Local Current Blog

‘We’re just giddy’: Minnesota artists return to live stages with passion and purpose

Annie Mack performs at The Current's 14th Birthday Party, First Avenue, 2019. (Nate Ryan/MPR)

“Sometimes in a dark moment,” said Chan Poling, “I would imagine to myself, ‘What would it be like if everything stopped? What would it be like if nobody went to see the Suburbs? Nobody went to see the New Standards? We couldn’t sell any tickets to Glensheen? What if I put a book out, and nobody bought it and my career just vanished?’ Well, it actually happened. That thought you think in your darkest moments actually came true. I guess I’m still standing, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but unfortunately it happened to everybody.”

In our lives, we now have two seasons: pre-quarantine and post-quarantine. Many artists lost their livelihoods and struggled to adapt their artistic identities without live-in-person performances. With many Minnesota venues returning to indoor shows after being shuttered for a year and a half, bouncing back means different things to many musicians in different stages of their careers — be they fledgling, positioned for the next step, or established.

Evelyn Speers, who performs as EVV, is finding their footing in this new post-pandemic world. The performer had released two singles and had an album ready to drop in April 2020 when things ground to a halt. Booking at that time had also proved difficult with a lot of dead ends. Speers spent quarantine rerecording their music, and as venues slowly began answering booking inquiries with, “Yes, we are ready to have shows again,” other artists reached out to them to share the stage. Their 7th St Entry show, with Monica LaPlante and Partial Traces, in early July, is set to see the release of a lot of pent-up energy.

“Honestly,” said Speers, “I just really love performing and being on stage. For a lot of folks, it’s about the money, but I just really enjoy being able to share a space with folks who are there for the same exact reason that I have. It’s just nice to be able to turn that switch on and be to be creative in a space and put it all out.”

Annie Mack also found herself working through some new music during quarantine. Her creative space gave way to new music that found new meaning after George Floyd was murdered last May. The music had been written before his death, but with the help of producer Matt Patrick at the Library Studio, the songs took on new meanings as she processed her emotions in the studio.

“As a Black woman,” said Mack, “I want to honor these creations. They’re just five songs, but I wanted to treat them and give them the respect, so I’m going to put out something for the art of it, for my healing, and for Minnesota I hope it is serving a really big purpose. It just seemed like the right time to do it.”

Her album led her to booking agent Craig Grossman of Fleming Artists (Jeff Daniels, Jonatha Brooks), who — even when shows weren’t being booked — believed in Mack’s work and took her on as a client. Mack didn’t play any shows until just recently, but the summer is quickly filling, and she is highly aware of how — as a person of color and a woman — she ticks off DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) boxes for talent buyers.

“I want to tell people that although I know I’m being tokenized,” she said, “it’s important for me to show up. That’s how we open the door for other [BIPOC artists]. I’m going to be very vocal about it. I will be your Black woman on the bill, but I also want change. What I’m really excited about with the return of live music is going to support other musicians and rally for them as we all come back to the stage.”

The show did go on for Chan Poling as the New Standards, one of his bands, forged through some shows at Crooners late last August. The venue had a set up some tents and tables, but some guests felt uncomfortable with how packed the outdoor space was and left as soon as they poked their heads in. There wasn’t even a cathartic feeling for Chan as the band took the stage the first night. Their second night, John Munson got sick, and the group had to cancel as a precaution. It was a nerve-wracking time even for an established artist like Poling.

Now, he’s planning and plotting new shows to support music that was also recorded in quarantine. The Suburbs will be celebrating an album release for Poets Party at a sold-out 7th St Entry show in early July. Poling knew it would sell out right away, but he wanted it to be a novelty playing in a small space. As he talked about the album, he shared some lyrics from the dreamy, driving “Summertime” for his hope this new season: “Everything will turn out fine/ I’ll see you in the summertime.”

Although they did have shows in the summer of 2020, Poling, Munson, and Steve Roehm called a halt to the New Standards Holiday Shows that had previously been an annual tradition. For those that are hungry for it this coming holiday season, the planning for this year’s series is already in its early stages. “I just got off the phone with John [Munson],” said Poling, “and we’re just giddy with what we have planned for this December. We’re prepping to be back at the State Theatre the first week of December, so we’re thrilled for that.”

Poling keeps pushing through, despite a year of living through pandemic and having to redefine his work. Even tougher, he has faced a personal loss with the passing of his father-in-law, former vice president Walter Mondale, this past April.

“I like to make things,” said Poling. “I’m happiest when I’m creating. That’s the best way to put it. That’s another thing, too, when I lost my wife about ten years ago, I said, ‘Wow, this is what we have — what’s been given to us. Don’t waste any time worrying about it and don’t waste any time doubting yourself. Just do, because when it’s over, it’s over.’”