Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What To Do In The Twin Cities Part I: A Crash Course In Concert Venues

The Twin Cities has a plethora of concert venues which cater to a burgeoning music scene that’s produced a number of notable artists from 80s sensation Prince, to the contemporary rap stylings of Atmosphere. This whole culture is fostered by the marvelous publicly owned radio station, The Current (easily the best radio station and a site for Mac internships). With this kind of musical fanfare, concert traffic to the Cities is prolific. For the big names—John Mayer, Jonas Brothers, Rob Thomas etc., you’ve got the Xcel Energy and Target Centers—massive stadiums in downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis, respectively. These concerts draw gigantic crowds from states over, and lead to days-long traffic congestion.

But generally, I prefer the less mainstream bands, and for your alternative/indie/folk/underground/etc. tastes, there’s a number of more intimate, unique, niche-type establishments sprawled all over and I want to dedicate this, my first and inaugural post, to these marvelous places. And, everyone likes a countdown, so, here we go—my Top 4:

4. The 400 Bar is a hole-in-the-wall kind of joint located in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. It’s a stone’s throw away from the sprawling U of M campus, and, like bacteria on a petri dish, the close proximity to the college has led to the growth of many bars, cafes, and other dives. It’s a long rectangular building, divided in half with a bar along one side and a stage on the other side. The lighting is dim—the décor is black and red with old, peeling concert promos covering a back wall. This summer I went with some friends from high school to see Mates of State perform there (pictured right: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdoYK9jOltQ), with the opening performance from Free Energy. Before both of these bands, however, there was a stand-up comedian that opened. The bands were great, the comedian . . . well, things were going well when he was making jokes about Facebook status poetry—but once he started cracking jokes about crack—as in cocaine—the audience drowned him out with disinterested din. Shot down. But solid concert, cool venue, and a nifty neighborhood.

3. The Cedar Cultural Center
Three cartwheels down from 400 Bar is the worldly Cedar Cultural Center, a venue that runs on the fuel of volunteerism, and plays host to a bevy of really diverse acts. Their mission is to showcase samples of music from a global pool. The group I saw, Dear Companion (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SnVGagj2iM), was from the indie folk ilk. The group’s star was a cellist and one of three vocalists who masterfully oscillated between classical cello melodies, and more twangy, jazzy rhythms. There was a lot of foot-stomping, hand-clapping and fun audience interface, facilitated by the small group (the audience consisted of around twenty-five). The building itself is vestige of the retro bygone days, with the concert room being a very simple, Spartan cavern with plenty of room, stripped down to the necessary essentials—a platform and an army of folding chairs—instrument cases littering the edges of the room. It’s an authentic venue for true music-lovers of eclectic taste.

2.State Theater

My very first collegiate concert was actually subsidized by Macalester, who purchased a cache of tickets for the Decemberists’ show at the State Theater. Students were lined up around the corner at the Campus Center in hopes of snatching a half-priced ticket to The Decemberists’ performance of their indie rock opera, The Hazards of Love. I got my hands on the third-to-last ticket and got the chance to see the State Theater for the first time. The theater is in downtown Minneapolis, in an area known as the Warehouse District—the last stop on the light rail. This area is a busier part of the cities than Cedar-Riverside—it’s the heart of the metropolis replete with flashing lights and flashy buildings. The theater, in stark contrast to the dive joints of 400 Bar and the Cedar, is a celebration of opulence—with high, vaulted ceilings, paneled walls, gold paint, and splendiferous décor that hearkens back to old school 19th century theaters. Mac students filled three rows of cushy velvet red theater chairs—that is until the The Rake’s Song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=htSKgxy6woE) was played, at which point everyone abandoned their seats to jam to a grim narrative of infanticide. Gotta love indie music. . .

1. First Avenue
And of course, the crescendo to the drum roll:
First Ave—the hotspot of the Twin Cities music scene and birthplace of Prince. This venue, named for the roads which border it, First Avenue and Seventh Street, has a number of separate concert rooms, including the large mainroom, which fills up quickly for acts like Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYewptydkvE), Blitzen Trapper (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7zyfArxibk&feature=avmsc2), Passion Pit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zherMkcXdo), and Matt & Kim (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgBeu3FVi60). The main room has two floors, with a commoner’s pit up front and center for the diehards who have to get up close and personal with their band, but also provides seating on the second floor with bar stools and small tables at the railings that overlook the mainstage. The room is large, cavernous and dark, lit up only by the stage lights and the glowing candles on the bartenders’ trays as they circle the room fetching drinks for the 21 plussers. Adjacent to this behemoth is the cozy 7th Street Entry with lesser known, but no less talented groups, such as the Swedish funk-rap-jazz fusion band, Movits (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8fIVTH0TiM), or the the Coldplay-esque South African trio Civil Twilight (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vtl0XHIGo8). This year, this iconic concert hall celebrates its 40th year of being the Twin Cities’ “Downtown Danceteria.” Every Saturday, First Ave converts itself into a club with $3 cover charge—$1 with a college ID. Whether for a dance night or a concert, First Ave experiences are always first rate, with great crowds, fantastic ambience and top notch performers.