Cloud Cult's incredible journey brings them back home

First Avenue to host nationally acclaimed local band

On a Saturday in late July, a couple thousand people are crammed together along a narrow block in Lowertown St. Paul. It has been a long, hot day and many people are sitting down in lawn chairs and on the curb, but as the late-afternoon sun sinks behind the weathered limestone and red brick buildings, there's a buzz that runs through the crowd. Strangers chat over beers, couples hold hands, and a group of teenagers works its way up front to the large black stage at the end of the street.

Slowly everyone rises to their feet as the sounds of a mournful trombone and cello pierce through the din of voices. A drumbeat drops in from the rear of the stage and then, front and center, Craig Minowa jumps to his feet from a crouch, a guitar slung over his shoulder. He sings into a megaphone, his tenor quavering and disembodied as it travels out over the people.

Minowa whips around to face the drummer. The stage erupts as the six-piece band launches into a crashing buildup while two painters, one on each side of the stage, set about furiously splattering a pair of canvases with paint. The crowd cheers and presses eagerly toward the stage.

Cloud Cult in Eagan, Minnesota (October 2010)
Tony Nelson
Cloud Cult in Eagan, Minnesota (October 2010)
Connie and Craig Minowa at Lowertown
Nick Vlcek
Connie and Craig Minowa at Lowertown

Each band member is a flurry of activity, running around and switching instruments. Bassist Shawn Neary jumps up and down, his eyes clenched tight in concentration; Sarah Young closes her eyes as well, but she swings her head back and forth serenely as she bows her cello; Shannon Frid rests her hand on her hip, one leg cocked as she clutches her violin to her chest. Everyone—save, perhaps, for Arlen Peiffer, who flails behind his drum kit with childlike abandon, chin jutted out and a broad, irrepressible grin lighting up his face—seems deep in thought.

Through all this action, everybody follows Minowa's movements and feeds off his energy. One minute, he stomps around barefoot, clasping the microphone with one hand and extending the other like a claw, glaring out wild-eyed into the gathering darkness. At the next, he pumps his fist energetically and encourages the audience to join him—which they do, pumping their own fists, jumping up and down, singing and shouting along with almost every word.

An hour and a half later, when the band finally line up to take their bow, there's a drained but satisfied feeling in the air and more than a few teary-eyed faces.

Cloud Cult's show at the Lowertown Music Festival is their first in the Twin Cities since August of last year, but while they've been absent from local stages they've been far from dormant. They released a limited-edition rarities collection, a two-disc reissue of two of their landmark albums, and a four-song EP. Two singles, "Running with the Wolves" and "Unexplainable Stories," were selected for Song of the Day by the Current and Seattle's renowned KEXP. And in September, after a career spanning more than 15 years and marked by its own share of tragedy and national acclaim, the local indie rockers released their eighth studio album, Light Chasers, and launched a tour of the East and West coasts—a tour that will bring them back to Minneapolis next week, when they will receive a star at First Avenue and play a two-night album-release party in the Mainroom.

EARLY ON A Sunday morning, Craig and his wife, Connie, are taking their 10-month-old son, Nova, for a walk. They're in Eagan for a rehearsal at the house of Scott West, who, along with Connie, is a painter in Cloud Cult. The rest of the band is still asleep and the neighborhood is peaceful, the mid-August sun bathing everything in a warm, golden glow as it beats down on the still-dewy grass.

"I usually kind of dread the coming of tours," Craig says, as he pushes the baby stroller along the street. He and the family drove up the night before from their home in Viroqua, Wisconsin, a small rural town about a half-hour south of La Crosse.

"We're pretty quiet people and we like the quiet life back in the woods and whatnot, so thinking about big city after big city after big city is kind of hard for me, personally, to digest," he continues, choosing his words carefully as he speaks. "But this is the first time I'm actually kind of excited. We got the whole family, we got the minivan, and, you know, the shows are just another reason to have an adventure and explore the country and have him see things for the first time."

Craig is dressed in a black polo and shorts, as he often is, and wears a brown fedora—"It was my grandpa's," he points out proudly. His goatee is thinly trimmed and his dark brown eyes have a soft, searching look, but he carries himself loosely and gestures freely, a faint smile accompanying most of his conversation.

There's barely a soul to be seen at this time of day, with a lone car passing in the entirety of the half-hour walk. Connie waves and says hi to the passerby. She has wavy blond hair and a pale complexion. Even more so than her husband, Connie is quiet and reserved, and, perhaps in part because she squints from the sunlight, there's a seriousness in her sharp, pretty features that lends her manner a certain solemnity.

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