10 Reasons St. Paul Is an Underrated Music City


When you're trying to assert yourself as a premier Midwestern city that celebrates music, it's not ideal to have a shouting match with the folks just across the river. The case for Minneapolis's musical greatness is nothing new -- First Avenue, Prince, Paul Westerberg, etc. -- but don't count out St. Paul.

Minneapolis has stolen much of St. Paul's musical thunder ever since this Twin Cities storm started brewing, leading many to assume that our capital is all politicians, hockey, Keillor, and minor league baseball. St. Paul is for music lovers, too. Here are 10 reasons St. Paul is an underrated music city.

10. St. Paul Celebrates Musicians
When Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band came to town for a two-night stand at the Xcel Energy Center in 2012, St. Paul took toasting the Boss to a whole new level. Mayor Chris Coleman (apparently Bruce is big among politicians named Chris) officially declared the weekend of his visit "Bruce Springsteen Weekend." From November 9-12, Kellogg Boulevard and West Seventh Street were ceremonially known as Springsteen Road and E Street, respectively. Springsteen returned the favor to Coleman and St. Paul, busting out two mind-blowing three-hour gigs like it was nothing.

Note: Back in the '80s, the Boss kicked off the massive Born in the U.S.A. Tour with three shows at the St. Paul Civic Center, filming the famous "Dancing in the Dark" video (you know, the one with Courteney Cox) there.

More recently and more permanently, St. Paul co-named portions of Franklin Avenue "Dave Ray Avenue" earlier this month. Ray was a leading member of the Twin Cities' folk-blues scene in the 1960s, playing the Newport Folk Festival and influencing fellow local star Bob Dylan. Franklin Avenue between Berry and Eustis Streets in western St. Paul now forever bears the name of this legend, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 59. And the proclamations keep coming -- from Leah Rule to St. Paul & the Broken Bones.


9. St. Paul Inspires Musicians
It can't be a coincidence. Just as much as St. Paul love to name-check musicians in its street signage, artists from many different genres have given a shout-out to the city in their lyrics. Perhaps the most famous example is Johnny Cash's "Big River," which tells the tale of an elusive woman who passed through these parts. "I met her accidentally in St. Paul, Minnesota," Cash sings in the first verse, before detailing her trip down the Mississippi.

Har Mar Superstar takes his name from a suburban St. Paul mall, and the Hold Steady's singer Craig Finn has given plenty of love to St. Paul. Dillinger Four house the Dead End Alley and the city's namesake himself ("That must be the hardest luck saint of them all," Finn sings) are both mentioned in "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night," east St. Paul's Payne Avenue is immortalized in "Sweet Payne" ("Payne Avenue lives up to its name/Some nights it's painful and strange") and the city's baseball club is honored in "How a Resurrection Really Feels" ("The St. Paul Saints waved me through").

8. Midway Stadium
The Saints' home for three decades, the second Midway Stadium, sometimes doubled as a concert venue, serving as a much-needed outdoor venue in one of the few large U.S. markets without an amphitheater.

In 2015, the Saints will move to the new, $63 million CHS Field in Lowertown. That means this quirky gem of a ballpark on the west side of St. Paul, where lightning struck the nearby railroad tracks and blew out the lights as R.E.M. tore through finale "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" in 1999, where Bob Dylan brought Wilco and My Morning Jacket along for a music lover's dream bill in 2013, where the Replacements played their first Minnesota show in 23 years this past September, will become... just history.

Thankfully, the Saints plan on hosting concerts at their new digs. Co-owner Mike Veeck has said that he wants Bob Dylan to play the first show at CHS Field and that he'd love to book Prince, as well. Fittingly, the new stadium is located at (Positively) 4th and Prince Streets.

7. The Theaters
There's the Ordway making its grand, renovated return, the new Bedlam, the Palace Theatre threatening to come back, and the busy Fitzgerald Theater. Best known as the home of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion radio program, the 1,000-seat Fitz also hosts concerts that are just as worthy of their own Portlandia tailgaters.

Built in 1910, the Fitzgerald is the oldest active theater in St. Paul. It was purchased by MPR in 1980 and given its current name (after St. Paulite F. Scott Fitzgerald) in 1994. Minnesota Public Radio's Wits, which has recently featured musical guests like Weird Al Yankovic and Neko Case, is also broadcast from the Fitzgerald. While not technically a theater, the James J. Hill Library's concert opulence is also worthy of mention here.

6. St. Paul's New Talent
Allan Kingdom is steering the long line of Twin Cities alternative hip-hop -- solidified by Midway titans Heiruspecs -- in a new direction. Thanks to his strong Future Memoirs EP, the 20-year-old made pop culture website Complex's "25 New Rappers to Watch Out for in 2014" list. The Stand4rd -- featuring Allan, Bobby Raps, Psymun, and viral sensation Spooky Black (above) -- performed at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall this past weekend, and the crowd reacted and repped these new hometown heroes like they were watching superstars.

There's also Hippo Campus creating brainy, danceable indie rock in the vein of Bombay Bicycle Club. The high schoolers were named "Buzz Band of the Week" by British music magazine NME in September and the release show for their new EP is November 29 at 7th St. Entry.

5. The Music Schools
It's no surprise that plenty of not-yet-legal stars-in-the-making are coming from a city that boasts several high schools and a college dedicated solely to music.

McNally Smith College of Music is one of the foremost music colleges in the United States, offering degrees in performance, songwriting, production, live sound, and music business. The school is located in downtown St. Paul and counts local singer-songwriter Jeremy Messersmith, Doomtree member Dessa, rapper Toki Wright, and DJ Freddy Fresh (immortalized in the Hold Steady song "Knuckles") among its current and past faculty.

Meanwhile, younger kids can get an education in music at St. Paul Public Schools' St. Paul Music Academy, the High School for Recording Arts, St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, and Walker West Music Academy, so don't be alarmed if you see Jack Black driving a van around Lowertown.

4. Hüsker Dü
Two of alternative rock's most revered bands are Minneapolis's the Replacements and St. Paul's Hüsker Dü. The latter, which consisted of singer/guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton, and drummer Grant Hart, released six albums between 1979 to 1988. The trio's punky brand of college rock cemented them as one of the '80s' most influential acts, playing a huge role in the musical blueprint of bands like the Pixies, Nirvana, and Foo Fighters.

Pixies frontman Black Francis's original classified ad looking for bandmates called for musicians who liked both Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary, while Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl had this to say at a tribute concert for Mould in 2011: "If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be making music the way I do... He's a real hero of mine and a real American icon." Meanwhile, Grohl's Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic is quoted as saying that his band's sound was "nothing new," since "Hüsker Dü did it before us."

St. Paul's record store scene played a pivotal role in the formation of the band. Hart and Norton met while applying for the same job at the now-defunct Northern Lights Records on University Avenue. Norton got the gig, but Hart was hired at Cheapo Records soon after. Mould was a freshman music fan at nearby Macalester College who frequented Cheapo, and the rest was alt-rock history.


3. The Record and Memorabilia Stores
People are always mourning the slow death of the record store, but St. Paul has several quality shops, including but not limited to Eclipse (pictured), Urban Lights, Agharta, and Barely Brothers. And, how often do you see a music memorabilia store (or have you ever)? Luckily for Minnesota music lovers, we still have Rice Street Music Memorabilia in Little Canada.

When this shop's website says it has posters and shirts, that doesn't mean the same Abbey Road posters and Grateful Dead tie-dye shirts you can find at any store in the country. No, that means 20-year-old R.E.M. posters and vintage Neil Young tour shirts. The shop of collectables also sports a treasure trove of hard-to-find records, tapes, CDs, books, and, as its website says, "other strange music items."

A Day in the Life of 89.3 the Current from Voice Media Group on Vimeo.

2. The Current
It's hard to have a five-minute conversation about music in the Twin Cities without talking about 89.3 the Current, based in downtown St. Paul. Serving as a refuge from the commercial stations that are "All About That Bass," the Current broadcasts Smiths deep cuts, Kendrick Lamar, and in-studio sessions by up-and-coming locals. As detailed in City Pages' oral history, the first song the Current ever played was Atmosphere's "Shhh," but in the decade since, the Current has created a community around the music that keeps growing.

1. The Turf Club
St. Paul venues are good enough for Lady Gaga, and then some. The Amsterdam and the (hopefully returning) Artists' Quarter have hosted some special nights, but the Turf Club -- especially post-St. Paul Music Club -- has grown into an institution.


Now owned by First Avenue, the 70-year-old watering hole, with the Clown Lounge in its basement, had to take most of summer 2014 off for renovations. Much to the delight of music fans across the Twin Cities, it's been back in booming business since late August with a new sound system, kitchen, roof, and bathrooms. Make room on the wall of posters for more iconic nights.


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