For the second night in a row, a crowd streamed through First Avenue’s doors for a sold-out celebration of The Current’s 14th birthday. Four local acts helped The Current usher in its second teenage year on Saturday night: Cloud Cult, J.S. Ondara, Annie Mack, and Porcupine.
While the temperature outside hovered in the single digits, all four bands kept the crowd warm with energetic sets. The Current’s staff also warmed the atmosphere with heartfelt introductions to each act — and the Minnesota United beanies that they tossed into the crowd. In between sets, Brain Oake and Jill Riley kept the crowd moving with hand-picked vinyl cuts.
Porcupine kicked off the night with an energetic set. The trio blazed through song after song, leaving little time for stage banter. Porcupine had the crowd bobbing to songs from their latest EP, What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real — like “Lifetime” and “Standing by the Sea.” Singer/guitarist Casey Virock maintained a composed stage presence, while drummer Ian Prince pounded unrelentingly on his drum kit and bassist Greg Norton hopped around the stage. Porcupine dug into their discography and kept the audience moving to tracks like “Dead Mint Club” and “Rooftops.”
After an invigorating first act, the crowd was excited for a soulful set from singer Annie Mack. With a four-piece band behind her, Mack’s voice soared through the Mainroom as she belted out blues songs like “Just Do Right” and “Tell It Like It Is.” Although her sound is rooted in the blues, Mack also draws inspiration from genres like funk, soul, and rock. Mack surprised the audience with a cover of the Band’s “The Weight.” “This is our version of Happy Birthday,” Mack said, before launching into the classic song. Her bandmates took turns at the microphone, and they even gave a mic to the sound engineer, who sang a verse of the song while sitting behind his mixing board.
J.S. Ondara walked on stage in his signature uniform of suit and brimmed hat, with just an acoustic guitar in hand. The singer-songwriter treated First Ave to a solo set, and the crowd was rapt at his expressive voice — the very first line he sang was met with cheers and hollers. Ondara grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and moved to Minnesota in 2013, in part to live in the birthplace of his musical hero, Bob Dylan. Ondara shared songs from his upcoming debut album, Tales Of America, which will be released in February via Verve Records.
“I think I moved to America at an appropriate time for writing folk songs,” said Ondara. “Folk songs just write themselves every day.” Throughout his set, Ondara showcased the versatility of his voice, switching from almost spoken-word parts to a clear head voice or soft falsetto. For his last song, “Saying Goodbye,” he invited the audience to sing along with him, dropping away from the mic to accompany the crowd with soft guitar strums.
Some fans may know Cloud Cult for their atmospheric acoustic songs, the band showed off the louder side of their discography with a head-banging closing set. “This is a place made for just rocking out,” said singer/guitarist and Cloud Cult frontman Craig Minowa, who had the crowd dancing to songs like “No Hell” and “Through the Ages.” As is typical for a Cloud Cult show, the band was accompanied onstage by a live painter, who whirled colorful strokes around a spinning canvas as the band played.
Cloud Cult constructed walls of sound using assortment of instruments including cello, violin, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, trombone, and megaphone-altered vocals. After enthusiastic applause from the audience, the band returned for an encore of “Running With the Wolves” and “Complicated Creation.”
“Tomorrow, go out and spread goodness,” Minowa told the audience before leaving the stage. “Because this world needs it.”
Colleen Cowie runs the blog Pass The Mic.