For one cold night every January in Minneapolis, the big black stage in First Avenue’s Mainroom becomes a testing ground for some of the area’s buzziest new acts. As fledgling bands from around the Twin Cities (and one from Duluth!) took turns crossing the “Play First Ave” item off their bucket list, more than a few took the opportunity to play their strongest sets to date at the venue’s Best New Bands show.
The night began modestly as Duluth quartet Southwire climbed on stage and situated themselves behind their instruments, but the early, chatty crowd quieted down as soon as Jerree Small opened her mouth and her big, booming voice filled the room. Fury Things followed with a full-on aural assault as vocalist and guitarist Kyle Werstein and bassist Devon Bryant took advantage of the extra space on stage to flex and churn along with the music. And Black Diet shifted gears once again by combining funky brass grooves with lead singer Jonathan Tolliver distinctive low-register, vibrato-heavy crooning.
BBGUN brought out the big guns by enlisting scene stalwarts Jeremy Hanson, Jesse Schuster, and Cloud Cult’s Sarah Elhardt-Perbix and Shannon Frid-Rubin to bolster Neal Perbix and Al Church’s alt-country pop tunes, and even threw out a few balloons to get the party vibes going. And the crowd swelled to its biggest for the obvious star of the night, Allan Kingdom, who garnered considerable press leading up to the show and brought a high-profile DJ, Plain Pat, to augment his live set.
“My name is Allan Kingdom. I am 20. Everything I’m playing tonight, I made in my room,” the budding phenom proclaimed, and he appeared at once surprised by the attention he’s recently received and brave in the face of the success and pressure he’s sure to confront this year. Kingdom is at once an outsider and the center of a new movement in Twin Cities hip-hop—one that places the focus more on individuality and skill than affiliation with established crews or scenes—and he had profound things to say about the simultaneous feelings of alienation and support he has experienced.
Musically, Kingdom’s freaky, hiccuping beats were an excellent primer for the most established act of the night, GRRRL PRTY, who came out with flags waving and guns blazing. Lizzo spent much of the previous weekend dominating the spotlight at the Current’s birthday party, but GRRRL PRTY shifted the attention quickly and nimbly between the crew’s three MCs—Sophia Eris, La Manchita, and Lizzo—backing singer Quinn, and powerhouse DJ Shannon Blowtorch.
With the energy still ratched way up from GRRRL PRTY’s set, closing band Frankie Teardrop had their work cut out for them—and despite the fact that the crowd was starting to wane, the trio blasted the crowd with blistering, precise waves of surf rock that got heads bobbing and fans dreaming of warmer, sunnier days.
At more than one point in the night, bands made strident efforts to perform outside the box and use the big stage to try new things. During Black Diet’s set, for example, Tolliver jumped down into the photo pit at one point to shake hands with and sing to the crowd, but then looked back up at his bandmates helplessly when he realized he had no idea how to get back on stage. Later in the night, Allan Kingdom became so entangled in his own mic chord that it came unplugged, and he shrugged shyly and laughed that he had gotten himself into “a beautiful mess.”
It was these endearing moments that demonstrated how these bands were all situated on the same precipice, each one eager to advance out of the sometimes limiting strata of “local darlings” and into a grander and more nationally relevant space. Some may play the First Ave stage again, maybe even multiple times (Lizzo is practically an Ave regular at this point, with her GRRRL PRTY cohorts soon to follow); while some may never set foot up there again, at least in their current configurations. But it’s in these fleeting moments that the live audience feels more like a community than a gathering of random people, and there’s something comforting in the fact that everyone will return year after year to cheer on and prop up the latest batch of little bands-that-could.