Musical Chairs

Bands are overbooked. Fans are staying home. As the music scene splinters, who's left standing?

At the peak of the Nirvana era, bands were such a hot commodity that dance clubs like the Saloon, the Rogue, and Tropix were even experimenting with weeknight band showcases, a trend that you would scarcely find in 1997. That indie-rock-driven band boom might be coming to a close, at least in the eyes of music fans who pay for it. The Entry today is usually down to three acts per night, and in both the Entry and the Mainroom there's a discernable premillennium shift in the sounds the audience hears, and in how it participates.

Minneapolis music in general has never been extremely responsive to national industry trends. Across the board in local nightlife these days, there is a homegrown re-emphasis on values like performance, music you can dance to, and genres that fall before, after, or outside the "alternative" or "indie-rock" ethic. The "big locals" of today, ensembles like Greazy Meal and Lights Out Committee, are explicitly retro.

There's a cynical way to look at this: "People are starting to basically shun new music, they don't want to have anything to do with it," says First Ave's Maher. "It's the whole 'Yesterday's shit was better than today's.' That's why we do really well when we have ['80s punk legends] the Descendents. Even when Grant Hart comes to play in the Entry, we pack it, just because it's nostalgic." First Avenue has even brought back its legendary '70s/'80s DJ Roy Freedom to revive the old disco/house parties on Thursday nights.

For whatever reason, that nostalgic impulse seems a common thread between a lot of the most prominent new local bands. The Strawdogs pull from '20s New Orleans jazz; the Sensational Joint Chiefs are grounded in soul, gospel, and '70s funk; Trailer Trash are unreconstructed fans of old-school country. In addition to these legit retro-ish bands, a number of crass retro-dance endeavors have drawn crowds as well. The Boogie Knights are a shameless and uninteresting nonlocal cover band that's sold out the Quest four times this year; the ABBA tribute group Bjorn Again has been popular there too. All of the above do share two things in common, though: They encourage dancing and a cabaret atmosphere, and they perform in town constantly.

Not that this all spells death for the critically acclaimed local bands working in progressive or pop realms. But part of the problem--with respect to audience-building and to clubs' bottom lines--is that most of these bands are prone to taking long breaks from performing. Critical favorites like the Hang Ups or 12 Rods spend more time in the studio than onstage. Other acclaimed (but infrequently seen) soundscape bands--Brother Sun Sister Moon, Sukpatch--take the heralded "post-rock" approach of creating guitarless pop with techno and hip-hop influences. By and large this music doesn't automatically lend itself to live performance; meanwhile, what exists of a hip-hop scene (most prominently, the Rhyme Sayers Collective) is advancing briskly, but still struggling to make itself heard.

What all this adds up to is a club scene that on one side values performance above all else, and on the other side skews more and more toward prerecorded music. The rise of electronica is allowing creative DJs to populate Entry and Mainroom bills like never before. The dance scene itself might be the strongest province of the new all-ages generation. Especially as rave and techno edge closer to large-scale acceptance, younger audiences may be developing more interest in turntables than in guitars--and more importantly, be less interested in watching bands perform onstage that in performing themselves on the dance floor, and in watching each other. Consider First Avenue's "Mars 770" dance night on Wednesdays, which used to be a sparsely attended 21-and-up night with an eclectic mix of pop, jazz, and all manner of electronica. To bolster summer attendance at Mars, First Ave made the unusual decision of declaring the weeknight all-ages, and increased the techno element of the mix. Since then, Wednesday attendance has hugely increased. The under-21 dancers don't do much for bar receipts, but at least bodies are in the room.

And that's important. Because as the under-21 rave crowd becomes the over-21 post-rave crowd, they are going to be looking for clubs to hang out in, and they may not be standing around watching punk or alt-country bands in the 7th Street Entry (although in this town, you never know). The large crowds that underground rave promoters have been able to draw to warehouse parties over the past few years are undeniable, and the fact that no club owners (other than First Ave, and then only recently) have tapped that audience is a clear case of short-sightedness. When might we see local dance clubs doing drum'n'bass nights? Or a multiroom space that regularly has different types of DJ music creating different scenes for different moods? Several segments of the local dance intelligentsia have expressed the desire for a new DJ club; a venue like Ground Zero could be just one possible site to consider.

Ultimately, there seems to be two ways to run a nightclub in Minneapolis: Have a small room geared to a more specific audience (like the Cedar, the Front, country/roots bar Lee's Liquor Lounge, and to some degree the 400), or have a large, multiplex venue that reaches out to a number of specialized (but not too specialized) audiences. The solution for a big, scene-defining venue like First Avenue comes down to figuring out, as Steve McClellan puts it, "what street-level music's going to rise to the clubs." If a venue can't afford to advertise with a radio station, McClellan reasons, it shouldn't be courting its format. And with "alternative" radio stations in an increasingly powerful position, the extent to which labels need a national network of clubs like First Avenue to market their alt-rock bands has subsided. All signs say that now is a transitional era, time for a new approach.

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