There are a couple of nights during the year that were made for late, live music. Unless you’re the one hosting Thanksgiving and up to your eyeballs in pie makings, the night prior is a perfect time to let the good times roll. Quite frankly, when I saw the Ike Reilly Assassination pop up on the First Avenue calendar it might not have been the show I picked. The inclusion of locals Mae Simpson and Monica LaPlante made it a no brainer.
Normally, my job is hard enough (I’m not complaining!) trying to describe my reactions to a headliner. Writing about opening bands who I will likely never cross again is a necessary evil. How often do you show up at the venue in time to catch the first note from the first band? I understand that if you catch enough openers, you’ll eventually catch lightning in a bottle. There’s nothing cooler than watching a young band work for the first time, knowing that someday you’ll look at all the new converts and ask: “Where in the hell have you been?”.
I’m marinated in Minnesota music. No region does it better. Part of the mission is to let people know when there’s a special talent in their own backyard. For somebody other than a hardcore club crawler, finding those gems can be tough. There are about a million weekend warriors. Some really fine. Some just competent. Part of the job is to scout and report on those that should be on our collective radars.
All these musicians deserve our respect. If being a rock and roll band blasting from the Mainroom stage was remotely easy, we’d all be doing it! Credit is due. So is candor.
For that reason, I made the decision to carve out my thoughts on both Simpson and LaPlante. There is too much to unpack from a local perspective. I won’t relegate what they’re up to in an opening paragraph of an Ike Reilly review. So, like it or not, you’re going to have to wade through a couple reviews rather than a single story.
For the record, I think there are four local rock and roll bands that are on the cusp of a break to bigger and better things. Two of those bands belong to Monica LaPlante and Mae Simpson. I’m not going to name the other two because I don’t want to cause any angry debates over the Thanksgiving table. And it’s just one man’s opinion. Suffice to say, you’ve been hearing the music of the other two on the airwaves for five years. Both are currently on the road building fan bases around the country.
LaPlante and Simpson are also right there. To me, that’s the most exciting point in the arc of a band. Are you going to be a local favorite? That, in and of itself, is a major success. Or might you be the next national herald for Minnesota music?
You can’t take a bunch of talented hired guns and make a rock band. We all get excited about “supergroup” projects. But they never rise above the sum of their collective parts. That’s because successful bands are more than their music. They are the living, breathing incarnation of something other. It’s no longer players. It’s a band. That identity either connects with enough people to make it. Or it doesn’t. Like fine wine or whiskey, it takes time.
Think of it this way. First, you have to get good. That’s experience. You need a pile of compelling original music. That takes years. You need to let those songs develop their own expression. How many iconic songs have evolved as the band plays them for years? Great bands are always finding new wrinkles in old notes. Finally, it takes continuity in the band itself. It’s one thing to be able to execute your songs. It’s another thing entirely to allow each band member to wander in the jungle because you know they’ll be right where they need to be, when they need to be there. Who knows who will come back with something interesting to share? That’s Time and nothing less. Paying your dues.
It’s been a privilege to watch Mae and Monica pay those dues. If you’ve ever polished agates (now there’s a MN analogy!), you know what I mean. You spend a lot of time kicking along the rock beach to find that single stone that is just a little bit different. It’s a rush. That stone gets tumbled. Each cycle a finer grit wearing away the rough edges. Eventually, the best ones get polished to a sheen. One or two in a batch may emerge as gems. Trust me when I tell you it’s way more satisfying to witness that process than it is to buy a finished stone in a lapidary store or North Shore gift shop.
I feel that kind of kinship with both of these bands. They couldn’t be more different. But each delivers a style that falls smack into my personal rock and roll wheelhouse.
Let’s begin with Mae Simpson. At the risk of engaging in hyperbole, I’d simply say that if you ever wondered what it was like watching Janis Joplin on the way up, you need to check out Mae Simpson. It isn’t so much the sound, it’s the willingness to take the song over the top. To not only serve the song but to venerate it. That’s thin ice. If you go a step too far; if the audience reads it as an act, you come off as a poser. Few things are worse than rock and roll posers.
At the same time, that’s exactly where we want our heroes to go. She knows how to walk that line. Mae Simpson music is big. Literally. The base band is seven. There’s that continuity mentioned above that comes into play. When she adds back up singers, The Foxgloves Band, the number balloons to as many as twelve. Think Blues Bros. big. Big bands are a rarity these days. But big bands produce a wall of sound that can carry you away. There is a distinction between loud and powerful. This band walks the powerful side of the street.
Last night began about an hour earlier than usual. When she kicked off, the Mainroom was just beginning to fill. Mae does things her own way. That means directly connecting with as many audience members as possible. She called us all in close. Those trickling in would just have to hang toward the back. Too bad, because she’s that rare breed that locks eyes with you and demands that you boogie and bounce with her. Many artists invite audience participation. She points right at you and demands it. She’s driving the rock and roll bus. You’re either on the bus or you’re not. She doesn’t like leaving stragglers.
Her show is celebration. Sweat. Flying red hair and leaps from the drum riser. I asked myself if she’s the kind of woman who might come to your house, get excited and accidentally break something in her exuberance. You bet. Is the day coming that she sprains an ankle or tears a meniscus? Believe it. And that’s cool. Nobody ever said rock and roll is for those willing to play it safe.
Mae Simpson is developing a catalog of original music which runs deep. She can pen a lyric that makes you sing back at her. The band’s stylistic range is impressive. You can pull that off if you have back up singers; when you incorporate horns and supplemental percussion. It just takes longer for a band like this to find its groove. How do you get bigger and badder without stepping all over each other’s toes? Make it all meld? Mae Simpson is that tumbling agate. Just takes time. But it’s worth it when you tumble out a gem.
Monica is another of those artists I’ve watched develop from the early days. From the get go it was clear she had great potential. My early impression was that she was better in the studio than she was on the stage. That’s just a matter of growing up as an artist and developing a band that could frame her. She participated in a parking lot show in Saint Paul back on a gorgeous October day with The Shackletons and Melismatics. For many reasons, including the quality of the bands, that was my favorite music outing of 2021. That night was hands down the best I’d seen her. I mentioned to a friend that I was changing my opinion on the band’s live show. Needless to say, I was stoked to hear her blast through First Avenue’s legendary sound system.
Since I’ve already made comparisons that border on the heretical, let me add another. Whenever I watch LaPlante perform, I get vibes of Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde. It’s more than the look. That black hair and coal black eyeliner. It’s the attitude she brings. It feels a bit dangerous despite the feeling that she’s the girl from the neighborhood everybody liked. She’s aloof and yet accessible. That’s a hell of a trick.
The attribute that has her poised to pop is the band. It’s lean and mean with great rock and roll chops. When you’re going 80 mph straight down the rock and roll highway, it’s hard to argue with a classic four piece built around electric guitars. Each member could always play but it seems that, post Covid, this bunch has really settled in. That gives Monica some breathing room and a chance to shine.
This is a band that does not try to cover the waterfront stylistically. Instead, they have a sound and an image which they execute masterfully. I’m a big believer that identity is what makes a band marketable. This is not to say that a band like LaPlante’s is limited or somehow commercial. You don’t call Joan Jett limited. But you know what you’re going to get when you buy the ticket. You know you’re going to get a faceful of American rock and enjoy it.
I often say that you can tell a lot about a band by the covers they choose. Covers are an homage. Every kid grows up thinking some band is really cool. You better believe that factors into the music they write. In Monica’s case, she ripped her way through Cars and Talking Heads. Both bands brought some darkness and danger to what was essentially pop rock. I love that sound and I love the fact that a young band is stealing from a couple monster bands from the prior generation. Do your own thing. But there is no need to re-invent the wheel. Just change the ride.
Wednesday night was in many respects a showcase of what makes Minnesota music so great. The Mainroom. A couple prodigiously talented young women with pro bands. New music that’s smart and deserves to be heard. We Minnesotans do a good job of supporting local music. From the clubs to the radio stations to the collaborative attitude among the bands. It’s a cool scene in which we can all participate. It takes all of us to make it roll. So when opportunities to showcase the best coming up the pipe are presented, we take them.
Mae Simpson and Monica LaPlante. Man, has it been cool to watch those rough agates tumble. We got ourselves some gems.