I’ll admit: I wasn’t eager to leave the house on Saturday night. Outside, the darkness pressed in on my city block, and the air numbed any skin it could reach. But I’d planned on going to First Avenue to see Low and their holiday show, so I zipped up my jacket, pulled on my neck warmer, and started my car. Thank goodness.
Low’s holiday concert, a fundraiser for local food bank Second Harvest Heartland, united a talented Minnesotan crew: mandolinist Erik Berry, singer/songwriter Haley Bonar, pop-rock band Hippo Campus, Afropop ensemble Ambassadors, and the hosting band themselves. Small spruce trees decorated the stage, one strung with lights to the side and three bare in the back. Cold drafts spiked through the room, but on the dance floor, body heat and earnest music made First Avenue feel cozy.
Opener Erik Berry is best known as Trampled By Turtles’ mandolinist, but his performance — short, sweet, and entirely instrumental — made me dig around for his solo work. He teased an upcoming Christmas project with merry renditions of “Old Ebenezer Scrooge” (by Bill Monroe, Berry’s favorite mandolinist) and “Angels We Have Heard On High” (Berry grinned when the crowd starting belting, “Gloria”). Right next to him, Low’s Steve Garrington played bass guitar the whole set through; they’ll perform as the Erik Berry Duo at Icehouse on Jan. 12.
Up next, Haley Bonar played a five-song solo set, which featured Impossible Dream cuts like “Hometown” and “Kismet Kill.” Bonar filled in for violinist Gaelynn Lea, who had to cancel her set because of passport issues; “Oh, geez! It’s terrible,” Alan Sparhawk later deadpanned. “Our hearts and thoughts go out to Gaelynn, who is stuck in Amsterdam.” Given the circumstances, the crowd embraced Bonar with considerable warmth, cheering and yelling, “All the feels!”
Several people in front clearly came to see Hippo Campus, who are about to release their first full-length, Landmark, on Feb. 24. “We figured since Christmas is coming up, we would just play all-new songs for you,” frontperson Jake Luppen said from stage, and the six-song setlist gave me a whole new respect for the band’s songwriting. They’ve all but grown out of the Vampire Weekend choppiness that characterized “South,” reaching deeper for more polished grooves while still experimenting with syncopation. And Luppen’s falsetto sounds amazing. He put it to good use during “Simple Season” and a cover of Low’s “Last Snowstorm Of The Year” while Alan Sparhawk watched from the crowd.
Before the show, I knew next to nothing about Ambassadors, a new Somali-Minnesotan octet. From the first song on, frontperson Dalmar Yare blew me away with a voice like Stromae’s, throaty and rich. Musicians I’d only ever seen perform Western music (Martin Dosh, DJ House, Al Church) helped conjure a gorgeous Afropop shine, sometimes even singing along in Somali. Funk-reggae rhythms whirled around warm trumpet and saxophone. According to co-frontperson Holly Muñoz in an interview with the Cedar Cultural Center, Ambassadors formed through a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, which Yare received, subsequently recruiting Muñoz, Zach Brose, Steve Schwartz, Kyle Burbey, Church, House, and Dosh. The result: a jamboree of light and life and polyrhythms. We rarely get to see Somali music on stages like First Avenue, but this set made it clear that we should.
To see part of the performance and some footage from backstage, check out this video:
— Cecilia Johnson (@lializjo) December 19, 2016
Lastly, Duluth legends Low played for about an hour and a half, hitting Ones and Sixes tunes (“No Comprende,” “Lies,” “Congregation”), favorites from throughout the years, and Christmas (1999) songs (“The Little Drummer Boy,” “Silent Night,” “Just Like Christmas”). Sparhawk dedicated various songs to Eriks Berry and Koskinen (who both turned up to play with Low), Holly Muñoz (who, unironically, reminds Sparhawk of Jesus), Ambassadors (“Being somewhere different can be hard,” Sparhawk acknowledged. “Stay together and keep talking to each other”), Claire de Lune (who DJed for most of the night, playing artists from Phantogram to Grizzly Bear), Conrad, and others. The music sometimes warped reality, thanks to Steve Garrington’s shovelling, scraping bass guitar — and sometimes, as with “Silent Night,” it provided a superlatively peaceful space for joy. From opener “Long Way Around The Sea” to encore “Will The Night,” Low delivered a gripping, thoughtful set.
To accompany funds raised by ticket sales, Surly Bikes donated a fat-tire to be won in a drawing; local vendors Milkweed Books, Larissa Loden jewelry, K’ul Chocolate, and Frost River Reliable Softgoods set up shop in the merch zone to form a “holiday bazaar.” Most of the booths stayed bustling all night long, with concertgoers picking up special holiday gifts — and supporting Second Harvest, no less. Great idea, great execution.