A seven-band lineup is at least four bands more than I would normally enjoy in a single show, but because First Avenue’s Best New Bands is something special, I took a power nap, hydrated, and put on my comfiest dancing pants in preparation for the night ahead. Hosted by The Current’s own Andrea Swensson, Sylvia Jennings from Radio K, and Jordan Alamat from Go MN, this year’s chosen bands were Sass, Early Eyes, Blaha, the Bad Man, Dwynell Roland, Thomas Abban, and Lady Lark. No punk time last night kids, 7:30 on the dot because there were seven new bands to showcase!
First up was Sass, who have been a local favorite of mine for some time now with their tunes bordering and binding indie pop and garage punk. Unfortunately, traffic for the concurrent Lana Del Rey show across the street at the Target Center made me miss the first half of Sass’s set, but as I was standing in line at the doors, a handful of folks in the queue were singing and dancing along to the radio-familiar “Velvet.” Sass songs can shift from a light-hearted bop into a garage blast of guitars and scream-singing, and Stephanie Jo Murck is a sparkle queen with her glitter guitar. She ended with an unrecorded track that included the lyric, “I can’t be myself around anyone else,” closing their set loudly and powerfully.
Up next was Early Eyes, the post-Hippo Campus college scene’s funky, indie-pop sweethearts. With them, they brought their familiar fans who all had their dancing shoes on. Early Eyes started in with a soon-to-be-released song “Coffee.” out on Monday. They used the first half of their set to play a handful of new music before jumping into fan favorites; “Take You” and “Penelope” induced the most dancing, and that isolated bass line in the middle of “All It Will Be” received screams out of both excitement from those who saw it coming and surprise from those who didn’t. Mid-set, I overheard two punks standing near me, both clad in their leather battle jackets. One of them hadn’t ever gone to see any live music besides death metal, but he “surprisingly really liked these guys!” If Early Eyes can make an indie fan out of a metalhead, they’re probably onto something big.
Blaha took the stage next, led by Mike Blaha of Blind Shake fame. The rowdy garage rockers really cranked it out in 2017, first releasing a thirteen-song album, The Art of Not, and then an EP called Fresh Horse later in the year. They have an excitingly antagonistic way of playing, and I was on the edge of my seat hoping a mosh pit would open up. That antagonism carried over into Blaha’s stage banter as he poked fun at the age of Early Eyes’ members, “look, I’m not a hot, young, 19-year-old guy,” and throwing the band’s Glam Doll silver star doughnut into the crowd with a “this goes out to everybody!” Blaha play fast and they play loud, and they brought up the room’s energy as it began to fill for The Bad Man.
The Bad Man wins for having the most fans wearing their merch to the show; I tried counting all the T-shirts but lost track at 17. I hadn’t seen this band live yet, and when I ran into members of Early Eyes just before the set, more than one of the guys told me, “They’re wild! You’re in for a ride!” The band’s bluesy rock mixed with Peter Memorich’s growly punk vocals created a whirling kind of sound. Memorich gave a shout-out to his dad between his rowdy, shirtless parade around the stage, and before beginning “Heavy Metal Motel,” told the audience “I’ll dance if you dance!” Boy, did they dance — by then, easily the biggest crowd of the night.
“I’m the only rapper here, hi! This is the band!” Dwynell Roland said while pointing to himself after bouncing up on stage. The floor thinned out after the Bad Man, but after Roland started in on his set, it began filling up again. He explained that he keeps it slow for the first part of shows, and then switches and goes all in, and it was this second half of the show that really got people moving, especially the confident “Dude.” Roland sold new fans with his versatility as an artist and kept the energy high with a lot of audience participation, calling for everyone’s best dance moves, jumping into the crowd, and ending with all of First Ave yelling, “Stop, Drop, Roland!”
Next was Thomas Abban, an artist I have heard so much about recently but haven’t given a good listen to yet, and WOW. So. Much. Talent. Now this was late in the night and I was starting to crash, but he really blew me away. There was something so mysterious about Abban which could be credited to anything from the mask, the bandanas, the lack of banter with the crowd, or the way he fled the stage at the end — but his set was nothing shy of magic. After finding that he’s only a year older than me, I was speechless — Abban functions as this ageless, guitar-driven being that seems to float above us all. His guitar-driven songs, including “Symmetry and Black Tar,” lean heavily on blues and psychedelic influence. Switching between electric and acoustic guitars, he demanded the room’s attention in the most focused and enthralling set of the night.
Closing out the night was Lady Lark. By this time, it was past midnight and a good majority of folks had filtered out already, worn out after the previous bands. But Lady Lark graced the stage with her band, all exuding cool in their matching sunglasses, and started in on her remarkably danceable blend of pop, R&B, and funk with “Move Your Body.” Performers from earlier on the bill were spotted getting down while she said: “What’s up Minneapolis, my name is Lady Lark and it’s my job to get ya moving!” Since the venue had emptied out, everyone had way more space to dance, and that’s exactly what they did. Lady Lark ended the night with “Love (Is Just a Game)” — complete with choreography that the audience picked up on — and a gracious bow goodnight.
All photos by Maddy Fox for MPR.
The Bad Man