Local Current Blog

Review: Black Diet triumph at Are You Local? showcase

Jonathan Tolliver of Black Diet (photos by Jay Gabler/MPR)

Events that simultaneously take place in First Avenue’s Mainroom and the 7th Street Entry become mini-festivals, all about the ebb and flow of fans placing bets on where the must-see action will be at any given moment. Last night at Vita.mn’s Are You Local? showcase, all streams were flowing towards Black Diet.

The showcase featured four acts who are planning performances next week at SXSW, as well as five aspirants competing for a trip to Austin—and, last night, a brief set on the Mainroom stage following the five finalists’ scheduled appearances in the Entry. Though the night’s Mainroom attractions included a much-anticipated set from Trampled By Turtles’ Dave Simonett and a headlining performance by critics’ darlings the Cloak Ox, the night’s most avid eyes were definitely on the Entry, where the five finalists played their hearts out for sizable crowds that included mystery judges who relayed their scores for Vita.mn editor Simon Groebner to tally.

I arrived shortly after 7:30, to find the Entry already packed for finalist Jillian Rae. The vocalist-violinist, long familiar from having played with a number of local bands, has had a big year with the release of her solo debut Heartbeat. It’s a strong album and she played a strong set, but you’d hardly guess at one from the other: while the record is lucid and rootsy, Jillian Rae’s live set was fierce and swampy, the fiddler’s animated sawing fitting right in with her band’s yelping guitars.

First up in the Mainroom was Gramma’s Boyfriend, an act I’ve heard described as Haley Bonar’s “freak-out band.” The lauded singer-songwriter, whose much-anticipated new solo album Last War is due out on May 20, is also planning to release an album with Gramma’s Boyfriend and will be playing SXSW in both configurations. Gramma’s Boyfriend allows Bonar to freak out, yes—last night, in a gold lamé dress that’s relatively restrained compared to the outré bodysuits Bonar has been known to sport when fronting that band—but it also allows her to sneak some strong songwriting into a percussive, lo-fi group that recalls early 80s worldbeat-new-wave acts like Bow Wow Wow.

Back in the Entry, Teammates were turning that game around and sneaking some new-wave synths into a ferocious rock sound that suggests what grunge might have been if anti-electro purism hadn’t been the order of the decade. They weren’t the most demonstrative team on the field—frontman Alan Skamser-O’Neil was often hidden behind his long dark locks, offering giggly banter between songs as he tuned his axe—but musically, they hit as hard as any of the five finalists, with the standout being power ballad “Hong Kong.”

The sweaty Entry got even sweatier—and hit capacity, with a long line winding up the Mainroom stairs to await their turn to get in—as Black Diet burst onto the stage. The big soulful band had the most momentum going into the showcase—among their many fans is Dave Campbell, host of the Current’s Local Show, who calls them his favorite new band—and they made the most of it, playing an exuberant set that included a fun cover of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon.”

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I squeezed out to let others soak in the good vibes, and to find pop-folkie John Mark Nelson playing a perfectly pleasant set in a mellow Mainroom. The precocious young singer-songwriter plays with a poise beyond his years, and cut a dapper figure as he played “The Moon and the Stars,” the song that put Duluth’s S.S. William A. Irvin on MTV.

The Entry crowd eased up a bit, to my surprise, for up-and-coming MC Botzy. (Maybe it was the fact that he was the only rapper on the bill, so the showcase wasn’t exactly a magnet for hip-hop heads.) Projecting trippy graphics the likes of which I haven’t seen in the Entry since the last time I caught Toro Y Moi there, Botzy and a pair of confederates did their damnedest to get the crowd hopping around. Meanwhile, two people independently turned to me and said Botzy buddy Bobby Phisher made them think of me because he looks so much like Jay from Jay and Silent Bob.

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In the Mainroom, Simonett was playing a hushed set to a crowd that wasn’t exactly hushed itself, to the consternation of some aggravated tweeters. That didn’t matter for long, though, as Simonett and his crack band worked up to a reverb-laden squall that placed the Trampled By Turtles frontman firmly on #TeamDrone with his fellow Duluthian Alan Sparhawk—who produced Trampled By Turtles’ forthcoming album. The show was an impressive first public outing for Simonett’s solo material, and it will be interesting to see what Austin makes of it.

The final band to take a turn on the Entry stage were the arena-ready Step Rockets, whose polished stage presence—friendly frontman Josh Van Mink goofing around with guitarist Brady Lillie like Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons—enlivened radio-friendly songs like “Kisser.” They were good—but like the other three runners-up, not quite good enough to overcome the tsunami of support for Black Diet.

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Introduced by Groebner and the Vita.mn staff, Black Diet bounded back onto the Mainroom stage—familiar to them from January’s Best New Bands showcase—like they owned the place. The theatricality that’s helped Black Diet make such an impression on local audiences was in full effect for the band’s victory lap, with vocalist Jonathan Tolliver jumping into the photo pit to commune with fans while backup vocalist Mugsy shimmied across the stage and dapper bassist Garrison Grouse climbed an amp.

Though they weren’t the headliners, Black Diet’s reprise set marked the night’s climax—judging not only by fans’ excitement, but by the fact that a lot of them left immediately afterwards, leaving a sparse crowd to enjoy the Cloak Ox’s heavy, heady brew. The band seemed to mystify some of the patrons wandering in in from the Bungalow R&B dance night in the Record Room, but captivated the true fans who took advantage of their room to roam, dancing the night away on the checkered tiles.

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Photos in text, from top: John Mark Nelson, Dave Simonett, the Cloak Ox, Jillian Rae, Jay Boller of Vita.mn, Haley Bonar