In what has now become an annual tradition, the First Avenue Mainroom filled to the brim last night with giddy listeners and members of the Current for the first of two back-to-back birthday parties. Adding to the festivities this year was the fact that the first night of birthday parties took place on the station’s actual birthday (89.3 FM switched over to the Current at 9:01 a.m. on January 24, 2005), and it made the crowd sing-along to “Happy Birthday” all the more special.
Eric Pollard kicked off the night with his roots-rock project Actual Wolf, and he brought a dream team of Twin Cities players along with him: brothers Jake (guitar) and Jeremy Hanson (drums), Low’s Steve Garrington (bass), and omnipresent guitar-slinger Erik Koskinen, who is also a talented singer and songwriter in his own right. Together, the quintet laid down a warm, lush bed of Americana that gradually grew as he mixed in familiar tunes like “Let it Go” and “Hollow Heel” (both of which were requests from Twitter—take note, future Actual Wolf show attendees).
By the time they worked their way into new material off of his next album, the band had found such a heavy groove that it seemed like Jake Hanson couldn’t help but rip a fiery solo. And when the crowd erupted in cheers at the first few chords of “Victims and Things,” everyone on stage laughed and grinned ear-to-ear. The members of Actual Wolf’s live band collectively play in dozens of different groups, but it’s clear they’ve locked into something special and fun in this arrangement.
Strange Names was up next, and it was clear that the rising new wave/synth pop band was a new discovery and pleasant surprise for many in the crowd—including the aforementioned Jake Hanson, who was raving about how much he liked their new single “Ricochet.” The band made a stylish entrance, dressed as if Duckie from Pretty in the Pink had joined a motorcycle gang, and got the crowd moving to new songs like “Trespassing” and familiar hits like “Potential Wife.”
“I didn’t realize how many Strange Names songs I already knew,” more than a few people told me as I moved through the crowd, a testament to their memorable and hooky songwriting abilities. And the band does an incredible job of translating those songs live—frontman Liam Benzvi, especially, makes his acrobatic vocal delivery look effortless, and his voice slides sweetly in and out of harmonies with guitarist Francis Jimenez. The band fleshed out their new songs with the help of an additional vocalist, Tara Loeper, who added additional textures to a catchy and moody tune that featured the repeated line “Please, sir, can I have some more?,” and said they expect their debut full-length album to come out in early April.
“It’s the girl everyone wants to be right now,” Mary Lucia said as she gleefully introduced Lizzo, and in her first few seconds center-stage the breakout MC showed just why she’s gotten so much hype this past year. Lizzo had returned home from playing BBC 1′s Future Fest in the U.K. and is due to go back for more dates abroad in just a week, and it was clear that the time she’s spent on the road playing to bigger and bigger crowds has made her an even stronger force on stage.
Lizzo has always been a natural talent—she was a standout performer in the Chalice, and put on animated shows at several different block parties backed by Lazerbeak last summer—but her stage presence has gotten even bigger and her songs even tighter in the past few months. She’s “leveled up,” as it were, and even though she was sure to thank the Current and Minneapolis for their support throughout her set, it’s clear that there isn’t much that any of us can do to help or hinder her success at this point. Lizzo’s a star, and on Friday night First Avenue belonged to her.
For her “birthday present” to the Current she not only led the crowd in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” but also debuted a brand-new song (which she actually wrote and shelved before releasing Lizzobangers), “Paris.” Even though the world had just heard song for the first time this week—via a placement on the HBO show Girls, of all things—she was easily able to get the room singing along to the chorus, “Have you ever been to Paris at night? Neither have I, neither have I, neither have I.” Lizzo noted that she actually has been to Paris now and will return again soon, hammering home the notion that she in the midst of a grand take-off point in her career.
With the crowd still catching their breath from Lizzo’s astounding set, she returned to the stage once again in a pink cowboy hat and proved to be an animated sidekick to Har Mar Superstar, who brought the night home in a spectacular fashion.
“Wish someone would make a sitcom w/ Har Mar & Lizzo being BFFs & sharing an apartment & trying to make it in the big city,” attendee Kelsey McDonough noted on Twitter, and there really was something undeniably hilarious and entertaining about watching the two performers interact and dance and laugh with one another.
Har Mar spent the majority of his set peeling off layers of clothing while sprinkling in hits off his latest album, Bye Bye 17, and older crowd favorites. “We kind of front-loaded the set, there,” he joked after playing “Lady, You Shot Me” and “Prisoner” back-to-back within the first few songs, but he was able to keep the energy high and the crowd moving through a joyous main set and lengthy encore, proving once again that his new record isn’t some crazy fluke. Har Mar has always had an ear for pop melody and a love for ’70s funk and disco grooves, and his career-spanning set gave the crowd something to dance about right up until the very end of the night.
Check out more photos from Nate Ryan below, and tune to the Current starting at 7 p.m. tonight for a live broadcast of round two with the Cactus Blossoms (8 p.m.), Heiruspecs (9 p.m.), Howler (10 p.m.), and Caroline Smith (11 p.m.).