Local Current Blog

Behind First Avenue’s Stars: The Magnolias

2015 marks First Avenue’s 45th year of bringing world-renowned artists to the heart of the Twin Cities. We’re telling the stories of performers who have earned their places on the venue’s legendary Wall of Stars. Past features highlighted Babes in Toyland, Har Mar Superstar, Outkast, and Hüsker Dü. With their 30th anniversary show in the Entry tonight, next up are local power-pop punk-rockers the Magnolias.

Since their establishment in 1984, the Mags of Minneapolis have undergone an endless parade of lineup changes. Original members include lead singer John Freeman, guitarist Tom Lischmann, bassist John Joyce, and drummer Ron Anderson—later adding Mike Leonard, Pat McKenna and Kyle Killorin to the mix. They’ve released six full-length LPs over the years, including their debut album Concrete Pillbox (1986), produced by former Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart; and Dime Store Dream (1989), recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park. Their critically-acclaimed Off the Hook (1992) launched them to national recognition. With frontman Freeman as the sole remaining founding member, they’ve most recently embarked on a European circuit through Spain and released Better Late Than Never (2007) and Pop the Lock (2011).

Still, there’s always been an underdog spirit about the Magnolias. Off the Hook was deemed one of SPIN’s “Best Records You Didn’t Hear in 1992,” and in a 1995 edition of the Twin Cities Reader, Brett Anderson described them as “surfing just behind the next-big-thing wave, building a heap of sadly overlooked music and a hard-earned spot in the world of perpetual cultdom.”

There couldn’t be a more perfect venue for the Magnolias’ anniversary show: in their first decade alone, the Mags racked up over 40 performances at First Avenue—mostly in the Entry. “[The Mainroom] is not quite as personable as the Entry,” Freeman said about their regular hot spot. “I do like being closer to the audience. The stage is only a foot and a half tall. The audience is right in front of you. You feel a little more connection to the audience.”

This audience rapport has always been an essential ingredient of a Magnolias show, with playful punches thrown back and forth from the stage. “We didn’t really have a moshing crowd. It was more of a smart-aleck crowd,” Freeman said. “People would scream at you. It was fun, you know, and you’d say s**t back to them. It was kind of that give-and-take participation.” Inevitably, certain fans became familiar. “There was always a certain few that would stand out—like, ‘Oh, there’s that weird dancer again.’”

Oftentimes, however, the close quarters became a tad too cozy. “The shows were kind of rowdy,” Freeman recalls. “I mean, it would be so full sometimes you kind of tripped off stage, but there was enough people to push you back up again. Sometimes you’d trip over the monitor or something. You wouldn’t even really fall. People would just catch you. I never did fall off the stage in the Mainroom, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be talking right now.”

The Magnolias’ sporadic shows in the Mainroom were generally the result of national performers rolling through town. “Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a lot of the local bands that were established names got the opportunity to open for national touring acts,” Freeman explains. “That’s changed considerably, ’cause now a lot of it is packaged stuff.” With only one dressing room to spare in those days, he remembers the regular protocol of lounging around and sipping beers backstage with the big-name bands.

Freeman’s favorite memories of First Ave stretch well beyond his days of performing. As rambunctious teens, Freeman and his buddies would hang around the venue’s old parking lot where the Depot currently sits. Since the boys were too young to attend the shows, they would listen through the back door or try to slip in with a crew member. Freeman fondly recalls one particular night when the Replacements were opening up for the Ramones. “Between sets, Marky Ramone comes outside out the back door.  He’s got a leather jacket on, and he’s getting ready to go on stage. The dressing rooms at the time didn’t have bathrooms—you had to go upstairs. So he’s gotta take a leak. And so we’re like, ‘Hey Marky, can you get us in when you go back in there?’

“And he’s like, ‘No, man. There’s a security guard right in the door.’ And then he slipped back in the Mainroom. (laughs) That’s always stuck with me. I always thought it was so funny, Marky Ramone taking a leak in the back parking lot.”

Whether on the stage or on the floor, Freeman’s experiences at First Ave have inspired a profound love and respect for the Twin Cities’ iconic landmark. “In my eyes, First Avenue is just the perfect set up,” he concludes. “It’s the perfect size, it’s well-run, it’s very professional, but it’s very friendly. I like playing there, and I love seeing bands there. There hasn’t been a better venue in town. It’s got everything. It’s just the perfect venue.”

Here are some of the Magnolias’ many appearances at First Avenue:

Plan 9/Magnolias, November 14, 1985

Rain Parade/Magnolias/Nietzches, June 25, 1986

Minnesota Music Academy Winter Party: Tamara and the Seen/Spirit/Run Westy Run/Vision/Willie Murphy/Great Nation Magnolias/Ipso Facto/Phones/Jayhawks/Trip Shakespeare, February 9, 1987

The Magnolias/Babylon Pink/Swinging Teens, April 16, 1988

The Magnolias/Rifle Sport/Playhouse (Entry) May 13, 1988

The Magnolias/Swinging Teens/Sparrows, July 29, 1988

The Magnolias/Titanic Love Affair/Spod Crows (Entry), January 14, 1989

Minnesota Music Academy Showcase with The Magnolias/Funhouse/Contras/Grant Hart with Nova Mob (Entry), May 13, 1989

The Magnolias/The Bishops/Roy G. Biv (Entry), June 17, 1989

The Magnolias/Poster Children/Picadors (Entry), August 2, 1989

The Magnolias/Poster Children/Brutus (Entry), November 25, 1989.

Round Robin Event featuring The Magnolias/Arcwelder/Soul Reaction/Dog994/Spode Crows (Entry), June 27, 1990.

The Magnolias/Celebrity Skin/Dog 994/Honus Wagner (Entry), July 7, 1990.

The Magnolias/Hellbillies/Prest Asbestos (Entry), August 25, 1990.

The Magnolias/Dutch Oven/Fifth of May (Entry), December 14, 1990.

The Magnolias/Green/Endjustice (Entry), April 20, 1991.

The Magnolias/Blue Up?/Flood (Entry), September 28, 1991.

The Magnolias/Klang/Endjustice, December 20, 1991.

The Magnolias/Head Candy/High Wires/Mood Swings (Entry), April 4, 1992.

The Magnolias/Muskelunge/Flood (Entry), June 19, 1992.

The Magnolias/Nova Mob/Skeleton Ed (Entry), June 21, 1992.

The Magnolias/Draghounds/Pilgrims (Entry), October 10, 1992.

The Magnolias/27 Various/Green Machine/Syringe (Entry), October 31, 1992.

Magnolias/Loose Rails/Big Red Ball, January 9, 1993.

The Magnolias/Loose Rails/Big Red Ball (Entry), January 9, 1993.

Magnolias/Loose Rails/Ten Ton Bridge, January 10, 1993.

The Magnolias/Blow/Rank Strangers (Entry), March 19, 1993.

The Magnolias/Ten Ton Bridge/Fur (Entry), May 15, 1993.

The Magnolias/60 Cycle Hum/The Action Figures/The Whirligigs (Entry), July 30-31, 1993.

The Magnolias (Entry), September 18-19, 1993.

The Magnolias “Farewell” concert with Batter/60 cycle Hum/Crabdaddy (Entry), December 17, 1993.

The Magnolias/Big Trouble House/Rank Strangers, February 6, 1994.

The Magnolias/Ten Ton Bridge/Popsmear (Entry), April 29, 1994.

60 Cycle Hum Record Release Party: The Magnolias/Green Pyramids/Speedway/Octopus Harem/The Unkind, August 11, 1994.

The Magnolias/Ex-Action Figures/Vena Cava/Puck (Entry), November 19-20, 1994

The Magnolias, January 26, 1995.

The Magnolias/Vena Cava/Interstate Judy (Entry), February 24, 1995.

The Magnolias 10-Year Anniversary Concert Parts I-III (Entry), April 7-9, 1995.

The Magnolias/John Casey and the Old Possums/Strawdogs, July 15, 1995.

The Magnolias/Vena Cava/Digger (Entry), September 8, 1995.

Garage D’Or 10th Anniversary party and concert with The Magnolias/Rackets of Stardom/Loose Rails/The Carpetbaggers, September 22, 1995.

The Magnolias/Ultrasonics/Ten Ton Bridge (Entry), January 20, 1996.

The Wellstone Campaign’s ‘Get Out the Vote’ concert with Trailer Trash/The Magnolias/John Casey/Green Pyramids/Casino Royale, October 24, 1996.

The Magnolias/The Whole Lotta Loves/Double Bird (Entry), October 23, 2010.

The Alarmists/Dave Pirner/The Magnolias/Yanomamos/Curtiss A/Mister Fisher/The Melismatics, March 12, 2011.

The Magnolias/Ian Olvera & the Sleepwalkers/Rank Strangers (Entry), May 28, 2011.

The Magnolias/Bullet Proof Hearts/The Rhinestone Diplomats (Entry), July 7, 2012.

The Magnolias 30th Anniversary Show/Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets/The Badinovs (Entry), March 27, 2015.

Selena Carlson is currently tackling a double major in journalism and music business at Augsburg College. In addition to writing, she is an avid enthusiast of all things banjo; biking; and breakfast for dinner.