Local Current Blog

Love at first listen: How a chance encounter renewed my faith in rock ‘n’ roll

Swimsuit Area (Andrea Swensson/MPR)

I believe in rock ‘n’ roll and I think rock ‘n’ roll believes in me.

These words were broadcast far and wide recently by my friend and colleague Mary Lucia, and they’ve also been echoed by countless rock ‘n’ roll believers over the past 50 years. While Mike Mictlan might spit that “rap won’t save you,” there’s a whole lot of people out there who still think that rock ‘n’ roll can, and even in my darkest moments and times of tribulation there’s always been something pulling me toward this idea that rock can rescue me, too.

There’s been this whole argument raging online lately about the state of contemporary music criticism, the virtues of a mindset known as “poptimism,” and the decline of an old-fogey fandom known as rockism that values dudes playing crunchy guitars and turning their amps to 11 over all other styles of music. The whole dialog is basically a big bummer for music fans, and it feels more like a battle of egos than a conversation about encouraging more people with differing opinions about music to take a seat at the table. And it’s succeeded in sucking the air out of the joyful life force that is rock ‘n’ roll and drawn lines around what’s supposedly acceptable and cool and what isn’t.

But I believe in rock ‘n’ roll, and I think rock ‘n’ roll believes in me, too. For me, rock ‘n’ roll has never been about dudes in tight pants playing guitars. It’s an attitude. It’s a spirit. It’s what caused Jimi Hendrix to proclaim that “rock ‘n’ roll is my religion” and Indeep to first sing the song “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.” It’s the Monks plugging in an electric banjo just for the hell of it and Yoko making wild banshee noises and Alice Glass from Crystal Castles (RIP) crowd surfing with a cast on her leg while taking slugs from a bottle of Jack Daniels. It’s Janelle Monae breaking her mic stand and jumping out into the stretched arms of her audience, like she did the first time I saw her at SXSW, not because it was the hip thing to do but because something was happening up there on stage that drove her positively mad. It’s freedom. It’s reaching out and touching faith. It’s knowing that no matter what else is going wrong in life, you can always say “eff it” and go see a show.

All of which is a long way of getting around to telling you that this month, after a long, dull winter and a period of aimless ennui and longing, rock ‘n’ roll came roaring up behind me and smacked me right between the shoulder blades, reminding me what this life is all about and renewing my faith in all that is good and holy and righteous about music.

It happened at May Day, that magical first Sunday in May when all of South Minneapolis pours out of its houses and apartments onto Bloomington Avenue and the paths of Powderhorn Park. The sun was shining, the lines for ice cream stretched half a city block, and everyone was wandering around hugging and smiling and steeping in the giddiness of the first hot day of the year. I was thinking about grabbing some ice cream myself, or maybe a glass of lemonade, when I suddenly had no choice but to stop in my tracks and turn all of my attention to a sound that was coming across the park: That voice! I needed to find out what was happening with that voice.

I followed my ears over to an opening behind some food trucks and was blasted with serotonin from every angle. There, on a little stage tucked between a couple of amps and a P.A. and a makeshift tent was a chugging, riffing little sunshine parade—a band that took such obvious joy in their songs that their presentation made everyone within earshot grin and giggle. At the center, a woman with giant heart-shapped sunglasses and a white and black sundress hollered, shrieked, and wailed, and she reminded me simultaneously of Carrie Brownstein and Meredith Graves and Patti Smith and a long lineage of badass women who sing fearlessly and ferociously. Behind her, four men—including two bassists!—hammered away, building angular riffs for her voice to catapult over and later even pulling out an electric fiddle and mandolin to add to the maelstrom. They played with the looseness of a band who is still feeling each other out on stage, but with the conviction of players who know they deserve to be heard.

I had never seen this band before but I loved them instantly. And I loved that I didn’t know anything about them even more. No publicist had put a bug in my ear about them; no tweets had been sent; no CD had been lingering on my desk, waiting to be heard. It was an honest-to-god fresh discovery, and it made me want to jump up and down for joy that this kind of completely random happy accident can still happen and that this kind of head-over-heels love for music still exists.

As their set wore on, I eventually learned that the band was called Swimsuit Area, and that the lead singer, Rebecca Leigh, used to be in Maps of Norway. On stage, Rebecca was a punk rock sunbeam, accepting hugs from passers-by between songs in exchange for Swimsuit Area buttons. By the end of the set I wanted to sign up for her mailing list, cover myself in her band’s merch, and offer to drive her tour bus around the country.

It can be hard to stay caught up with the onslaught of new music that’s coming at us every day; at times, that constant pursuit of new discoveries can become so daunting that it’s hard to remember it’s all supposed to be for fun. But then a band comes along that somehow presses all of your buttons at once, and everything else fades away. Nevermind the tastemakers, and the social media buzz, and the bloggers (me included!), the hype. That one moment—that connection that suddenly materializes like a thread, tethering a listener to a band—that’s so exhilarating and inspiring that it’s enough to keep me combing through the stacks of CDs and tromping around all the block parties and festivals all summer long.

I believe in rock ‘n’ roll, and I think it believes in me. Thank you, Swimsuit Area, for reminding me what it’s all about.

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