For me, The Current has always been there. The station originated when I was ten, and I found it when I was a teenager. Last night, though, Low’s Alan Sparhawk let the Mainroom crowd at First Avenue know how unique the station was — only half a handful of stations would compare, he said — and though I’d heard others make similar points, his got to me. Last night’s show celebrating the station’s 11th birthday was also a grand celebration of Minnesota music. Friday’s five-band, all-local birthday show (on the first of two consecutive nights) made me proud of our community.
First off, openers Bones & Beeker (fresh off their self-titled 2015 release) played a lush set. The band can be difficult to sort into a genre, as Local Show host Andrea Swensson noted while introducing them on stage, but one style stuck out to me during their eight-song set: Afropop. An audience member near me said as much to a friend: “Very Vampire Weekend-y!”
As their set went on, it felt like each little twist — a striking harmony or nice keyboard flourish — was a flower petal unfurling. The band kept getting more comfortable, and the crowd kept opening up. By the time Bones & Beeker finished, we were looking at something lovely.
Next up, indie-rock trio Bad Bad Hats were as much fun as I expected — and my expectations were high. Kerry Alexander is a hilarious frontwoman, cracking goofy joke after goofy joke, and she started the set with a gag. “We don’t usually do this, because we don’t like to be typecast,” she said. “But it’s a special night, and we love The Current.” With that, she put on a Current-branded winter hat, and band members Chris Hoge (drums) and Noah Boswell (bass) did the same. Bad Bad Hats — get it? My favorite quip, though, was when Alexander introduced “9AM” with, “This is our very own ‘No Apologies’ track.” Three minutes later, she grinned at the lyric, “I’m not sorry.”
As could be expected, every act shouted out The Current (also thanking First Avenue, MPR members, and/or other bands) — but Alexander told us a story. Not too long ago, she auditioned for The Voice, she said. The three contestants before her all nailed “Rolling in the Deep.” When Alexander performed, she said, “It was okay.” Her voice is “smaller,” she said — she knows she’s not meant to sing Adele. Enter 89.3: the day after Alexander’s audition, the Local Show played Bad Bad Hats’ “It Hurts” for the first time, and Alexander thought, “Maybe I can make it with the songs I wrote.”
Bad Bad Hats’ first LP, Psychic Reader, came out last year, and the band has enjoyed huge success (and good, good press, as City Pages pointed out) since its release. “Midway” came in at #6 on the Current’s Top 89 Songs of 2015 poll, and Twin Cities critics voted it the best local song of 2015. So far, so good for the trio of Macalester College grads. Speaking of “Midway,” the band saved it for the end of their set (after playing tracks like “Fight Song,” “Things We Never Say,” and a new tune inspired by the zodiac). As Alexander started with, “Sittin’ on the backseat on a Saturday night,” the crowd began singing along.
Of this weekend’s two birthday shows, I expect that Friday will be the most laid-back, in general. Saturday’s line-up leans toward punk and rock — but hip-hop group Mixed Blood Majority got the Mainroom moving on night one, playing lots of music from 2015’s Insane World. Producer Lazerbeak and MCs Joe Horton and Crescent Moon crushed each song, and their social-justice-steeped words made me shiver. Actually, I went to Insane World’s release show (in the Mainroom) just over a month ago, and it was great, but knowing more lyrics made it that much better on Friday. The rhymes crackled, the choruses shook, and the Lazerbeats totally slammed.
Like every artist performing on night one, John Mark Nelson also put out an album in 2015: the mature, glassy I’m Not Afraid. He played that album’s songs almost exclusively on Friday, providing note-perfect vocals and guitar. His band enjoyed moments to shine, too — most notably, during Kara Laudon’s vocal spotlight on “Dream Last Night” and Steve Bosmans’s “A Hundred Orchards” guitar solo. Laudon’s icy keyboards have a huge presence on the album, and hearing those high notes against the warmer guitars and bass created a perfect atmospheric front between Mixed Blood Majority and Low.
Rounding out the night, Low turned my heart into a slow-cooker. The Duluth trio, backlit by muted greens and blues, knotted chords and crackles into an hour-long, emotive set; the atmosphere itself made me roast from the inside out. After all, in Low’s world, two voices can become more than a sum of their parts (Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker on “Monkey”). Sparse drumbeats and slow-paced chords can morph into the richest, most tender song (“No Comprende”). As bassist Steve Garrington showed during “Pissing,” a well-placed note can melt crowds. As he played, the audience exhaled a collective “whoa.”
The band favored songs from 2015’s Ones and Sixes, which won 2015’s Twin Cities Critics Tally (as well as praise from several national publications). A few older tracks made appearances, too. But one surprise song entranced the crowd: Mimi Parker’s take on Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which was accompanied by a punchy, almost childlike beat on the drum machine. I would’ve stood and listened for hours.
Without a doubt, Low transported me. Bright lights startled my eyes open once, and I was startled to see everyone in the room. Of course, the people had been there the whole time; neither the band nor anyone in front of me had shifted. That said, it felt like something inside of me had.
Cecilia Johnson is a freelance writer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro. She’d prefer that you not bring up Simon & Garfunkel.
All photos by Nate Ryan / MPR
Bones & Beeker
Bad Bad Hats
Mixed Blood Majority
Above: Jade introduces Mixed Blood Majority
John Mark Nelson
Above: Mary Lucia and Brian Oake introduce John Mark Nelson
Above: Jill Riley and Brian Oake, joined onstage by The Current staff, introduce Low