgeous voice opt to screech? Why would an attractive front woman don make up or costumes designed to push you away? Why would Gramma dance like one possessed by a variety of spirits? Simply because the band decided somewhere along the line that playing great music wasn’t enough. Somebody had to shake things up, deliver the unexpected and come off entertaining as hell. If there is an artist in this town who can sing, mime, dance, physically interpret sounds better than Haley, I haven’t seen them.
In one of my favorite moments, the band brought back the Loki’s Folly sisters to help with the 1973 New York Dolls glam punk classic Trash. Standing next to Haley, I revised my estimate of their ages down a couple years. Initially, there were some nerves and the two surreptitiously held hands for support. Both watched their hero hammer the lead vocal in a way that would have made Johnny Thunder proud. Before long they were all in. What a perfect moment! The band gave them a song right in that NYC punk vein they’d tapped in the opening set. And standing beside them Haley showed what it takes to run with the big dogs. These are lessons and experiences a kid can’t buy.
The Saturday before Halloween was a party of epic proportions. One of the Twin Cities most enigmatic bands, great visuals, a superb venue, support for young musicians and a connection with an audience that was truly special. Gramma’s Boyfriend and Icehouse have a winning Halloween formula. Put it on your to do list next year.