Chris Roberts is a reporter at MPR News, and this is a piece he researched and assembled for broadcast on The Daily Circuit and All Things Considered. Because we thought our readers would be interested in his piece and participating in this discussion, we invited Chris to publish a transcript of his segment on our blog. What follows is an edited version of the script from Chris’s piece “Golden Age for Minnesota Music.” (Listen to the piece here.)
Over the decades there have been some really robust cycles in Minnesota music, to the point where they’ve been described as “golden eras.” The local garage rock craze of the mid-’60s is one such period. The 1980s, when Prince owned the national airwaves and groups like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü made Minneapolis an indie rock hotbed, is another. What about right now?
You can’t scientifically measure whether a music scene is going through what some might call a “heyday.” But there are signs. Indicators. And some are too big to ignore. The Star Tribune’s Chris Riemenschneider got a powerful hint at this year’s South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas.
“Everywhere you looked there was a Minneapolis band…’oh they got a big gig over here we got to get to this one, oh but wait … Howler’s playing over here; but wait you’ve got Doomtree over here and Brother Ali,’ and it was impossible to keep on top of what everyone was doing.”
In April, when the Walker Art Center and The Current announced this year’s Rock the Garden line-up, it was another startling reminder of the depth of talent in Minnesota music. Unlike in years past, when the Rock the Garden roster featured one local group opening for national acts, this year three of the bands — Doomtree, Trampled by Turtles, and Howler — are based here, while The Hold Steady has strong local ties.
And then the very next week, says First Avenue booker Sonia Grover, “Two nights in a row, like you have Minnesota bands on national TV, like Trampled by Turtles on Letterman one night. And Poliça on Jimmy Fallon the next.”
Several Minnesota groups have graced the sets of late night TV shows before, but never at this level of saturation. And it’s not just one kind of music, which points out another strength in the scene: its diversity. There’s the hip-hop collective Doomtree, Poliça with its electronic R&B, Howler and its precocious garage rock, the accelerated earthy bluegrass of Duluth’s Trampled by Turtles. The list goes on and on. To First Avenue general manager Nate Kranz, it’s like a musical hotdish, stylistically. “They’re not just pigeonholed into one scene or one genre. These bands that really don’t have a whole lot in common with one another really seem to prop each other up,” he said.
What these musicians do have in common is that most have worked long enough and hard enough to form a unique bond with their fans, at home and around the country. With the internet and advancements in home studio recording technology, they have the tools to do it on their own. Their success is generating a buzz that’s permeated the entire scene. Sonia Grover says it’s allowed First Avenue to reach a new milestone.
“In April, we did five or six mainroom shows with local headliners and all the shows sold out or did super well,” she said. “And that’s not something that we could have done a couple years ago.”
And there’s always more where that came from. There are dozens of other quality bands who’ve either been around just as long or longer and are still relevant, or who are freshly scrubbed and bringing up the rear. Says Riemenschneider, “The bands just keep coming and keep coming, he said. “I never run out of things to write about and that’s a sure indicator that things are going to keep going.”
Which brings up another factor in the Minnesota music explosion. Coverage. City Pages music editor Reed Fischer says if it’s a golden era in local music, it’s largely because there are so many more ways to find out about it, from the beat writers to the bloggers.
“There’s just a lot of places for different types of music to get exposure here,” he said. “So I think that in a way, people will feel like it’s a renaissance right now because they’re going to know about music they’re interested in — no matter what their interests are.”
The Current was launched more than seven years ago by Minnesota Public Radio, with a mission to do what other radio stations in town have perennially refused to do, which is play local music. And some say it’s made an enormous difference. Ask the members of the Twin Cities based indie rock trio Now Now.
Now Now’s new song “Thread” gets regular airplay on The Current, which makes lead singer Cacie Dalager feel like her band is being introduced to the world.
“That has been the most beneficial thing to us,” she said. “And we always bring this up just randomly talking, but I feel like we’re the kids at school who were sitting by ourselves, and then we were invited to sit at the cool kids table.”
“To have like a strong FM station that really supports and is passionate about these bands, it’s just such a huge piece of the puzzle of creating a local scene and getting the word out to people who might not be in the clubs every night,” agreed Nate Kranz.
There seems to be a growing agreement among the venues and media that this is a golden era for local music. But how does the average music fan feel? If 41-year-old Todd Wardrope is any indication, the answer would be bullish.
“It is a golden age,” Wardrope said.
Wardrope was out at the Hexagon Bar in Minneapolis on a recent Friday night. He’s been an avid follower of local music since becoming hooked on the band Soul Asylum in the mid ’80s when he was a high schooler.
Wardrope says the region has always produced great music and has always had hungry and sophisticated audiences. He thinks what we’re experiencing now is may be the best example yet of what the scene is capable of producing, but he says “the problem with calling it a golden age is that that sort of assumes there’s going to be a decline, right? I don’t know, I mean I don’t really see that happening.”
Wardrope thinks Minnesota music is reaping the benefits of years of investment in artistry and infrastructure. It’s reached a whole new level. It’s a scene that’s been built strong, and built to last.
What do you think? Do you agree with “the gatekeepers” of the Twin Cities music scene? Leave your own thoughts in the comments.