Local Current Blog

Behind First Avenue’s Stars: Radiohead

Promotional photo of Radiohead from 1994 (from First Avenue's files at the Minnesota History Center).

If you ask a Minnesotan if they’ve ever seen Radiohead live, they might lament the fact that the band hasn’t visited the Gopher State in over 20 years, since their 1997 show at the State Theatre in Minneapolis. Some fans, however, might recall having seen the up-and-coming English rock band play at First Avenue in the mid-90s. In 1995 and 1996, still early in their career and relatively under-the-radar in the U.S., Radiohead delivered two searing sets in First Ave’s Mainroom.

The first time Radiohead played at First Avenue was in June of 1995. The band had just put out their sophomore album, The Bends, but were still widely known in the US as the band that wrote “Creep.”

Upon its release, the Pioneer Press gave The Bends a three-star rating. Music critic Vickie Gilmer wrote, “The Bends displays Radiohead’s ability to juxtapose harshness and beauty and lifts the band above its previous one-dimensionality.”

In a 1995 writeup, the Twin Cities Reader dismissed the idea that Radiohead was a “one-hit-wonder” for the immediate success of “Creep,” and even said that the band was “like Green Day, but with talent.”

1,782 people showed up First Avenue on June 11, 1995 to hear Radiohead perform. Fans could buy tickets at the door for $9, or in advance for $7. (For comparison, $7 in 1995 was equivalent to about $11 today.) The same night, the Offspring were playing across the river at St. Paul’s Roy Wilkins Auditorium.

Reed Fischer remembers being among the crowd at First Avenue for that 1995 concert. Fischer was the music editor at City Pages between 2012—2015, and is currently the senior editor at Minnesota Monthly. In the ’90s, he was a high school student in his hometown of Northfield, MN and was an avid Radiohead fan.

The Bends was released the same week as Fischer’s fifteenth birthday, and he recalls playing Radiohead’s songs in his basement with his high school bandmates. “We loved them; they were the center of our universe,” said Fischer. “But it didn’t feel like lots of other people felt that way.”

While Fischer and his friends eagerly anticipated Radiohead’s show at First Ave, his classmates had their sights set on seeing bands such as R.E.M. or the Beastie Boys perform at Target Center. A kid in his biology class sold Fischer a $6 comp ticket to see Radiohead perform at First Ave.

Both of Radiohead’s performances at First Ave were opened by English singer-songwriter David Gray. Gray rose to prominence in 1998 with the album White Ladder, particularly for its standout single “Babylon.” But with two relatively unknown albums under his belt in 1995, Gray was not familiar to Minnesotan audiences. Gray kicked off the night with a set of acoustic folk songs. “He was just incredible,” said Fischer. “I could see why [Radiohead] wanted to tour with him.”

When Radiohead took the stage, they opened their set with “The Bends,” the title track and first song off of the album. During their set, the band blew through songs from their first two albums without the larger production budget and cavernous venues they inherited later in their career. “Back then they would play really energetic versions of the songs on the album,” said Fischer. “A lot of those songs are three minutes long, and that’s it and there’s no filler, it’s just straight-up.”

After their set, Fischer grabbed the setlist sitting atop the mixing board on the floor of First Ave, written in what he speculates to be Thom Yorke’s handwriting.

Fischer remembers being struck by the entire performance, but the song that resonated most with him was “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” the last track on The Bends.

“That song really made sense to me for the first time when I saw them play it that night,” recalls Fischer. It’s a powerful, beautiful song that I think holds up to this day. I remember just being in that room and hearing them play that and having one of those moments where you’re reminded that you can’t just sit at home listening to records. You actually have to go to shows to understand certain things about the music.”

Since it was the ’90s, fans didn’t bring their smartphones to venues. There was no YouTube to stream live concert footage, or social media to post pictures of the band. Far less documentation of those early Radiohead shows exists than their more recent performances, however, the band’s 1994 performance at the Astoria in London was taped in its entirety and released on VHS (and later DVD). Although this concert took place a year before Radiohead’s gig at First Ave, the show has the same raw, youthful energy as the band’s Minnesota performances.

Radiohead’s second performance at First Avenue took place year later, in April of 1996. The band hadn’t released any more new music by that point (OK Computer didn’t come out until June 1997), but Radiohead had already begun to gain more notoriety in the US. “Fake Plastic Trees” was featured in the 1995 hit film “Clueless,” and “High and Dry” was beginning to gain more traction on American radio.

Freelance writer Janet Ray penned a review of Radiohead’s 1996 concert in the Star Tribune. She wrote, “Singer Thom Yorke, a carrot-topped pixie of a fellow, possesses an unaffected dorkiness that belies a set of pipes that could blow life into a chunk of granite.”

After the concert, Radiohead stuck around Minneapolis for an in-store signing at Let It Be Records. Fischer lined up outside in the April chill with his high school buddies, while fans took turns snapping photos of the band on their point-and-shoot cameras or asking for an autograph.

Fischer looks back on those concerts fondly, but at the time didn’t realize what a rare opportunity it would become to see Radiohead perform in the Twin Cities. “Those were special events, but we didn’t think that they would grow to be things that were referenced over and over again because the band just hasn’t come back,” he said.

Whether or not fans knew it at the time, Radiohead’s performances provided Minnesotans with a unique glimpse into Radiohead’s early career.

“They have this huge production budget now, so they can do crazy things with lights and screens,” said Fischer. “That’s what’s very different. There’s not a lot of intimacy with that, versus if they’re playing a sweaty rock club and you can see them the whole time. That type of connection, I don’t know if you would ever find that at a Radiohead show now.”

Artifacts from First Avenue’s file at MNHS:

Colleen Cowie runs the blog Pass The Mic.

Behind First Avenue’s Stars

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