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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.
Larson, a professional-looking blonde with large blue eyes, often plays hostess to these crowds, working the door herself. She grew up in Lake Elmo and spent her own underage years looking for places to see rock shows, usually with little success. In college she studied business, and devised a plan to start her own all-ages club. Then in 1998 she found an airy downtown storefront with a front room for food and a back room for a music stage. She shopped her idea to five banks before a sixth decided the 25-year-old had a good vision and the smarts to make it a reality. It took $100,000--a combination of loans and Larson's savings--to ignite Foxfire.
"A lot of clubs went into [business] as a fun idea," she says. "I went into it wanting to know how it would work financially."
"Running a club is a hard business, and even when it's busy and doing well, things are kind of tenuous," says Tom Rosenthal, Larson's business partner, friend, and ex-boyfriend. "It's always been on a shaky foundation, from month to month. [Business has] never gotten to the point where we thought or hoped it would. But then, we've always aimed really high.
"When you're going for young audiences, you're going to see the turnover. They turn 21 and seek out other places to go. The ones that are in bands move on, go away for school, break up. It's a pretty turbulent time of life, and you can't expect people to keep doing the same things, or going to the same places."
Rosenthal can usually be spotted working the door at Foxfire shows, wearing his distinct black sideburns and an understated smile. He has been involved with the club since before its doors opened, and he still handles most of the booking, publicity, and advertising. (Until recently he was even putting in a day every week behind the deli counter.) His creative booking has made the club the most popular local venue for young bands, and netted such national luminaries as Creeper Lagoon, the Magnetic Fields, and the Promise Ring. Rosenthal's own band, Magnatone 45 (formerly Magnatone), also plays the Foxfire, keeping his sympathies on both sides of the stage.
One thing Rosenthal pushed for from the start was a rigorous booking schedule that would fill nearly every night of the week, a calendar previously unmatched by local all-ages clubs. As a result, Foxfire has become a vital force in the rejuvenation of local music, drawing a new crop of bands as young as the audience. "We could totally have these bands in the [7th Street] Entry, or even the Mainroom," says Brooke Miller, a First Avenue employee who frequents Foxfire because it welcomes up-and-coming hardcore bands.
The new wave of groups, which scored high on this year's City Pages new music poll, is an encouraging sign to grizzled scenesters like thirtysomething Mike Wisti, who runs Albatross Studios out of his basement and fronts the Rank Strangers. Wisti has recorded many of Foxfire's regulars, including Grotto, Malachi Constant, and the Hidden Chord (No. 7 in the poll). "There are more good bands in the Twin Cities right now than in the ten years I've lived here," he says. "And if it weren't for the Foxfire, we wouldn't know about them."
Wisti contends that the club helped bring early, high-profile attention to a lot of younger bands that were having trouble getting gigs at bars. "Baby boomers still dominate all media, and they've managed to propagate this myth that rock is a lot of old people, but that's not going to last," says Wisti. "I think anyone over 30 should think long and hard about trying to play a role in music, because it's young people that are making the music worth paying attention to."
The trouble is this: Despite the Foxfire's widely acknowledged vitality in local rock 'n' roll, crowded shows like the Sense Field gig play only a minor role in keeping the place afloat. Even a sold-out show isn't a great moneymaker--the room holds only 97 people. The weekday lunch rush of downtown employees who come for the homemade sandwiches accounts for most of the Foxfire's business, according to Larson, and many of these suits don't even realize there's a rock club behind the door at the end of the hallway. Even during shows, coffee or food sales are slow after ten o'clock at night.
One venue that learned the Foxfire's math the hard way was the Coffee Shock, an all-ages music venue and sandwich place that closed last August owing to poor daytime business. Bands that got their start at the Coffee Shock, including Arch Stanton, carry on at Foxfire, as does the Hardcore Bible Study, a near-weekly combination of punk rock and old-time religion that once used the Christian-affiliated Coffee Shock as a meeting space. The Shock's booker, Steve Pedro, now regularly brings shows to the Foxfire, and in the coming weeks he plans to execute an 11th-hour plan to save the club. He'll be organizing benefit shows, getting local businesses to act as sponsors, and tracking down government funding by designating the club as a "safe place" for youth.
"It would be really, really horrible if the Foxfire closed," Pedro says. "And I'll do anything to help them out. But this happens. It happened to Coffee Shock just as it was starting to get a good name and draw business. I've seen it happen to places all over the country."
Before Sense Field begins, the Streetwise guys move on to their next mission, and the few coffee drinkers in the front room go into the back just in time to see singer Jonathan Bunch warmly thank the audience for coming and execute a skyward leap. This kicks off a song loud enough to make your ribs vibrate. In fact, the band is relentlessly loud, with a classic, Black Flag sound; they're good, and the show is close to sold out. But the kids are weirdly mellow. No one is moshing, although the room shows its approval with a collective lean toward the stage. When the band cranks, the lean turns into a bob. But it's pretty subtle. It's as if these young fans don't really know what to do at a concert yet. It's all so new.
Grotto, Rank Strangers, Malachi Constant, and Rocket House perform on Friday, April 21 at the Foxfire Coffee Lounge. End Transmission, Capital! Capital, Haymarket Riot, and Hero of a Hundred Fights perform Saturday, April 22; (612) 338-2360.