TCM writers regularly extol the virtues of our local music scene. It doesn’t happen by accident. It isn’t something in the water. Excellence takes a community that works on both sides of the equation. Musicians need other musicians with whom to collaborate. Artists need venues to play. Audiences need to know what’s out there. They have to come out and support the bands’ live shows. Because the days of living on record sales are long gone. It’s that virtuous circle that keeps so many great local bands from heading to the coasts.
And for all of us who drive by the new soccer stadium at I94 and Snelling, it was exciting to cotton onto the fact that Minnesota United was a major sponsor of this music event. Something tells me we have a new partner, and superb outdoor venue, for big acts coming to town.
In my opinion, the oil in the engine is local radio station 89.3TheCurrent. I’ll go as far as saying we have the best radio station on the planet in our backyard. It sure helps that advertising algorithms and narrow formats are verboten. It also really helps when things are run by a bunch of passionate music junkies as opposed to marketing specialists. The staff of The Current will always tell you that they are simply reflecting the taste of their listeners. That’s not true. These people are curators. If something needs to be heard, particularly if it has a local connection, somebody at the station will champion it. The music will be heard. Because of them, artists can walk out onto a sold out Mainroom stage and all of us will share in their joy.
14 years of growing and establishing a base. From fledgling college radio signal to Minnesota Public Radio juggernaut. From a bunch of nerds who wanted to get behind a live show to major concert promoter. We all owe a debt of to our friends at The Current. A pair of sold out bills was proof positive of the Twin Cities’ gratitude.
Anyway, I digress! It took until the 19th of January for the first meaningful Arctic blast to come rolling down from our neighbor to the north. It was low single digits, at best, on the walk into First Avenue last night. I was thankful we were able to park close to the venue, albeit in a not completely legal spot. However, given the weather it seemed unlikely the meter maids would be out in force. We also waited until Porcupine kicked things off before walking in. The very thought of standing on the sidewalk waiting for doors to open was too painful to even consider. I generally like to arrive early in order to stake out a particular viewing spot. On a cold night, the compromise is to arrive with all your parts intact and be willing to move as necessary.
The Current’s line up on both nights featured an eclectic line up of local bands and artists. There was a bit of something for everyone with the exception of hip hop. But there were only 4 slots and The Current does a ton to support that remarkable Twin Cities scene. So they get a pass.
Porcupine kicked things off and it was a great way to get the early arriving crowd bumping. This power punk trio, with veins of grunge and Queens of the Stone Age mixed in, is an underrated gem. While Casey Virock ostensibly fronts the band (“this is where the magic takes place” points Gregg Norton) and drummer Ian Prince relentlessly pounds them forward, it really is Norton that makes the band so much fun to watch. He’s a dervish who more seems to channel his bass parts than create them.
I think what I find so appealing about Norton is his infectious joy. He’s a guy who’s been to the mountaintop as a charter member of Husker Du. How many great Twin Cities bands followed in his footsteps? But when that band met its end, he avoided the fate of so many in his shoes. He kept his wits, found another great band and seems perfectly happy just to be rocking out. Every time I’ve seen him, be it in a small joint, or as an opener. Gregg Norton seems to radiate a happiness to just be on stage and to have people there to share with him.
In the only small technical hiccup of an otherwise brilliant night within the Mainroom walls, came a moment of levity. Right before Porcupine’s final song, the screen began to drop. Virock did not notice as he introduced the song. Obviously, the First Ave tech wasn’t listening. Pretty funny watching Virock and Norton shrinking and attempting to hold up the screen. “No wait! We’ve got one more!” As the screen reversed, Norton intoned: “It won’t take us long. I promise!” He didn’t need to promise. The audience would gladly have stayed for another set.
Mack is the classic diva. She shifts effortlessly from a Mavis Staples gospel to MoTown soul to a Koko Taylor growl. Her four piece band is rock solid and is the frame for the lady in the middle. It’s old school. And old school is still a school because, done right, it’s powerful stuff. She’s powerful stuff.
By the end of the set, the band was rolling like a train. The penultimate song was The Band’s The Weight in which the verses were passed from band member to band member. The crowd went wild, as even the sound engineer jumped in for a turn from the sound board in the back of the room. It was a truly stirring rendition. Closing with Tell It Like It Is, helped everybody make the connection between the woman and her break out radio tune.
As I took in his quiet performance, I was struck by the juxtaposition of what my eyes and ears were telling me. I don’t know that I can think of another single Americana, folk artist who is black. I found that inspiring. An example of how music crosses all boundaries. How art can never be confined to belonging to any one race or culture. It may begin somewhere. But once those notes are released to the world, they belong to all of us.
So it seems only logical that Ondara picked up and left Africa for Minneapolis, MN of all places. He came to work, not only because there was a vibrant scene. He came because his hero Bob Dylan launched from here. Like Dylan, he said “I’m a folk singer. And folk songs are happening around us every day.”
Ondara was introduced by Local Show host Andrea Swennson, who has been an ardent supporter of the man from the first time she heard him. She told the audience: “In my job I probably get 1500 music submissions a year. When I first heard him, my jaw hit the floor.” With Swennson that’s no mean feat.
Cloud Cult was in 6 person mode last night. Five across the front with drums behind. The sound emanating from the stage ranged from crystalline to chest punching powerful. They have the ability to span such an incredible sonic range because they are all uber-talented multi-instrumentalists who can also harmonize. Guitars, bass, drums, keys, trumpet, trombone, french horn (how beautiful is that thing when played brilliantly?), recorder and even Flutophone. You never know what’s coming next. But you know it will be transcendent.
There are echoes of so many innovative bands in what they do. My notes mention Zappa, Yes, Genesis, The Flaming Lips. They somehow effectively move beyond genre to just art. Their live shows always feature a painter or two madly applying paint to canvas on stage, buoyed along by the music. This is not an affectation or gimmick. It’s art begetting art.
Cloud Cult should also be commended for taking a moment to remember Sarah Papenheim, a young drummer from our community, who was attending college in the Netherlands where she lost her life. Minowa told the story of how Sarah’s family had some years earlier lost their brother Josh. They’d heard how one of their songs had helped both Sarah and her Aunt Cindy accept and cope.
This should not come as a surprise. It was originally written by the Minowa’s following the loss of their own child. They dedicated the song When Water Comes To Life to Sarah. So powerful and so appropriate. I urge everyone to go back to your records or to YouTube and replay this song. Imagine what it would be like to be a parent and to lose both of your children in the opening bloom of their lives. Then consider the emotional depth of the kind of art Cloud Cult offers us.
Then, like Minowa asked when the show ended: “Go out and spread the goodness. Because this world sure needs it.”
Happy Birthday, Current! Thank you for all you do. We’re expecting more great things in the future. We the listeners were out in force over the weekend to let you know we’re fully behind you.