Since December’s last Blowout show ever, Doomtree have kept busy; sites like First Avenue, Boston Calling, and Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires Festival have all seen high-energy sets. Among fans, though, a question still lingered: what—if anything—could replace the Blowouts?
This year, the answer is Doomtree Zoo. A one-day festival at CHS Field (home to the St. Paul Saints), it promised to be a kid-friendly event on the last date of festival season. On a sunny, windy October Saturday, the crew pulled off their biggest event yet.
Doors opened at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday—after the 300 fans with “baller passes” got in early for soundcheck—and music began at 2:40. Koo Koo Kanga Roo kicked things off with enthusiastic tunes, dancing and cheering like overcaffeinated aerobics instructors. Between songs about animals, unibrows, or sandwiches, they joked, “Thanks, Doomtree, for having us…so you can call it a family show.”
Though I knew her best as a Doomtree compatriot, Aby Wolf played a set of her solo material next; drummer Joey Van Phillips, guitarist Chris Smalley, and keyboardist Martin Dosh backed her up. Throughout her set, Wolf’s cool and confidence impressed me; “If you wait for someone to give you permission all the [expletive] time,” she said, “you will wait.” In addition to “Permission” and a couple other Wolf Lords tracks, new songs “Mute” and “Any Shape” got my attention.
During his first set at the field’s side stage (he played two, slotted for 3:40 and 5:45 p.m.), Serengeti and DJ Andrew Broder seemed like the festival’s greatest inside joke. Lyrically, the rapper (real name: David Cohen) left mainstream themes behind on a journey to offbeat, heady nirvana. Sonically, his tracks could’ve been dinner party music, although “The Whip” might have befuddled guests with its silly closing sound effects. After his first set, Serengeti signed off with, “My name is Dave.”
Open Mike Eagle obviously enjoyed his precursor’s work. He shouted out the rapper in two separate songs and hoped to bring him onstage for the closer, though Serengeti could not be found. Regardless, Eagle entertained easily enough on his own (the whole set depended on him and his “box,” which held a small midi pad, “‘cause I’m precious like that”). He ran through songs such as “Qualifiers,” “Doug Stamper (Advice Raps)”, and half of “Nightmares,” stopping and starting according to whim and/or technical difficulties. He’s a podcast host who’s interviewed several Doomtree members (and Aesop Rock), and it felt great to see another of his talents after enjoying Secret Skin.
Playing the side stage, Anonymous Choir were beautiful but hushed—so hushed that they proved hard to hear from the field’s main area. In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre let loose several animal figures during the choir’s set, parading huge dragonflies and clever bee costumes around the field.
Next, Shabazz Palaces kept up the mellow vibe but spun it counterclockwise. As an intro, the PA played a mash-up of twisted maxims, ranging from Psalm 23 (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of poverty, I must feel angry”) to a Lord’s Prayer remixed with ”America the Beautiful” (“Thy kingdom come/ This be thy year/ From sea to shining sea”). Once they took the stage, Shabazz Palaces sounded like a cobbled-together yet surgically precise sewing machine—Ishmael Butler and Tendai “Baba” Maraire joined threads of the real and artificial, poking holes into differently textured musical fabrics. A stretch of percussion, in which Butler punctuated Maraire’s conga solo with digital clap tracks, seemed like the set’s key moment.
By Serengeti’s second set, the emcee had metamorphosed. Where David Cohn once stood quietly, a new man pumped his fist; art rap’s favorite alter ego, Kenny Dennis, held a glass of red wine and pressed a fake mustache to his face. For this lauded, Mike-Ditka-loving character, Serengeti adopted an extreme Chicagoan accent and a brusque personality. He performed a much more animated set the second time around, letting loose with cries of “Screw you!” and the “onions, onions, onions” chant from all-time classic “Dennehy.” Some Zoo attendees didn’t get the performance; several ignored the side stage altogether. But right in front of the platform, a group of core fans watched, grinning, and nodded along.
Security guards appeared for Trash Talk, a Californian band who led audiences through a calorie-burning set of start-and-stop music. The pattern went like this: first, a short, fiery punk song (think “Lepers To Feed The Lepers”). Then, an quip from singer Lee Spielman, who spent the whole set in the photo pit or the crowd (key lines: “This is a f—ing family event. Make some f—ing noise.” Regarding CHS Field: “Do any of you guys actually come to games here?”). Finally, Spielman would demand some action from the audience.
When he wasn’t high-fiving security guards, surfing the crowd, or crawling under the stage’s tarpaulin skirt, Spielman exercised his authority capriciously, which caused the most bewildering moments of the show. Near the end, he ordered everyone to run across the baseball field and fill the bleachers. Once they did, he had them sit for a moment; then, he called for everyone to run back, and hundreds of people returned to the stage in a stampede. Spielman led the show with a kid’s enthusiasm for his own ideas, playing the bossy older brother who makes siblings build a pillow fort in exactly the manner instructed.
For me, Aesop Rock had a hard time competing with Trash Talk. I’d heard loads of critical adoration for the Californian Rhymesayers signee, but I struggled to get into the music. Maybe I couldn’t pick up enough of his lyrics, especially since Rob Sonic co-delivered most lines; maybe I was just tired after spending so long at the festival. I know several audience members had a blast, reciting songs like “ZZZ Top” and “Krill.” DJ Zone did a fantastic job behind the turntables; but it seemed like newcomers to Aesop Rock weren’t converted by this introduction. The good news: “Tomorrow I wake up, I go to New York, and I mix my new album,” he said. By the time he swings back into town, I might have a newfound appreciation.
Just before the headliners’ set, In the Heart of the Beast displayed a stunning tiger puppet onstage, with No Kings and solid-red flags flying alongside the feline. After just a minute, the tiger exited, the crew walked onstage, and “Gray Duck” kicked off the set. The dense, high-energy song forecasted a fun time.
Here’s the thing, though: in February at First Avenue, Doomtree played 28 songs. On Saturday, time constraints and outdoor sound ordinances cut that number to 20, forcing out old favorites like “Low Light Low Life” (a P.O.S song, but integral) and False Hopes’s “Slow Burn.” Leaning into their new material, Doomtree played nine out of 13 songs from the standard edition of All Hands. Granted, the happy crowd sang along with each track—but the setlist lacked novelty.
One new concept worked wonders. As the seven members of Doomtree took the stage, so did other familiar faces: drummer Ben Ivascu, keyboardist/vocalist Eric Mayson, vocalist Mina Moore, and frequent vocalist/collaborator Aby Wolf. Typically, Doomtree’s Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger handle live instrumentals; they’re experts in drum pads and MacBooks, respectively. But others added their talents this time. Consecutively: Ivascu slammed urgency into “.38 Airweight,” Mayson’s glossy keys filled out “Bolt Cutter,” and Moore and Wolf curled their voices around “Heavy Rescue.”
“Look at what we did,” marveled Sims while looking at the crowd. He thanked everyone for their kindness and support. Later, P.O.S added, “You guys made it cool once the doors were open.” He shouted out Lazerbeak for organizing the lion’s share of the Zoo, telling festivalgoers, “Doomtree would’ve fallen apart years ago if it wasn’t for you and that dude.”
After a rare rendition of “Mini Brute,” a chilling performance of “Clapp’d,” and all kinds of jumping during “Get Down” (“You guys are getting mad air,” P.O.S told the crowd), Doomtree closed out the show with “Bangarang.” After the final synths faded, all five emcees traded “Bangarang!” battle cries with the audience; then, they hustled off the stage to watch the fireworks going off in their honor.
In the end, Doomtree fans weren’t satisfied easily. It took five minutes of post-show coaching from P.O.S to make them give up on an encore. Standing in the pit, he repeated, “Go home! Go to the afterparty!” and fielded questions about the future of Zoo. He laughed, giving away nothing conclusive, and said, “Let’s do it again tomorrow.”
Off In The Deep
Call Off Your Ghost (Dessa song)
My Own Nation
Rickety Bridge (Cecil Otter song)
Clapp’d (Mike Mictlan song)
Scope Or Claw (Sims song)
Purexed (P.O.S song)
Get Down (P.O.S song)
Team The Best Team
Writer Cecilia Johnson is a freelance writer from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro. Her favorite things include Jerome Sala, colloquiums, and Disclosure. Photographer Emmet Kowler is a student at is a student at the University of Minnesota—Morris.