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Where are all the kids on a cold Sunday night? The men with the condoms know. A pair of them burst in the door of the Foxfire Coffee Lounge like superheroes on a mission, and charge over to the group of punk kids standing in the hallway outside the bathrooms. One guy does all the talking, at high volume and close proximity, and the other guy stands by, clutching a huge plastic bag of condoms.
"Free condom?" he asks, shyly extending a handful of Lifestyles.
"Hey, any of you guys under 21?" his cohort yells to the eight or so kids in the hall. They all look at their shoes. "Need a place to stay, medical care, whatever, Streetworks can help you. Take a card."
He has spoken the two words that most identify this place: under 21. More than any other venue, the two-year-old Foxfire Coffee Lounge has altered the dynamics of Twin Cities music by catering to a demographic that hasn't dominated local rock 'n' roll since the early Sixties: people not old enough to buy a beer. Half of the top fourteen bands on this year's Picked to Click are Foxfire regulars; many of them got their start here. The downtown Minneapolis club (at 319 First Ave. N.) has given underage music fans their own Minnesota rock landmark, and in exchange those fans have shown the Foxfire a loyalty, respect, and maturity adults rarely credit underage crowds with having.
"They get too rough with you at a lot of other places," says Sam-Aon Theth, age 20, who has come out tonight to see headliners Sense Field. She is tiny and pretty with delicate-looking glasses, and it's hard to imagine anyone seeing a reason to rough her up, but she scrunches her face knowingly. "Here, it's laid-back, you can have fun. Everyone is here just to have a good time and hear good music."
When she turns 21, Theth plans to keep hanging out at Foxfire, but she admits she'll definitely check out other venues. And who can blame her? If the Foxfire has done its job, the club will have instilled in its clientele a passion for the live-music experience. It's only natural they'd want to see shows on a bigger stage, like First Avenue's. And it's only fair that this crowd get a chance to finally see the older, established national acts that generally only play 21-and-over shows. As time sloughs away the inaugural members of the Foxfire crowd, however, the club desperately needs to draw new faces and bigger audiences. Among bands that play there, rumors have spread recently of the club's imminent demise.
"If things don't improve, it's quite possible we'll have to close," admits Elizabeth Larson, Foxfire's owner. "People tell me most new businesses take three years to turn a profit, so I'm hoping we see that soon. I'm trying different things to make it work, but the reality is, it's a hard business to sustain."
Most of Foxfire's business comes from word of mouth, and certain local bands, like Plastic Constellations, Valet, and decembers architects, have managed to brew large and loyal followings that cross over to the club. It doesn't hurt that members of all three groups work there. Their friends are naturally inclined to hang out and buy coffee, waiting for their shift to end and the show to go on. But coffee doesn't pay rent the way liquor does, which sums up the eternal dilemma of underage live music, even at a time when the demographic is swelling.
Since Foxfire opened its doors, other venues catering to the under-21 crowd have popped up, including DJ cafés (Liquid, Fusion) and collegiate rock joints (the Campus Grind). They join the ranks of such established venues as the Christian-geared New Union; the tiny hip-hop, folk, and metal outpost Bon Appétit; and the Whole Music Club, which still books all-ages gigs around town, although it's currently closed for renovations. But Foxfire is the club the national booking agents talk about, the one that regularly draws teens from as far away as Wisconsin. It brings in some of the at-risk youths Streetworks hopes to reach, but most patrons appear to be clean-cut types still on their parents' insurance plans.
While members of the punk band Sense Field set up their equipment, the audience mixes casually in the warm, 40-watt glow of the house lights. Some gather near the stage, others on the couches that line the exposed-brick walls. Conversation hums steadily, but no one is yelling over the crowd, no one is hoisting beers over anyone's heads, and no one is shoving. It's like a friendly house party.
The entrance ritual at a Foxfire show is so casual you might feel as if you'd forgotten something. Before you get to the performance room, you walk beyond the coffee shop and its peaceful night patrons, who are munching blue corn chips, writing in old-fashioned composition books, and playing Ms. Pac-Man or New Testament Trivia. You move on past the coffee bar and deli counter, past the bathrooms, and creak open the door at the end of the hall to the rock club. Inside, the guy quietly accepts your money, though he seems almost reluctant to do so. He doesn't I.D. you. He doesn't bark out the cover charge; you can read it off the flyer that lists tonight's headliner.