Are You Local? at First Avenue, 3/6/14


Are You Local? 2014
Featuring the Cloak Ox, Dave Simonett, John Mark Nelson, Gramma's Boyfriend, Black Diet, Step Rockets, Botzy, Teammates, and Jillian Rae
First Avenue & 7th Street Entry, Minneapolis
March 6, 2014

The fifth annual Are You Local? showcase was their biggest production yet, as the event returned to First Avenue's Mainroom and also filled the Entry with emerging acts the entire night. The five-hour show ended up providing a decent cross section of the current Twin Cities music scene, though hip-hop was woefully underrepresented -- with a brief 15-minute set by Botzy the only rap music offered up by any of the nine acts.

The lengthy evening was well-paced, with shows happening continuously in each room to keep music fans engaged and intrigued. But ultimately, there was a definite problem when the best band of the night (the Cloak Ox) performed at midnight to a mostly empty club after much of the crowd had already gone home.

See Also: Slideshow: Are You Local? 2014 at First Avenue 

The night started early in the Entry, as Jillian Rae brought her violin-laden alt-country to a very receptive crowd. With no music going on in the Mainroom, early arrivals packed into the Entry, and Rae and her talented four-piece backing band certainly rose to the occasion, delivering a 25-minute set packed with the spirited "Chains" as well as a fiddle-driven cover of Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean" that got the crowd singing and stomping along.

In the Mainroom, Haley Bonar led Gramma's Boyfriend through a wildly divergent, sprawling set featuring a series of songs from their forthcoming album, which Bonar said they are releasing on Graveface Records sometime in the next few months. Guitarists Jeremy Ylvisaker and Jake Hanson deftly switched from Blondie-styled art pop to a raw, untamed punk sound, as the band seemed more than capable of tackling any genre they wanted.


Bonar was enthusiastically bouncing around the stage throughout, with her contorted dance moves only adding to the spirit of the songs. Everyone in the band was clearly taking their music a bit more seriously than they did in their slapstick early days. And when their new record does come out, it surely will make plenty of creative waves in the local scene.

The night wasn't filled with all hits, as the guitar-fueled earnestness of Teammates failed to resonate. The group tried to bring a gritty edge to early U2's arena-rock ready sound. But in the end, their material sounded unfocused. That didn't stop the packed Entry from seemingly enjoying themselves. Another miss was Step Rockets, who also seem intent on playing rooms far bigger than the Entry, though at the moment they don't have the songs that match those ambitions. Their grove-laden, hook-fueled material didn't coalesce enough to hold my interest.

The Entry reached capacity by the time Black Diet took to the tiny stage, and the soulful six-piece band (who would go on to win the Are You Local? competition, and a trip to SXSW) absolutely owned the moment. Their vibrant, Stax-heavy sound soared in the packed club, with frontman Jonathan Tolliver working the crowd expertly with his impassioned vocals and boundless charisma.

After starting their set with a hushed, Gospel-like singalong, Tolliver boldly announced, "Let's do what we do!" and the set kicked into high gear with "Slow it Down" a smoothed-out and sultry take on "You Did it to Yourself," and a Otis Redding meets the Strokes run through of "Unbroke." They even threw in a heartfelt cover of Echo & the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon" that added a surprising but vibrant twist on their lively, exuberant set.

John Mark Nelson brought a retooled backing band and a fresh batch of brand new songs with him for his winsome set in the Mainroom. Keyboardist Kara Laudon provided dulcet backing vocals to Nelson's material, giving the tracks a stately elegance and stylish charm. Nelson sang lyrics that everyone in the crowd could identify with, if the endless chatter would have quieted down enough for most of the room to hear it: "It seems like winter has lasted so long/Still I know the spring will bring us to thaw."

It was a definite challenge for Nelson (and Dave Simonett after him) to play more restrained, delicate material at what had essentially turned into a small house party at this point, but he and his talented band rose to the occasion, as a jaunty version of "The Moon and the Stars" rang true, as did a slightly reworked "Reminisce" that sounded vivid and rich. After a trip down to Austin for SXSW, Nelson told me that he hopes to release his new album by late May or early June, and based on the songs on offer during his distinguished set, we are all in for a treat.

Botzy's brief Entry set was over in a flash, with neon-drenched, psychedelic lighting infusing his madcap raps. He had just filled both the Entry and the Mainroom with his final offering of the Best Love Is Free musical extravaganza, but since he was the only hip-hop act on the bill, he deserved a longer set to keep his party going. He did his thing, and got out quick, leaving most of the crowd wanting more.


Trampled By Turtles' frontman Dave Simonett has a new solo EP out called Razor Pony, and his set in support of that record was a knockout. It takes a lot of creative nerve to play songs that minimalistic and slow-burning in front of a talkative room that was used to his uptempo, bluegrass sound. But Simonett led his cracking four-piece backing band (featuring Jake Hanson on guitar, TBT's Tim Saxhaug on bass, JT Bates on drums, and Bryan Nichols on keys) through an exploratory set that was quite stunning in its intricacy and gradual intensity.

All the material was given plenty of room to breathe, eventually building to a glorious, electric-guitar drenched release. The tracks definitely had a somber air to them, which again failed to silence much of the crowd who were clearly in a celebratory mood. After a TBT song ("Walt Whitman") and a tender and totally appropriate Dead Man Winter offering ("A Long, Cold Night In Minneapolis"), Simonett and the band delivered a straight run through of Razor Pony in order, with the title track blossoming into a gorgeous and moody, while the TBT anthem, "Midnight on the Interstate" was given a poignant electric rendering. Lively takes on "Repetition" and "Are You Behind the Shining Star" gave the set a fiery spark, before Simonett played a haunting solo version of "Criminal" that was quite moving.

The sprawling, experimental closing track, "Wyoming," that proved to be a showstopper, as the electronic bleeps that provided texture to the start of the song eventually gave way to guitar-drenched, Neil Young-like explosion of gritty sound, reminiscent of the recent Drone Not Drones sonic experiment. It was the musical equivalent of driving alone down a long highway late at night, with no other cars in sight and just the moon, the stars, and the music on the stereo there to guide you home.

After Black Diet was announced as the winner of this year's Are You Local? competition, the band played a celebratory mini-set on the Mainroom stage that reprised some of the magic they pulled off in the Entry. They should go over quite well in Austin, and I'm sure we're going to be hearing a lot more from this talented band as the year goes on.

Most of the crowd had thinned out by the time the mighty Cloak Ox took the stage. It was midnight on a Thursday, after all. The Cloak Ox clearly didn't care how many people were left in the club, they were there to destroy the place. Andrew Broder and Jeremy Ylvisaker seemed to be challenging each other all night to see who could come up with the filthiest guitar riffs, while the dynamic rhythm section of drummer Martin Dosh and bassist Mark Erickson were augmented by the rich, resonant keys of deVon Gray, which added elegant undertones to the band's propulsive sound.

The band tore through much of their excellent full-length, Shoot The Dog, throughout their potent, fast-paced set. "Yesterday's Me" opened the show, with Broder's tremulous, falsetto vocals eventually giving way to the untamed guitar solos that fitfully brought the song home. "King Rope," "Pigeon Lung" and a scorching take on "Josephine' all sounded immense in the Mainroom, with the band in taut fighting form.

The Cloak Ox have the remarkable ability to seamlessly shift from jovial pop sounds to raw, adventurous innovation at the drop of a drum beat, with each of their talented band members more than capable of taking each number to explosive new heights.

As the event switched from Thursday night to Friday morning, the show truly needed a fiery spark to set it off and close things down right, and the Cloak Ox arrived like a blistering, experimental bolt of lightning that ignited the place, making those of us still standing entirely forget how close we were getting to the dawn.

Critic's Notebook:


Personal Bias: While I was most excited to see the Cloak Ox play in the Mainroom, the rest of the lineup was filled with bands I already had an affinity for or was anxious to finally see live.

The Crowd:
A decent turnout that thinned as the night wore on, but things were far more festive in the continually packed Entry.

Overheard In The Crowd:
"Quick, let's take a prom picture together."

Random Notebook Dump: It really is a testament to the talent and diversity of our local music scene that you could step from one room to the other all night long and hear completely disparate but still highly original and compelling music. That type of sonic contrast is clearly one of the best aspects of events like this.