Bad Bad Hats Melt Hearts And Snow In Rochester

Photo Credit: William Forsman Photography

A Winter Storm Warning for southern Minnesota threatened to dampen Rochester’s My Town My Music’s 6th production of 2018.  This was an early sell out featuring Twin Cities bands Bad Bad Hats, The Shackletons and former Rochester raised Author.  Curiosity and hotel accommodations were enough incentive to put it in my plans.  Despite miserable driving conditions through the southern Twin Cities suburbs, things cleared up quickly.  Most of the drive down Highway 52 was a breeze.  Chalk up another “The sky is falling!” moment for local forecasters.

Certainly, this was I line up I was excited to see.  There was no question it would be worth the drive.  By the same token, there was a great deal of curiosity about what MTMM was building in our neighbor to the south.  I wanted to check out the Rochester Theatre Black Box and how it would fly as a music venue.  Seeing if, and how, Rochester music fans would embrace a diverse showcase like this.  The grades on both accounts were outstanding.

A Black Box is an interesting hybrid performance space.  It’s not a showcase club, although there was a bar.  Heavy black curtains and a high ceiling make for outstanding acoustics.  A specially built stage was high enough to provide excellent sight lines.  The ability to wander from hotel to dinner to coffee and to the venue within the downtown skyway system was a bonus on a wet and snowy evening. The most pleasant result was the Rochester music community which came out in force to fill the room. 

Up first was Author, the project of brothers Trevor and Cameron Bartlett, along with bass player Zach Zurn.  They set a nice tone to the evening with their unique drifting, psychedelic  sound.  The crowd was attentive, if not fully into it yet.  I’m not sure if this was because each of their songs was musically challenging, that an open floor theater space is not a nightclub or because fans were still shaking off the cold and wet. 

By challenging I don’t mean hard to appreciate.  I liked this band.  Rather, Author steers well clear of hooks or any pandering.  The songs and sounds were sophisticated and required a high level of musicianship.  The Booking brothers liberally use technology to augment their sound and add layers.  Perhaps their finest quality is a liberal dose of really refined two and three part harmonies.  There’s something uniquely effective when vocal harmonies are built with a genetic link.

The Shackletons came to the stage loaded for bear.  The pace of the show was fast, brash and sweaty, mixing in some Replacements covers along with some hard blues. 

Like the first band, The Shacks are built on brothers.  In this case three, not two.  Colin Campbell fronts the band with big brother Cameron on bass and younger sibling Evan behind the kit.  Each contributes vocally.  There is a great amount of interaction not only on the stage but also with the audience.  The band grabbed the audience quick, bodies crowded toward the stage and any thoughts about what might be going on outside were long gone.  

Midway through the set, someone yelled out: “Minnesota Girls!”.  Colin chuckled and promised they’d get there.  But it was an early indicator that people in Rochester, despite not hosting a lot of live music, knew what was going on up the road.  The band closed with an improbably punked up rendition of John Denver’s Country Roads that turned into a sing-a-long.

Prior to headliner Bad Bad Hats’ taking the stage, Rochester Civic Theatre Artistic Director Kevin Miller took a few minutes to express his delight in the evening.  And to thank a number of sponsors and partners who are all committed to building a live music scene.  He seemed genuinely proud of the fact that nearly 300 people were in the Black Box for Bad Bad Hats.  At least that many were literally on the other side of the wall for a production of Annie.  Clearly, people packing his venues for an evening of arts was in keeping with his vision for what the city might become.

In an earlier preview for this show, I mentioned that Rochester residents had been driving up to Minneapolis for generations to see bands or plays that interested them.  The question was whether Twin Citizens would do the same.  MTMM’s Dustin Hart told me he thought that close to 50 of the tickets sold for the show came from the Twin Cities.  In other words, something akin to 20% of the audience.  There was no way of telling how many people opted to not make the drive in the face of the dubious Armageddon weather forecast.  But fans were obviously willing to travel to see Bad Bad Hats when the show was announced.

Two middle aged fans I met during the show were Mary and Tony from Little Canada.  When I questioned what brought them all the way to Rochester for a show, they had an interesting explanation.  They had been in Chicago with friends and caught some live music.  BBH was on that bill and they just loved them; couldn’t wait to see them again.  They were enthusiastic to see the band in a headlining position.

I questioned why they drove all the way to Rochester in the snow, as opposed to catching the band on their home turf in Minneapolis or St Paul.  Mary quickly pointed out:  “Oh, something like that would be well outside our comfort zone!”  In other words, committed music fans who simply did not see themselves in the likes of First Avenue or The Turf Club.  Those types of people are far more common than we sometimes think.  Perhaps that’s a meaningful population which can be served by the community effort being made these days down in Rochester.

The crowd was well warmed up and welcomed Bad Bad Hats with an ovation and open hearts.  Certainly, there were audience in attendance because of Author and The Shackletons.  However, most were there because they were very familiar with Kerry Alexander’s band.  All night I watched smiles and singing.  Given that BBH had played Rochester just once previously, and that in a opener role in a small venue, it was a clear indication that music fans had been doing their homework. 

I’ve seen Bad Bad Hats a handful of times.  Most recently at the large outdoor event Surly Fest, where they opened for The Hold Steady.  Truth be told, I still have a hard time explaining to people why I like the band so much.  They play pop.  I like hard rock.  They opt for simple and melodic.  I lean toward complex and crunchy.  I tend toward brash vocals; Alexander goes straight for the heartfelt and clever metaphor.  I think sweat and leaping are synonymous with great shows.  BBH goes for cool, calm and collected.

But when you put everything together you get a band which delivers joyful music.  It’s like walking up to a buffet of beautiful deserts knowing you can eat to your heart’s content without worrying about a stomach ache.  Each song elicits a “that was really tasty!” before deciding you want to sample another one.  Maybe the analogy I’m trying to find is that if that desert buffet is part of a large business meeting at a convention hotel, the fare probably looks better than it tastes.  If that spread was crafted a piece at a time by a master baker, your taste buds know the difference.

When you stitch all of this together with Kerry’s bone dry, self-deprecating stories or song introductions, it’s a winning combination.  So often we are subjected to performers simply filling dead, air as they catch their breath and tune their guitar.  What a pleasure when they don’t.  After each song, the audience voiced it’s approval to the band.  When it went quiet between songs, it was never awkward.  The quiet was anticipatory.  Everybody wanted to know what she’d come up with next.

And note to every other performer within reading distance of this review: tell us a bit about where the song came from.  Particularly, if it’s personal.  All those little Easter eggs buried in the lyrics get a chance to shine.

Recently, the band dropped from four to a trio, long time collaborator Chris Hoge along with drummer Connor Davison.  That had me worried a bit going into this show.  Could they afford to lose an entire layer?  What would happen if you subtracted some sophisticated lead lines?  The answer is that it was different, perhaps a bit simpler.  But in no way diminished.  Hers are crafted around clever lyrics and great hooks.  Songs like that work just fine (well, pretty fine) even when it’s just you in the shower.  Great songs can stand on their own.  Kerry Alexander writes great songs.  No sweat.

I sincerely hope that 20 years from now I will still get to hear her tee up Super America. Or as she is wont to say…Soooper Ah Merica!  To share her late night college forays in search of unhealthy snacks so she could return to her room to feel satisfactorily depressed.  She asked the audience if they’d ever had a Combo?  Described it a processed pizza stuffed into a little tube.  We love her when she reflects:  “And that’s my body.  I’m kind of just a tube stuffed with pizza.”

And for the third time in the past week, I watched an artist finish a show without walking off and making us beg.  I find it so fan friendly and graceful to simply say OK!  How about another?  No drama, no ego and a very happy audience.

I went to Rochester to see if the local fans were hungry for live music.  If the tide was turning or if the town was going to go back to rolling up the sidewalks at 7.  Ladies and gentlemen, it’s coming.  People are ready.  All three bands hung for a long time in the back at the merch table.  Talking, laughing, signing albums and CD’s.  Sizing fans up for t-shirts.  That’s what happens when people have really enjoyed the evening.  They want to keep it going.  They want to connect with the artists.

Keep your eyes to the south.  Next time you see a band coming to town, make a night of it.  Perhaps try to avoid a blizzard; but don’t fret the miles.  Rochester is rising and bands like Bad Bad Hats, The Shacks and Author were delighted to play a part on Saturday.   

Photo Credit: William Forsman Photography