Local Current Blog

15 years, 15 unforgettable Minnesota concerts

Lizzo at the Armory, 2019. (Mary Mathis/MPR)

This month, The Current is celebrating 15 years on the air. Inspired by Corbin Reiff’s book Lighters in the Sky, Andrea Swensson and I challenged ourselves to think back on every year from 2005 to 2019 and name one essential concert you’d absolutely have to hit if you could go skipping back in a time machine.

You might be expecting me to just pick Rock the Garden every year. That festival is always an annual highlight; so are The Current’s anniversary shows. I’ve removed those shows for consideration here, simplifying the task at least a little. Andrea helped with brainstorming, but I picked the final list, so if there are any shows you’d pick differently, blame me — and in the comments, let us know what your picks would be!

2005: First Doomtree Blowout

Varsity Theater, Dec. 10, 2005

For a decade, Doomtree Blowouts were absolute musts for Minnesota hip-hop fans. They became increasingly elaborate, peaking with a final Blowout 10 with ten shows spanning eight days and six venues. The first Blowout was a more modest affair…but not that modest. Describing the show on their blog when it was announced, the group called it, “An entire night featuring every member of the Doomtree collective. Once it starts, it doesn’t stop. From the DJs to the emcees to the producers, each twist and turn is being planned for maximum effect.”

Dessa went on The Current’s Local Show, with then-host Chris Roberts, to promote the Blowout, and when all was said and done the group declared that it.  Was. Awesome. “Thank you to everyone that made the Blowout a night none of us will soon forget,” wrote the group. “We had a feeling the show would be good, but what actually happened was something none of us saw coming. Thank you to everyone that came and stood in line for an hour. Thank you (and sorry) to everyone that got turned away — next time.”

There would indeed be a next time…and a time after that, and a time after that. But Doomtree’s next gig was a little more modest: a slot at the Triple Rock, opening for Mel Gibson and the Pants.

2006: Closing night at the Viking Bar

Viking Bar, Minneapolis, July 31, 2006

The Viking Bar’s most recent, and final, closing night happened in January 2018, amid a management dispute that saw the West Bank landmark shut down less than two years after a high-profile reopening. The true legacy of this 1905 venue, which opened as the Viking in 1959, was cemented with a sweaty show headlined by local legend Willie Murphy.

“The wake signaled an end to the days when Willie Murphy and friends crowded the small Viking stage and spilled onto the floor, making people get up and boogie on the old tile floor,” wrote historian Cyn Collins in the Twin Cities Daily Planet. “It also brought an end to the regular Friday night shows with the Front Porch Swinging Liquor Pigs and KFAI Radio’s ‘Jackson’s Juke Joint.’ We’ll miss the legendary Mardi Gras parties on Sundays, when Spider John Koerner entertained us with his foot-stomping old folk blues while we indulged in Marty Johnson’s grilled chicken and brats.”

On that final night of the original Viking, though, Murphy and his peers gave Minneapolis a night to remember. “Old and young, hippies and punks, activists and anarchists danced wildly on the benches, bartop, and floors throughout the packed bar,” reported Collins. “Many were dancing as they came in the door. The crowd grew wilder as the night went on, and even a fight or two even broke out — just like in the old days. Musicians and patrons poured inside and out, sharing their memories and grief at this loss, one of the few remaining posts of the historic West Bank music scene.”

2007: Prince’s last stand at First Avenue

First Avenue, Minneapolis, July 7, 2007

In what would prove to be his final performance at the venue he made iconic, Prince took First Avenue’s Mainroom stage as the third leg of an epic one-day series only Prince could have pulled off. To celebrate the convergence of his lucky number on 7/7/07, he played Macy’s (yes, the department store on Nicollet Mall), Target Center, and finally First Ave. Tickets for the latter show were $31.21.

It may also have been the latest set time in Mainroom history: Prince finally took the stage at 2:45 a.m., to the cheers of some fans who’d started lining up for tickets a full day and a half earlier. He’d only been playing for 45 minutes when Minneapolis Police told the club they needed to stop the show, which was then extending 90 minutes past the venue’s normal closing time. In the wake of the event, the city created a “Prince permit” to allow shows to run later in special circumstances; tragically, it wasn’t used until the late-night dance party one year after Prince’s death.

Even in a club with a half-century history of legendary nights, 7/7/07 was one for the history books. Talent buyer Sonia Grover remembered that when Prince played “Controversy,” she and manager Nate Kranz “put our arms around each other and were like, man, it will never get better than this.”

2008: First Soundset

Metrodome parking lot, Minneapolis, May 25, 2008

Over a decade in the making, the inaugural Soundset kicked off one of hip-hop’s essential annual events. There wasn’t then, and there still isn’t today, anything quite like Rhymesayers’ one-day festival that features acts ranging from hot up-and-comers to legends of the genre, fans flowing from stage to stage to catch longtime favorites and new discoveries.

Did it feel like history in the making? “The first festival in 2008 was kind of a backpacker wet dream,” remembered Slug, whose duo Atmosphere have remained headliners every year since then. Dilated Peoples, Aesop Rock, Brother Ali, Eyedea & Abilities, Beat Junkies, P.O.S, and Musab joined a lineup at an event that also included a car show and skate demo. Despite ominous weather, the crowd of 12,000 (“without the guest list,” noted Slug) exceeded expectations by more than half and guaranteed that Soundset would be back.

“There’s absolutely no reason that the largest hip-hop festival in the country should be in Minnesota,” remembered Rhymesayers’ Siddiq. “Unfathomable. It wasn’t like 70 percent of that crowd that made it that came from outside of Minnesota. So that was really built by Minnesota.”

Learn more about the history of Soundset on The Current Rewind podcast.

2009: Best New Bands

First Avenue, Minneapolis, Jan. 14, 2009

If you had to pick one series of shows to see each year to ensure you’d catch a wide swath of the best musical talent to come out of the Twin Towns, First Avenue’s Best New Bands would be a very solid choice. Every year spotlights several artists, and you can look back on any year’s lineup to pick out some names that have soared. The showcase of 2008’s Best New Bands is as good an example as any.

Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps were an up-and-coming folk-rock band led by a charismatic singer-songwriter with a knack for catchy melodies. She would go on to release the career-changing R&B-influenced solo album Half About Being a Woman, duet with Lizzo in an iconic video, and subsequently reinvent herself as Your Smith. The lineup included another prominent roots-leaning group, Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles. Today, Lucy Michelle records as a solo artist and with the band Little Fevers, and recently illustrated a beautiful picture book written by Chan Poling.

Also on the lineup that night: hip-hop whiz Kristoff Krane and Lookbook, a synth-pop duo whose members (Maggie Morrison and Grant Cutler) later parted ways but have each gone on to have storied careers. Morrison just released an EP as Margret, while Cutler joined Chalice alum Claire de Lune in tiny deaths. Plus the Dynamiters, Abzorbr, Bouncer Fighter, and Yer Cronies. That’s a pretty solid night of entertainment for just seven bucks.

2010: Gayngs’ Last Prom on Earth

First Avenue, Minneapolis, May 15, 2010

A decade on, it’s hard to know even where to start describing Gayngs. They were a 23-member AOR-inflected supergroup centered on Minneapolis, with contingents from Wisconsin and North Carolina. Their sound fused the musical sensibilities of members including producer Ryan Olson (Poliça, Marijuana Deathsquads) and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) with standout contributions from the likes of Dessa and P.O.S. The fact that their album Relayted was one of the best local releases of the 21st century was either inevitable or wildly unlikely.

Although they performed a series of shows, including a SXSW stop, in various configurations, the Gayngs show was a two-set affair on a Friday night at First Ave. “Gayngs promised an unusually festive, decadent occasion for Friday’s shows, and they did not disappoint,” I wrote in the Twin Cities Daily Planet. “First Ave was decked out in an explosion of streamers and sparkle.” The prom theme continued in attendees’ behavior. “There they were: the desperate guys, the indignant girls, the awkward dates, the shameless grinding, the couples who seem like they’re married (at this prom, they actually were), and the flashing cameras all over the place to preserve every moment for posterity. It was senior prom all over again — but of course, senior prom was also a lot like an ordinary night at First Ave.”

Gayngs encored with a surprise cover of Howard Jones’s “No One is to Blame,” but the real surprise was the one no one saw: Prince made an appearance backstage, briefly jamming along on guitar but taking off without stepping into view. You can briefly glimpse him around 4:23 in this video. Talk about a supergroup.

2011: Poliça debut

Nick & Eddie, Minneapolis, Sept. 4, 2011

There’s a long history of hot hangouts in Minnesota music, from the Nacirema Club to Jay’s Longhorn to the Uptown Bar to Icehouse. At the dawn of the 2010s, the place to be was Nick & Eddie. The space now occupied by Third Bird on Loring Park, Nick and Eddie was a bar and restaurant that tossed up a stage in back for shows that often felt improvised…in a good way. Marijuana Deathsquads had a Wednesday residency, and attendees would squint into the darkness to see who was rocking a mic on any given night. P.O.S? Har Mar Superstar? Maggie Morrison? Jeremy Nutzman, then known as Pony Bwoy and now known as Velvet Negroni? Anything was possible, with mastermind Ryan Olson nodding vigorously at his MacBook.

With only about half a year left in the venue’s rocky but unforgettable four-year run, it hosted the first public performance by Poliça, a group that would quickly become one of the biggest bands to come out of Minneapolis in the 2010s. The music community was still processing the breakup of singer-songwriter Channy Leaneagh’s previous group Roma di Luna (happily, they would reunite later in the decade) when Poliça dropped the swooping tracks “Lay Your Cards Out” and “Dark Star,” both of which would appear on their acclaimed album Give You the Ghost. This was a whole new sound for Leaneagh, and a superb showcase for the talents of her musical collaborators led by Olson.

Perhaps the most striking departure from Roma di Luna was Leaneagh’s regular use of Auto-Tune. Now a standard component in the pop music toolkit, in 2011 it was still closely associated with T-Pain and other showboats. “Once I started learning how to use it,” the singer told the Star Tribune, “I realized how much more adventurous I could be with my voice and my writing. It sort of adds drama to everything.”

2012: Jane’s Addiction at The Brick

The Brick, Minneapolis, March 19, 2012

Is it possible to have FOMO for a show that everyone complained about? It is in this case: maybe the most infamous venue opening (and, shortly thereafter, closing) in Minnesota music history.

The Brick was the short-lived name for the downtown Minneapolis music venue that was subsequently known as Mill City Nights and, later under different management, Music Hall MPLS. It was touted as a major new attraction for music fans, and they booked a big-name band for their kickoff. No one complained about the performance, which included, according to the Star Tribune, “two bondage babes, a madman who abused dolls (and cut himself with a knife) and general decadence and lasciviousness.” The sound system was even decent, as Andrea Swensson noted on this blog.

“You know it’s bad when even the band starts bantering about the quality of the concert experience from stage,” wrote Andrea, noting that Perry Farrell saw a “riot” forming over the aggressive security, the terrible sightlines, the crowded stairways, the long bar lines, and the hard-to-find bathrooms. There wasn’t a riot, but patrons who’d paid $65 for tickets to the debacle created the tweetstorm of the decade.

In the end, the venue’s management acknowledged in a statement “that we have a long way to go to earn back your business and are committed to regaining your trust.” That ended up meaning extensive renovations and a new name for a venue that went on to a much happier run as Mill City Nights, with a subterranean Nether Bar that became a heavy metal haven. No one who experienced the venue as The Brick, though, ever forgot it.

2013: Americanarama

Midway Stadium, St. Paul, July 10, 2013

In the 21st century, Bob Dylan doesn’t speak onstage. He plays hundreds of shows a year, and he almost exclusively lets his lyrics do the talking. On one magical night at Midway Stadium, though, the Duluth native stopped the set for a touching tribute. Transcriptions of his words vary, because…well, he’s Bob Dylan. As Andrea Swensson heard his remarks, he said, “I used to live here, and then I left. I’ve played with everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna, but the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on stage with is Bobby Vee.”

The Fargo rocker, Dylan’s peer and one of his earliest mentors, was there to hear the tribute, which included a cover of his innocent ballad “Suzie Baby.” It was an incredible moment in Minnesota music, with rock’s only Nobel laureate (that was still to come) paying heartfelt homage to one of his North Country heroes — one already diagnosed with the Alzheimer’s disease that was to take his life three years later.

As it happened, the rest of the show wasn’t too shabby either: the Americanarama lineup also included Wilco, My Morning Jacket, and Richard Thompson. That’s a bill worth seeing, even on the worst night…and July 10 was far, far from the worst night. In fact, it was one of the best nights of the year.

2014: The Replacements return

Midway Stadium, St. Paul, Sept. 12, 2014

In 2014 Midway Stadium was on its way out as a minor-league ballpark, but for a second consecutive year it served as the venue for one of Minnesota’s most moving concerts. The Replacements reunion wore out its welcome for frontman Paul Westerberg, who eventually spelled out his dissatisfaction on a series of t-shirts, but at Midway he was still feeling festive enough to don a commemorative Saints jersey. (“Do you think Bob Dylan put this f*cker on?”)

A sterling setlist and a rambunctious band made the most of a homecoming show that fans had been waiting for ever since the group got back together for a series of festival appearances: their first Minnesota gig in 23 years. Westerberg paid tribute to “our old buddy” and bandmate Slim Dunlap, who was then in the hospital with continuing complications from a 2012 stroke, and brought out the legendary Tony Glover to wail on harp during “Going to New York.”

“I’m going to spare you the hysterics,” said Craig Finn of opener the Hold Steady, “but for a guy who grew up here this is literally a dream come true.”

2015: Trampled by Turtles on the harbor

Bayfront Festival Park, Duluth, July 11, 2015

Alan Sparhawk, of Low, says Lake Superior is inextricable “on a cosmic level” from what makes Duluth music special: you can see that endless horizon from “almost anywhere in town.” By that logic, the closer you are to the Great Lake, the better the music gets. That may be why Trampled by Turtles’ hometown shows at the stunning Bayfront Festival Park are such incredible experiences.

The rootsy sextet’s 2015 gig was a triumphant return to the venue, a year after a storm washed the show out and left the band playing for just “a few hundred die-hards, some who were ankle deep in mud puddles and scrunched up close to the stage,” reported the Duluth News Tribune. Local station WDSE spoke with the band members (“I can almost see my house”) and captured a truly magical vibe as the sun went down and Dave Simonett sang about how there’s no place like home.

2016: A spontaneous street party

7th Street, Minneapolis, April 21, 2016

As Prince fans around the world processed the stunningly sad news that the game-changing icon had died at Paisley Park, they turned on their TVs and saw helicopter footage of a spine-tingling sight: the street outside First Avenue, right where the Kid’s bike roared up to the doors and into history, was literally filled with mourners who had come together to share their sorrow and celebrate Prince’s unparalleled musical legacy.

Behind the scenes, First Avenue staff had worked frantically with partners including the City of Minneapolis and The Current to create the space for the gathering to happen. Permits were issued at record speed, a crew quickly assembled a stage and PA, and calls went out to local artists who were carrying Prince’s vision forward. Among them were PaviElle, Sarah White, deM atlaS, Chastity Brown, Cameron Kinghorn, and Claire de Lune.

And then, the crowd parted. Literally. Lizzo, who had just moved to L.A. after five years making waves in Minneapolis — a period that included a trip to Paisley Park to record a feature on a Prince track with her Chalice bandmates — had jumped on a plane to pay tribute with a performance of “The Beautiful Ones.” A show-closing singalong to “Purple Rain” couldn’t bring Prince back, but it reminded us that we would always have his music, and our Purple family.

2017: Dessa crosses genres and blows minds

Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, April 14, 2017

Dessa has never been one to be constrained by genre or format: she rose up on the spoken word scene before launching a fiery hip-hop career as a member of the Doomtree collective, and now she’s an acclaimed author as well. That creativity and flexibility made her well-suited to turn her Minnesota Orchestra collaboration into something much more than just a regular gig with a new backing band. Andrea Swensson called the performance “a career milestone” for Dessa. Metaphorically, “she extended the ladder up to its tallest rung, told us she was pretty nervous about how high up it was, and then scaled it as we all watched in awe.”

“Every detail, from the sequencing of the set list, to the mesmerizing light show, to the giant bedazzled model of a piece of Dessa’s own brain,” Andrea continued, “to the swells of the orchestra at just the right moments, swirled together to paint a vivid portrait of what it means to love and lose, and what a hyper-intellectual, whiskey-drinking poet with a hopeless romantic streak and a curiosity about neuroscience must do in order to reclaim her own emotional agency and find some peace.”

Dessa must have agreed, since she returned to work with the orchestra on her new live album Sound the Bells.

2018: Super Bowl Live

Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, Feb. 3, 2018

Justin Timberlake’s halftime show, with its not-technically-a-hologram Prince duet and its not-really-there Love Symbol and not-there-in-any-form Janet Jackson, may have been disappointing, but hometown heroes Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did not disappoint in their curation of the wildly eclectic outdoor concert series called Super Bowl Live.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to highlight generations of diverse Minnesota musicians, with a few out-of-town wild cards (Rae Sremmurd?) thrown in for fun, and the superproducers went all in. With all concerts being completely free, spectators could see Dessa singing “Good Grief” in a snowglobe of falling fluff. “Crush On You” hitmakers the Jets reunited. So did the Family (now known as fDeluxe), in conditions so cold, their saxophone froze. Morris Day, the Revolution, and Sheila E. all played on the same night.

The most poignant moment, though, may have come on Feb. 3, when a rock retrospective included Soul Asylum, the Suburbs, the Jayhawks, and Bob Mould. Fans’ dreams came true as Mould reprised Hüsker Dü’s cover of the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song “Love is All Around,” standing right in front of the Crystal Court. Mary could have sung along as she threw her hat, and we all knew that whether or not the Vikings ever play in another Super Bowl, we’re going to make it after all.

2019: Lizzo takes the throne

The Armory, Minneapolis, Oct. 9, 2019

“She’s going to be huge,” we’d all say to each other. “A household name.” In the half-decade Lizzo spent in Minnesota, she wowed one crowd after another — whether playing flute with Dreamcrusher, rocking out with GRRRL PRTY, or launching her triumphant solo career. So while she may have seemed like an overnight sensation to the rest of the world, Minnesotans could appreciate just how many years of hard, if joyous, work were behind the phenomenal success of Lizzo’s major label debut LP Cuz I Love You.

Suddenly, all those predictions came true: historic chart success, a raft of Grammy nominations, Entertainer of the Year accolades from Time and the AP. In the midst of it all, she came back to Minneapolis for a pair of wildly anticipated, extremely sold-out shows at the revitalized Armory. As Mary Mathis’s photos reveal, she was absolutely resplendent.

“When I’m shining, everybody’s gonna shine,” Lizzo sang on “Juice,” The Current listeners’ favorite song of 2019. There couldn’t be a better manifesto for a music scene that Lizzo made her own, and Minnesotans embraced her as one of our own.