Last Friday, Minneapolis’s hometown heroine Dessa dazzled in front of a 275-person capacity crowd. Her combination of poetic intensity and rhythmic persuasion added a spark of electricity to the intimate theater. Audience members were also treated to a Q-and-A segment with the rapper, in which Dessa exposed her Mount Rushmore of inspirational figures—her dad, the Davids (Sedaris and Foster Wallace), Ira Glass, and Philip Glass—as well as the three Post-It notes stuck on her recording studio wall; “Don’t cry,” “Don’t ask questions,” and “Indulge fascinations.”
The venue where this memorable encounter took place was the New Century Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. It’s owned and operated by the Hennepin Theatre Trust—the nonprofit organization that also runs the Orpheum, State, and Pantages—but in contrast to those venues’ towering street-side marquees, the New Century Theatre is an inconspicuous spot, located inside City Center on Hennepin Avenue between 6th and 7th streets south.
Since opening in 2011, the New Century Theatre has hosted a number of theatrical productions and has also built a head of steam around its new music series, the New Century Sessions, highlighting local music favorites. The series commenced last fall with performances by indie-pop artist Jeremy Messersmith (September) and indie-folk group Rogue Valley (November). Dessa kicked off a spring lineup that includes Adam Levy and country-folk group Bethany Larson & the Bee’s Knees (April 4); indie rock band Communist Daughter with Best New Bands winner Black Diet (May 2); and singer-songwriter Chastity Brown with BBGUN (July 25).
Sam Anderson, interactive marketing coordinator for the Hennepin Theatre Trust, drew inspiration for the series from local shows that he’d enjoyed and wanted to bring to his workplace. “In terms of artists, it started with artists I loved and went to see myself, artists that get a lot of play on the Current and people seem to respond to,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a great pool to select from in the Twin Cities, so I just made a master list of bands that I liked and fortunately have been able to book a lot of those greats acts in this first year.”
For Anderson, the aim of the series is to increase local music fans’ access to the artists they love. “[We’re] kind of stripping away all of the other extras and just letting the music and stories take front and center stage,” he said.
Tickets for the shows are available in three tiers: standing general admission, seating general admission, and a VIP section. The VIP package also includes a memorabilia item from the featured artist, two drinks included in the ticket price, a commemorative poster, and an invitation to a pre-show meet-and-greet with the artist.
The series has also provided an opportunity for artists to experiment with new material or configurations. Last fall, Messersmith debuted several songs from his new Heart Murmurs album at his show, and Rogue Valley had some fun switching around instruments during its show. “I think the format of the series allows for the artists to drive how the night progresses and sells,” Anderson said. “I think it gives bands a lot of freedom to interpret the framework of the series how they want, so that’s been great to see.”
Chris Koza, lead singer for Rogue Valley, praised the series for its ability to connect artists and their fans. He said the Q-and-A format offered him a unique opportunity to engage with his audience. “It encouraged me that a lot of people that go to shows are looking for something more than just a way to pass the time,” Koza said. “They’re looking for something that they can invest in emotionally and something they can enjoy and take with them beyond the show itself.”
With such a positive reaction to the series in its infancy, Anderson is focused on maintaining strong lineups in coming seasons. “It’s going to be challenging next year to keep this quality up and keep people interested in the series,” he said. “With people like Jeremy Messersmith and Dessa in this first year, it’s going to create a lot of good thoughts for this series, but people are going to be expecting that kind of caliber of artists. That’s a good problem to have.”
Benjamin Bartenstein is a student at Macalester College.