Halloween is a holiday that resonates differently in different age groups. Up until about the teenage years, it’s all about knocking on doors and collecting the candy. After adulthood and years of child rearing, most people are happy answering the door, expressing mock horror and handing out those Snickers Bars. But in between there’s this little sweet spot. The age where a ton of creativity, a modicum of money and an utter lack of inhibitions creates a costume arms race. Generally speaking, that 20 to 30 year old group owns Halloween night.
Sure, there are parties galore on the Night of the Dead. But you’d be hard pressed to find any place that pushes things to the extreme better than our friends at First Avenue. The big money costume and dance competition in the Mainroom is legendary. But what took place next door in the 7th Street Entry last night was the place to be. I don’t know if I’d call it a Halloween party, per se. I will say that it was likely the most fun I’ve had on Halloween in over six decades. That 70s Show was, pure and simple, a blast!
When First Ave announced the bill with three of the hottest young Twin Cities’ rock bands, it was a no-brainer. Instead of simply taking the stage in costumes, the approach was to take Halloween a step further. Go ahead and wear the costumes. More significantly, take the music of an iconic 70s act and become them. Make Halloween more about the ears than the eyes. At first blush, it seemed a brilliant idea.
As the 31st approached, the first inklings of “gimmick” began to creep through my transom. Ultimately, The Shackletons, Gully Boys and Last Import were going to need to stand on that stage in front of a rabid, sold out crowd and deliver the goods. All it was going to take was one or two little faux pas and things could descend very quickly into the realm of parody. Admittedly, that would be alright. After all, it’s Halloween. It’s a party. And any reviewer walking in and judging the show on the quality of the music, rather than the spirit of the party, was probably somewhere between an old fuddy-duddy with no sense of humor and an outright A hole. I’ll be honest. I’m far more interested in hearing great music than I am watching a bunch of kids indulge themselves in some silly lark.
The night succeeded in ways I never imagined. I think it’s safe to say that the other fans packed into the sold-out Entry left with the same buzz I did. It was a night of GREAT music. More importantly, there were a handful of takeaways which are the main point of what I want to express in this recap more than detailing the individual sets.
If you are a Twin Cities music fan, the night was a harbinger of some wonderful things to come. I’ve seen all three of these bands grow up from teenage wannabes to young pros gaining some serious traction. In previous blogs, I have stated my opinion that something akin to that early 80’s scene is percolating once again around town. Remember, that was a time when the Suicide Commandos spawned Husker Du. All that led to the Run Westy Runs, Soul Asylums and eventually The Replacements. One should also not forget there was a young kid from the North Side of Minneapolis who was looking at that First Avenue complex and contemplating a bit of Purple Rain.
It wasn’t just that these kids could play like monsters and write great songs. It was more about the collaboration. People mixed and matched. Learned from each other. Did what they could to take their friends along when an opportunity presented itself. That’s pretty typical when a bunch of talented artists are from the same community; before the evil of corporate greed and an influx of money upsets the balance. I’ve written on numerous occasions that if you fancy yourself a music fan or hip to the Twin Cities scene, you need to get off the couch and catch these bands when it’s still about fury and passion. No West Coast suits have gotten to these young bands yet to knock off some of the hard angles and raw energy; terra-forming the band into something dumbed down enough to safely make them profitable. This is pure, distilled rock energy sans mixer.
I walked in with a bit of trepidation about whether these bands could really execute the plan. I was confident The Shackletons, who pulled in as The Cars, had the musical chops to pull off a rousing set. My concerns were you probably couldn’t find a band that was stylistically or visually more different than The Shacks and The Cars. But the biggest challenge was that they, like all the bands on the bill, are a power trio. How on earth do you pull off The Cars without a synth?
The Shackletons took to the stage dressed in a manner that alluded to The Cars without trying too hard to copy them. They took this set list of Cars’ classics and did them in their own style. That’s one of the hallmarks of this band. They’ve never been afraid to wander the waterfront putting their unique spin on songs people just can’t help singing. Those who follow the band have heard them rip anything from The Replacements to John Denver.
Can those tight, Cars pop songs morph into big, brash guitar rockers? The answer is, you’d better believe it! Front man Colin Campbell explained that when the bands were picking the acts they’d be for this show, Ric Okasec was still with us. Within a week of the announcement that they’d be The Cars, Okasec died. Suddenly, it wasn’t going to be a goof any longer. It needed to also be a heartfelt homage to one of rock n roll’s greats. If Ric was up there listening, he was touched.
Here’s an aside that I find ironic. If I had to pick the absolute worst concert experience of my life (and I’ve seen thousands) it was Devo. I’m not talking about things like a horrible wedding band or one of my kids’ Junior High band concerts (sorry about that, parents, just can’t help telling the truth!). I’m talking about a concert where I spent good money and waited for the show with some measure of anticipation. Even crazier is the fact that the Devo show in question took place at First Avenue at least 35 years ago. Out they came in orange flower pots and yellow jumpsuits. A sold out crowd was amped and similarly adorned. They then proceeded to mail it in with a lackluster effort that was over in 20 minutes. I stood on the floor with all the other patrons stunned and angry. We booed.
So who woulda thunk that the best Devo show I’ve ever seen would be delivered by a handful of young female punk rockers on a Halloween night in the First Avenue building? Way to go, Gully Boys! You don’t need me to tell you, the audience did. It worked.
Again, the challenge was going to be how does a three piece, without a keyboard and which doesn’t dabble in harmonies very often, pull it off? Like Gully Boys, they tapped the scene and added another guitar with their friend Christian. More importantly, friend Molly sat at the keys. She added that critical third harmony voice to the vocals.
I wrote about front woman Emily Bjorke, on the occasion of their most recent album release. In that piece, I pointed out that it was her development that was at the core of the band’s metamorphosis from three wannabe girl rockers to a force to be reckoned with. I again flashed on that thought as she introduced the expected closer Dancing Queen. Bjorke stood there, clad in a blue and gold spandex unitard and white platform Go Go Boots. Her left hand draped over the mic stand. Platinum locks shining under the stage lights.
Think about that image for just a minute. The kind of confidence it takes to do that. It’s one thing to stand in front of a crowd and sing a song. Most people on earth not only couldn’t do it. They would be terrified to even contemplate trying. How many of you would don the spandex and take yourself seriously? Bjorke couldn’t wait to let it rip. She wasn’t pretending to be Anni-Frid Lyngstad. She was Emily the singer and she was throwing down a show.
There’s a point in every artist’s development when playing your music is not enough. You’re being paid to inspire, to take a room by storm. Somewhere along the way, she’s taken that step and it’s gratifying to see. Interesting to note that on the ride home, my wife expressed her take. She’s seen Last Import a number of times although not recently. Frankly, she’s liked the young women in the band more than the music. That changed completely last night. She pointed to the fact that Bjorke no longer seemed worried about being good enough or overwhelmed by trying to front a band. What she loved was a woman who simply grabbed the center of the stage and made it hers.
But that’s the main take away with all the bands from That 70s Show. This could have been, was probably expected to be, a Halloween gag. A fun gimmick; but who would expect the music to fly at the same kind of altitude their normal sets do? Maybe it was a spirit of competition. Maybe it was pride. More likely it was just professionalism. These three bands were there to have fun. But it wasn’t going to be fun if they didn’t pull off a killer show. Each band admitted to spending more time in rehearsal in the run up to the show than at any other point in recent memory. A sold out show with people paying a healthy cover charge, deserves your best. Every one of those bands never lost sight of that objective and honored the covenant. A bit different from my last Devo experience!
I can’t tell you which of these bands is going to break. Success in this business is a crap shoot and involves so much more than talent. (When you listen to the radio, how often do you hear absolute garbage that goes platinum?) Nor do I know which individual or individuals will grab an opportunity in another band that breaks. But I will tell you that I’m convinced somebody from that group of musicians on stage last night will. Every single one of them is all in. They are charismatic. They’re learning to not let all the roadblocks get in their way. Something good is coming. Every one of them deserves that little extra support from all of us to help them realize that dream. All it takes is coming to a show and having a good time. What could be easier?
I also found myself thinking about a keynote speech Stevie Van Zandt made to the annual Recording Arts conference some years back. It was a call to arms to the industry. A call to reclaim its role in the creation of great rock and roll. While he applauded the fact that new recording software like Garage Band and the rise of internet streaming services could provide important democratization of the industry, there was a dark side. Without the professionals and gate keepers present, that process also opened the door for a flood of music that in older days simply would never have seen the light of day. And for good reason. In that jungle of DIY music, the good stuff would be much harder to find. I think time has proven his point.
Van Zandt reminded everyone that music could, and should, take many different avenues. But at its core there were a couple qualities that were sacrosanct. He claimed that rock music was, first and foremost, dance music. If you couldn’t get a crowd up on its feet to dance with you, then just forget it. It might be folk or it might be jazz. It might be cool. But it wasn’t rock. Last night was classic rock music. Folks were dancing hard and singing along with EVERY SINGLE SONG through three sets. Think about that!
He went on to say that young bands’ desire to always play their own music was a bad idea. He opined that if someone else had written a song that was better than the one you just wrote, it was simply narcissism that would cause you to choose yours. Van Zandt talked about the years the E Street Band made a living doing other people’s music. Simply because it was better. But it made audiences keep coming to see them and to dance. Years later, spend three hours with The Boss listening to their own songs. It took a career to build a songbook where they could comfortably claim that their stuff was better than other stuff they could be performing.
That’s a huge revelation for a young rock band like The Shacks, Gully Boys or Last Import. But an important one. Understanding that people come to be entertained. They come to sing with you. To dance with you. As much as you love your own voice and your own words, the fact is that it’s only Mom and Dad out there in the audience who just flat love you for what you’re trying to do.
Last night was totally about playing someone else’s music. It was about getting people to sing and dance. The litmus test, and lesson perhaps, was whether you could do it without being…you. To serve the music rather than vice versa. That’s the hallmark of every great rock band. The dedication to the music creates the persona we love on stage. People see through the persona that tries to create music. Those authentic images come from being dedicated to the song. The term we use when it goes the other way? Poser.
If these bands are smart, and I believe they are, they learned some new things last night. They were stretched in ways they’re not typically stretched. And they succeeded. All they had to do was look out at the surging room in front of them to know it worked. They all created this fantastic energy loop that I’m still feeling 12 hours later. I don’t know what the song or little piece discovered from this night of music will be for each band. But I do know each band will have added another bullet to their belts. They’re better because of it. We are ultimately the beneficiaries of that expanded range. It was a hell of Halloween Party.
Quick shout out to DJ Trophy Knife spinning the vinyl between sets. For an old guy like me, it was a pleasure digging back into the catalog of my youth. Our generation produced some remarkable music. Except for that Bee Gees track. Never do Bee Gees, Ms Trophy Knife! They damn near killed rock and roll. That band was the epitome of…okay, you get the point. I’ll stop before I offend somebody.
If you’re an older fan and your usual music modus operandi has become spending big money to see the bands of your youth in some stuffy, proscenium theater, all I can say is that you’ve forgotten. You’ve forgotten those formative days when rock belonged to the young. We said: “Don’t trust anybody over 30!” Today they say: “Okay. Boomer.” Fact is, we were both right. Fact is, you’re either in a room making memories or you’re in a room, living memories. The former packs way more punch. Take yourself out to a place like The Entry, Mortimers or Turf and absorb what these young bands are creating. It’s worth it.