A parade of special guests and fiery, soulful music kept party guests on their toes at the first of two 8th birthday parties for the Current at First Avenue on Friday night, setting the stage for what is sure to be another memorable celebration of Minnesota music and community togetherness tonight.
Of the two birthday party lineups, Friday’s was the one I was most skeptical about; with two singer-songwriter acts opening the show, I was concerned that the celebratory crowd would talk right over the music. Boy, was I happy to be wrong about that.
From the get-go John Mark Nelson pulled the audience in with his majestic, sweeping “Home,” his 10-piece orchestral-pop outfit setting a celebratory tone. Nelson appeared more animated and confident on Friday than he did the week prior playing Best New Bands, bouncing along to the beat and swiveling his hips, Dan Wilson-style. He was so confident, in fact, that he pulled out the sparse “Great Plains” from his debut Still Here, a song that he pared down to just an acoustic guitar and vocal duet with the multi-talented Grace Keating, and that could have easily lost the crowd if it wasn’t so elegantly and poignantly composed.
Nelson tested the audience’s attentiveness once again with the (literally) sleepy “You Are Tired” before ratcheting the energy back up with his vaudevillian new “The Moon and the Stars” and fan favorite “Reminisce,” and the audience on the Mainroom’s floor seemed ready and willing to follow him wherever he wanted to go.
Chastity Brown, meanwhile, had little trouble attracting the attention of the room, and was earning heated whoops and hollers before her band even came in behind her on her first song, “I Left Home.” Brown is such a fiery and wrenching vocalist that she could have probably held the sold-out crowd rapt with just an acoustic guitar, but her band (and especially electric guitarist Robert Mulrennan) added smoldering textures to her songs and kept the energy riding high. Brown mostly stuck to live favorites like “Man and Gun,” “On the Banks,” and the Current-spun “After You,” and tossed in a surprise cover of Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” that had the ladies of the Chalice (who are on the bill for the birthday party tonight) scrambling up to the front of the crowd to sway and sing along.
The TC Funk and Soul All-Stars’ set was practically its own separate show, with comedian and TV commercial personality Fancy Ray presiding over the set and introducing each new vocalist as they came to the stage. The set started with a mesmerizing performance by three members of the Valdons, who had the whole room screaming in approval as they powered through a hair-raising cover of Tom Jones’ “I Who Have Nothing.” The set moved quickly after that, with additional performances by artists on that great Secret Stash Twin Cities Funk & Soul compilation, including Willie Walker, Maurice Jacox, and Sonny Knight, each song seeming to build on the energy of the one preceding it until the room exploded in a full-on dance party with Rufus Lumley’s “Minneap’lis Minnesota.”
Fancy Ray returned to the stage one last time and teased the audience a bit before asking if they were reading for the “headliner” of the set, shouting “From NBC’s The Voice… Nicholas David!” The room exploded in appreciation as Davis bounded up on stage (just hours before he would hop a plane to go perform at this weekend’s Green Inaugural Ball in Washington D.C.) to perform a cover of Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone.”
Blues-rock stompers the 4onthefloor were undeterred by Twin Cities Funk and Soul All-Stars explosive performance and launched immediately into new material, with a song called “Enough.” Then falling into some of their more popular material like “Magic Trick” and “Junkie.” Gabe Douglas called for the first of several sing-alongs with their moody tune “Undertow.” By the time that song was finished, the assured rockers had the crowd in the palm of their hands (bass drums?).
Slowing things down a bit, 4otf brought the crowd to the emotional apex of the evening, bringing out Lakeland guitarist/cancer survivor Zach Sobiech to play his “Clouds” before a jam-packed Mainroom. Douglas hailed Sobiech as “an amazing individual” more than once, and his story still rings in the hearts of many attendees. For those not in the know, I profiled Sobiech earlier this December.
Somehow the band was able to wrestle that emotional moment and channel it into more feel-good energy (the smoke machine and snow falling from the ceiling probably helped a little, too), and crushed a string of signature hits, most notably “Lionhearted” and “Tuesdays.”
And it wouldn’t be a Current Birthday bash without a cover of a legendary local band; and Semisonic’s “Singing in My Sleep” got the treatment with the full complement of the night’s stars, including Sobiech’s triumphant return to the stage.
Written with additional reporting help from Brett Baldwin.