Friday in Minneapolis, thermometers hit 92° for the first time in months, and the city headed outside. South Minneapolis drew countless walkers, bikers, and picnickers to the lakes; cars zipped by with their windows down, and cafés ran out of cold press. As the sun set, action continued to buzz on the Southside — a new venue, the Warming House (on 40th Street and Bryant Avenue South) opened its doors to the public, kicking off a busy calendar with music from local singer-songwriters Chris Koza and Peter Miller.
The Warming House, founded by Brianna Lane, John Louis, and Greg Neis, is a non-profit venue. Branded as a “listening room” and styled after Massachusetts’s Club Passim, it holds only 30-50 concertgoers at a time. When guests enter, they immediately see a couch/coffee table set-up in front of them. A section for food and drink lies on the far right (the venue’s liquor license allows for beer and wine sales about every other weekend). Down the stairs on the left, the performance space had rows of chairs and a few couches on Friday; right away, it smelled like new paint.
On Friday, all three founders took the stage before the show (Neis is technically a founding board member, according to the Warming House website). They introduced themselves; Lane and Louis are singer-songwriters and have worked on music together, while Neis is both Lane’s partner and owner of Farmstead Bike Shop, which shares the Warming House’s building. None of the three could say enough about the community and its support for their venue. “Gosh, it’s all happening,” exclaimed a giddy Lane.
To open the show, Peter Miller (lead singer of We Are The Willows) brought his acoustic guitar onstage, and he mostly played music off his band’s Picture (Portrait). The album relays stories from Miller’s grandparents’ love letters, which Miller received at graduation. “There are a lot of feelings on the record,” he said with a smile, “so if you have feelings, you might like the record.”
“Dear Ms. Branstner” is told from Miller’s grandfather’s point of view, expressing the fears he experienced while serving in World War II. “A 21-gun salute/ Could bring me back to you/ In a casket/ Wrapped in a flag,” Miller sang, and a cemetery’s gray sky and green grass seemed visible through the music. “One Body,” a new song, made another special impact. Miller wrote it at a time when he’d never fallen in love: “I kept my hands clean of this mess,” he sang, “and now they’re empty.”
Chris Koza took the stage after a short set break, and he played solo songs alongside Rogue Valley material. He also slipped a Prince cover into the set, encouraging the audience to sing along: “I think that helps to capture the spirit.” Accompanied only by his guitar, he started, “I’m not a woman/ I’m not a man,” and the audience steadily realized he’d picked “I Would Die 4 U.” Koza carried the first couple of verses and choruses by himself, but soon, a few people started harmonizing, and it blossomed into a roomwide sing-along.
Miller and Chris Koza both told stories about biking; Miller had ridden past the Warming House several times on the way to work, and Koza suffered a (not too serious) bike accident that day. Koza actually wrote a new song the day of the show, joking, “Since I couldn’t finish my bike ride…” He sang about spring in Minnesota, making people smile with his lines about the weather and plastic on the windows.
Koza engaged the crowd with ease, showing how deftly he can charm audiences—particularly those in small rooms. Before “The Wolves and the Ravens,” the Rogue Valley song from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, he went into movie announcer mode: “Get ready for the most gentle joyride you’ve ever experienced.”
“What you go to a listening room for is honesty,” Koza said after talking about the sweaty guitar picks in his pocket. He meant it as a joke, but it did ring true in general; the Warming House is a listening room, but it’s not just for music. More broadly, it’s a storytelling room. Patrons sit around the proverbial campfire, waiting for artists to weave their tales, and while some of it’s set to song, some isn’t. Now that the Warming House is open for business (bigger acts will come through on Friday and Saturday nights, while the venue has weekly open mics and jams set for other times; check this website for livestreams), many more audiences will gather to be charmed.