“The last time I was at First Avenue it was filled with smoke. Cigarette and otherwise,” my dad joked as we made our way into the historic First Avenue on Monday night. “When was the last time you were here?” I asked, knowing my dad has always had great taste in music, but doesn’t venture “north of the river” too often (my parents live in the South Metro). “Oh gosh, I don’t know, 35 years ago, I had to be 19 or 20” he went on. As we walked around the upper balcony of First Avenue before the show, my dad chuckled as we looked around the all-black, broody interior of First Ave. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve been to First Avenue, as an avid music lover and now writer. But it was special to see First Avenue through someone else’s eyes last night. While chatting with my dad about how really not much has changed about this iconic venue, other than an updated sound system and some fresh paint, the magic of this place felt fresh again. The bands, big and small, that have played inside those four walls, is extensive. Spending so many nights inside the dusty First Ave it’s easy to forget all the people that have stood on that sticky dance floor before you, and watched legends take the stage. I pointed out the Prince Purple Rain star painted near the stairway. “Oh, last time I was here was definitely pre-Purple Rain,” my dad joked.
It seemed only fitting that my dad’s triumphant return to First Avenue was for Dams of the West and Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. Both of these bands have a sound and a feel that transcends genre, musical style, age, demographic or whatever other category we try to neatly place music in. “Hey, there’s some other people here my age,” my dad joked as we sipped our vodka sodas. Looking around First Avenue last night, it was really one of the most eclectic and diverse crowds I’ve seen at a show in awhile. Not to politicize, but in these aberrant times we live in, where everything feels divided, last night was a reminder that music is the great unifier. Baseball might be America’s pastime, but I’d like to throw live music in the running for a close second.
Kicking off the evening was Dams of the West aka Chris Tomson, drummer of Vampire Weekend. I’ll be honest, I’ve been a Vampire Weekend fan since the Oxford Comma and Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa days, so when I first got wind of Tomson’s side project I was immediately intrigued. I’ve had Dams of the West on heavy rotation since they released their first single Death Wish late last year and their live show absolutely delivered. I had no doubts that Dams of the West sound would transfer beautifully live. Vampire Weekend’s 2013 Lollapalooza set remains one of my top-5 best shows of all time. Although in my mind Tomson remains so tied to Vampire Weekend, Dams of the West is definitely a refreshing departure from the VW days. For starters, Tomson takes center stage on guitar and vocals, instead of behind the drumset in VW. He is an engaging frontman, chatting with the crowd and seems to have a fun chemistry with his all-female band. I actually think this was the first time I’ve seen an all female band with a male vocalist, as opposed to the opposite, which had kind cool rakish feel about it.
“So I heard the Timberwolves got cancelled because of Disney on Ice. Like there’s water all over the court or something. Soooo, if there’s any parents from Disney on Ice looking to party, welcome,” Tomson joked over a sip of beer before launching into Death Wish. The banter continued in between songs and Tomson shared his love for Minneapolis, and it’s twin, St. Paul. He thanked the crowd for filling in on the dancefloor which made him “feel a lot more comfortable.” In the most endearingly millennial way, he invited people to “stream that shit,” in reference to his new album Youngish American. His set featured Tell the Truth The Inerrancy of You and Me, and Perfect Waves off the aforementioned album. My dad said the set was, “pretty good,” which is Midwest-dad speak means it was a knock out.Headlining the evening of course was Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears. Again, I’ve been to my fair number of shows, but I have never quite seen anything like Black Joe Lewis. They took to the stage at 110% energy, and didn’t stop for a single moment. Frontman Black Joe Lewis, sings and shreds like nothing I have never seen before. My photographers texted me half jokingly that this must have been what seeing the Blues Brothers was like. Joe Lewis’ voice and scream that reaches a decibel not often heard is almost otherworldly. When he opens his mouth and lets out that signature scream, he makes it look so effortless. It seems like every generation is graced with a few signature voices, and Lewis might just be that voice of our generation, while taking a few pages out of James Brown’s book.
Again, First Ave had one of the most diverse crowds I’ve seen in awhile, it was a wide mix of ages, which watching Joe Lewis totally makes sense. His sound, his vibe, his effortlessly cool stage presence reaches beyond genre. His appeal is for the masses. It’s rock and roll, it’s blues, it’s jazz, it’s soul, it’s feel good, kick back and have another beer music. It really is music you can’t help but move to.
Heavy horns and drums, Joe Lewis’ flawless vocals, and groovy bass lines, made for one of the loudest evenings I’ve had a First Ave in awhile, but ringing ears today, are totally worth it. Joe Lewis’ set was a little over an hour, and was basically a non-stop jam. When the band did take a breather it was to sip on the adult beverage of their choice. “Have a drink with us,” Lewis said, and the band and audience raised a glass. “And go buy our album, no one’s buying that shit,” Lewis half joked between songs. But seriously, this is a band you want to support. It’s clear these guys have the perfect mix of hustle and raw talent. It was a pretty packed house at First Ave last night, but this is a band you want to root for, and want to see experience even more success. Black Joe Lewis’ album is available everywhere this Friday, but his set featured a mix of songs off the new album as well as the classics that first made us fall in love with the Honeybears, Come to My Party, The Hipster, and Make Dat Money.
“This is to a long-ass winter in Minnesota,” Lewis said as he raised a glass in between songs, “I used to live in this shitty ass town South of here, Rochester,” he went on. Black Joe Lewis the Honeybears seemed to understands that the best thing to cure the winter blues is a strong drink and some live music, and last night was just that. It seemed only fitting that Black Joe Lewis would be the show that brought my dad and I together for a great night of live music. Old school meets new school, nostalgic and fresh, retro and modern, Black Joe Lewis is the intersection of what every red-blooded, rock-n-roll listening, American loves about music.