On April 21 last year, I stepped in for Andrea Swensson to host a showcase of four up-and-coming local music acts at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. As all of us were still processing the news of Prince’s death, it brought genuine comfort to watch new artists play music for an enthusiastic crowd: a reminder that the late icon’s legacy remained strong among musicians working in his home town today.
It felt similarly appropriate to be spending last night at First Avenue watching seven new artists rock the Mainroom, in the middle of a week marked around the world by turmoil and uncertainty — high hopes for some, profound concerns for others — regarding the incoming presidential administration. These are strange days, but last night there were friends and there was music and there was a lot of style.
Colin Campbell and the Shackletons
The night opened with Colin Campbell and the Shackletons — a band with three brothers, including Colin the frontman — who hit the stage like it was 1 a.m. and we’d been waiting for them all night. Sharply dressed in sportcoats, the quartet pounded through a set of story songs with self-explanatory titles like “Minneapolis Girls” and “Things I Learned While Drunk in Vancouver.” Imagine Conor Oberst with a John Belushi attitude, fronting the Hold Steady. For the climactic “Vapor Eyes,” the lead Campbell ran down from the stage and played his axe in the middle of the Mainroom floor, delighting the early-bird fans.
If you’d seen the soulful Lady Midnight before, you knew what commanding presence the former Malamanya singer brings to the stage — but you might not have been ready for the entrancing stage show she brought to Best New Bands. With white balloons floating on strings as a backdrop, Lady Midnight began her set with her back to the crowd, and all eyes were on her midwinter-night’s-dream headpiece, an earthy halo. With DJ Keezy holding it down on the beats, Lady Midnight was the first (though not the last) artist in the lineup to give the Mainroom woofers a workout.
Sleeping Jesus, the pride of Winona, became the pride of Winnipeg as well when they played this year’s Local Music Exchange. With a sound that recalls a slightly more psychedelic Hippo Campus, Nick Elstad and his band beamed down at the crowd as they played the night’s chillest set.
Nazeem and Spencer Joles
Probably the biggest draw of the night were the hip-hop duo of Nazeem and Spencer Joles. Their 2016 release The Album (don’t oversell it, guys) entrances with squeaky beats and a thrumming vibe, but their live show is an entirely different matter. A self-contained party — complete with an exuberant dancer and a horn section that couldn’t stop singing along — their set had the crowd completely engaged and pushing forward to the front of the room. Watch for these guys, whose lyrical tag-teaming recalls old-school hip-hop chemistry even though their sound is entirely new-school, to be one of Minneapolis’s breakout acts in 2017.
Fans who braved a light rain at last summer’s Artists to Watch showcase got to watch Tony Peachka play underneath a cramped tent on the Cedar Cultural Center plaza. At First Ave, they had much more room to roam, and their comfortable chemistry shone. Melissa Jones’s charmingly eccentric vocals layered over two grinding guitars (hers and Stephanie Murck’s) with drummer Hayley Briasco and bassist Danielle Cusack as a pounding rhythm section, Tony Peachka rock out with a contagious sense of fun.
Remember when Lookbook played Best New Bands? Synthpop duos are still cool, as demonstrated last night by Fraea. The new but polished pairing of Jessie Daley and Drew Preiner released my favorite local single of 2016 — the poignant “Criminal” — and their Wednesday night set was the most reflective of the evening. “Protect each other,” encouraged Daley. “Believe in each other. Be there for each other.”
Tabah (who also played on April 21 at Mia) are one of those bands whose prowess seems to double every time I see them. Musically, their evening-closing performance was the night’s tightest: their complex songs turned on a dime, from intricate solos to churning rhythms to the passionate lead vocals of Cecelia Erholtz. Broadly redolent of the ’70s without revealing any one overriding influence (“imagine Janis Joplin joining the Alan Parsons Project,” I wrote in my notes), this five-piece are going places. Watch for them to drop a new album in March, at a joint release show with J.E. Sunde.
Jay Gabler is a digital producer at The Current. Photographer Emma Roden is a student at Normandale Community College.