Local Current Blog

Playlist: First Avenue stars, 1970-2020

Curtiss A performs in front of First Avenue at a street party in 2017. (Nate Ryan/MPR)

420: what does that number mean to you? If you answered “the number of names with First Avenue stars,” you’re thinking along the same lines we are. To celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary this weekend, we made a playlist featuring most of the musicians immortalized with stars on the club’s wall.

Below is a master playlist as well as five playlists broken down by decade. There’s one song per star, and we aimed to organize the songs in the order that the artists first played the First Avenue Mainroom. (Scroll down below the playlists for the fine print.)

It makes for a wild ride, because on any given week at First Ave, you might have new artists playing the Mainroom for the first time (sometimes as openers) alongside towering stars who are either at the stage of their career where they’re not filling arenas any more, or (like Paul Simon) who simply choose to play a smaller club.

In most cases, though, the playlist captures artists just when they’re starting to attract Mainroom-size audiences. In the cases of bands like U2, R.E.M., and Radiohead, you’ll notice that we’ve chosen songs from early in their careers — when they played First Ave on their way up, before they released their best-known work. Other artists (Tracy Chapman, Information Society, Dr. John) had already released their most iconic songs by the time they got to the Mainroom fairly early on.

With some veteran artists who made it to the Mainroom after their commercial peak (James Brown, Tears for Fears), we went with songs that would have been relatively recent in their catalogs at that time, rather than choosing one of their more famous earlier tracks. In some cases (perhaps most notably among non-local acts, Melissa Etheridge), the Mainroom stage saw one of their first shows anywhere ever!

Cecilia Johnson, Brett Baldwin, Marisa Morseth, Darby Ottoson, Caleb Brennan, and I collaborated on research and curation. Happy 50th, First Ave! Here’s to another half-century of stars.

Spotify playlists:

Full YouTube playlist:

The fine print: There are 386 songs on this playlist. 34 of the stars either honor individuals for non-musical contributions (for example, Conrad Sverkerson and Byron Frank); mark artists who aren’t on Spotify; or made most sense to combine (for example, Prince and the Revolution are jointly represented by “Purple Rain”).

For chronology, we tried to be as precise as possible and in most cases we were able to peg the artists’ Mainroom debuts with strong confidence. For others, we could only estimate a general era. We also weren’t able in all cases to find songs that represented the appropriate era; in those cases, we chose a track that’s generally representative of an artist’s sound or that the artist likely would have played. Also, in a few cases artists never played the Mainroom, just the 7th St Entry. We’ve included those artists and ordered their tracks at the point of their Entry debuts.

We’re continuing to research this history to hone this playlist; if you have observations or suggestions, please use the comment section below!