Local Current Blog

Photos: MN Music-on-a-Stick 2014

Brother Ali headlined the third annual MN Music-on-a-Stick (Photos by Nate Ryan/MPR)

Halfway through Saturday night’s marathon six-band MN Music-on-a-Stick show, just after Cloud Cult’s painters packed up their easels and before Bob Mould bounded out to pummel the crowd with his punk rock, a trivia question popped up on the venue’s screens: What was the longest concert to ever take place in the State Fair Grandstand? Answer: a 2001 concert with the Ohio Players, War, and Chic that clocked in at four hours and 45 minutes. That is, until this year.

It turns out this year’s MN Music-on-a-Stick show broke a few records. Not only is it now the longest show to happen in the Grandstand—with a total runtime of seven hours—but it’s also the most local musicians to play the amphitheater in a single night.

So a little endurance was required to make it from the 4 p.m. start time to the 11 p.m. finale fireworks, but the show rarely lagged thanks to wide variety of artists and styles. With polished sets of country, soul, orchestral rock, punk, and hip-hop packed side by side, the listening experience was more like riding the Crazy Mouse roller coaster than gliding down the Giant Slide—there was a thrill in knowing that something dramatically different was coming just around the corner.

One of the first things I remember thinking the first time I saw the Cactus Blossoms was that they sounded like they had been plucked from a county fair. Their sweet harmonies, classic country arrangements, and jaunting rhythms hearken back to simpler times, and their music was the perfect accompaniment for fans coming in off the overcrowded streets of the State Fair (which set a record for single-day attendance Saturday) and into the spacious Grandstand.

Har Mar Superstar was up next, a testament to just how stacked the lineup was this year–from his set on, all of the performers had headlined the First Avenue Mainroom at least once, if not multiple times. As with his set at this year’s Current birthday parties, Har Mar (a.k.a. Owatonna native Sean Tillmann) brought Lizzo along to sing back-up vocals and bust out some killer dance moves while he performed a set of upbeat, Motown-inspired pop and soul songs. And as with his other recent hometown shows, Tillmann took off several layers of blankets, capes, sweaters, and tank tops but opted to keep his pants on, keeping the focus on his silky crooning rather than his underpants. The audience seemed especially fond of Bye Bye 17 singles “Lady, You Shot Me” and the jangly “Restless Leg,” which was the apex of his performance.

The crowd in front of the stage swelled to one of its largest sizes of the day for Cloud Cult, another group of musicians from Southern Minnesota (including a second Owatonna native, frontman Craig Minowa). Their State Fair set marked the Twin Cities debut of their new drummer Jeremy Harvey, whose flailing limbs and giant smile provided an animated backdrop for Cloud Cult’s thunderous, joyous rock songs. “Cloud Cult wage a war on darkness,” I scribbled in my notebook, and it was hard not to believe that their powerful set sang with hearts wide open was responsible for driving away the stormclouds and keeping the Grandstand safe from the forecasted rain.

In a touching moment that brought the crowd to a hush, Craig Minowa explained that more than one of his family members had suffered from ALS and that he had just helped to move his father into a nursing home. He joked that he and his wife, Connie, had wanted to do the ice bucket challenge on stage but realized that “there is a lot of electricity up here,” and instead opted to dedicate the tender song “Transistor Radio” to his family.

The band brought the energy back up for a soaring climax during “Dance for the Dead,” and brought the audience up in the Grandstand to their feet for the only standing ovation of the night. “Bob Mould better bring it!” my colleague David Campbell exclaimed; Cloud Cult had already set the evening’s bar high.

And indeed, the energy level remained high (and the volume roared ever loader) for Bob Mould’s set, as the former Hüsker Dü and Sugar frontman tore through a whopping 20 songs and bounced around the stage like a teenager during his hour-long performance time. Longtime fans of Mould were treated to a sampler of his entire career, including Hüsker songs like openers “Flip Your Wig” and “Hate Paper Doll,” a sped-up take on Sugar’s hit “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” and the pensive “Come Around,” and the powerhouse songs off his latest solo album Beauty and Ruin. He even tossed in a nod to the Minneapolis-centric Mary Tyler Moore Show with a cover of “Love is All Around” made famous in his Hüsker Dü days.

All seven members of Doomtree barreled out on the stage for their first full-crew show in the Cities this year, kicking off their set with the first two tracks from 2011’s No Kings, “No Way” and “Boltcutter,” before taking the audience on a tour of their new solo and crew material. Unfortunately, sound issues plagued the first half of Doomtree’s set (Dessa, especially, was downright inaudible), and the energy in the crowd seemed to wane as the crowd familiarized themselves with previously unheard songs by Sims and Mike Mictlan.

But the performance was not without highlights: P.O.S.’s “Lockpicks, Knives, Bricks & Bats” smoldered and then exploded, with the line “I’m so happy to be alive/That death thinks I would ruin the vibe” sounding all the more poignant as the rapper returns to the stage following his kidney transplant. “Little Mercy” showcased the full range of the crew’s talents, and was especially satisfying as Dessa’s voice finally rose up into the mix in time for her to rap and sing her passage. And the back-to-back performances of “Low Light Low Life,” “Bangarang,” and “Get Down” had the Grandstand jumping up and down with fists held high.

The night’s conclusion came with a masterful performance by Brother Ali, who bookended his set with his most buoyant and joyful jams but devoted the majority of his set to the more overtly political and poignant songs from 2012’s Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color. With the recent developments in Ferguson, Mo., still fresh on everyone’s minds, Ali took a moment at the middle of his set to ask for a moment of silence and display the names and photos of numerous young African-Americans who have lost their lives to gun violence and police brutality in the past year, including Ferguson’s Michael Brown and Minneapolis shooting victim Terrence Franklin, and followed it up with his scathing look at America’s dark past, “The Travelers.”

Backed by dancers Amirah, Iman, and Khadijah of the troupe “We’re Muslim, Don’t Panic” and wearing a traditional kufi hat, I think it’s safe to say that Ali’s presentation was unlike anything the State Fair Grandstand stage had seen before, and it was as soulful and sincere as it was sobering. “I don’t care anymore about being famous,” he said at one point, emphasizing his renewed commitment to artistic expression and ability to speak honestly above all else. And although he brought the mood way back up for his encore performance of “Forest Whitaker,” Ali’s set ensured that we were left with plenty to mull over as we looked up at the technicolor fireworks exploding above the stage and watched them dissipate into the night sky.

More photos of MN Music-on-a-Stick by Nate Ryan: