Like any good church service, there were times when the first day of the 2016 Basilica Block Party felt like a spellbinding sermon from a preacher at a megachurch, and others that were deserving of a God-sized eye roll.
The annual two-day Basilica of St. Mary fundraiser — a joint effort between the church and Cities 97 — kicked off Friday with a lineup resembling a drive-time playlist from the adult contemporary radio station, mixing ‘00s hitmakers like Death Cab for Cutie and Cold War Kids with flavors-of-the-week like X Ambassadors and American Authors. Also drawing big crowds were blues-rock guitar wizard Gary Clark Jr. and up-and-coming R&B/soul singer Andra Day.
Wednesday’s police shooting of Philando Castile was on the minds of many at the concert in downtown Minneapolis. Naturally, the local tragedy was addressed by several artists throughout the evening. Day covered Nina Simone’s Civil Rights protest song “Mississippi Goddam” before explicitly mentioning the death of Castile during her set on the PreferredOne Stage.
“There have been too many deaths and too many families are hurting,” she said mournfully.
Afterward, the audience listened with rapt attention during Day’s performance of her hit “Rise Up." Underneath a blue sky and positioned near the steps of the block party’s beautiful namesake church, the inspirational, hymn-like anthem provided the most jaw-dropping moment of the entire day.
On the locally minded Star Tribune stage situated between the two larger stages, Gospel Machine’s Jayanthi Kyle incorporated Castile’s name into a sorrowful a cappella ode. It was part of a captivating 45-minute set from the Minneapolis group, following performances by area acts Step Rockets and Fort Wilson Riot.
American Authors are fronted by Minnetonka High School graduate Zac Barnett, but thanks to big hits like “Best Day of My Life” and “Go Big or Go Home,” have outgrown the local stage.
Not that you could’ve guessed Barnett had ever visited the Land of 10,000 Lakes before — his attempts to get the crowd to chant “Minnesota Nice” and “Let’s Go Twins” came off as disingenuous. In between their chart-toppers, the Boston band covered Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” and mashed up their own “Believer” with MGMT’s “Kids,” basically becoming a Cities 97 “Radio-Rock Hits of the 21st Century” sampler CD in the process.
Opening up for headliners Death Cab for Cutie, American Authors themselves followed X Ambassadors, they of “Renegades” and “Unsteady” fame. The Ithaca, New York, outfit got famous by writing the former smash for a Jeep commercial, which was appropriate since their set of wannabe-Imagine Dragons anthems was about as efficient as one of those gas-guzzlers, running on fumes until the finish line.
Death Cab’s closing slot played like a palette-cleanser after those disposable radio-ready acts, that sip of red wine you receive as the service nears its crescendo. The Washington indie-rock superheroes returned to Minneapolis for the third time supporting 2015’s Kintsugi, following two spectacular gigs at Northrop Auditorium last year.
Throughout their 75 minutes on stage, they peppered in four new cuts (highlighted by opener “No Room in Frame”) amongst early ‘00s favorites like “Photobooth” and “Company Calls” and hits such as “Soul Meets Body” and “I Will Possess Your Heart.” We can only assume that the band’s most recognizable tune, Plans’ “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” was omitted due to the “Catholic school, as vicious as Roman rule” line.
Sometimes you’ve just got to play to your audience. Preach to the choir, as they say. Which, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, is exactly what the 2016 Basilica Block Party has done so far.
Overheard in the crowd: “Play something I know!” about halfway through Death Cab’s set. Here’s hoping that girl bought all of Plans instead of just downloading its biggest hit.
Random notebook dump: Having steered clear of any controversial lyrics, Death Cab showed that they’re not followers of the word of Cake. The Sacramento band played both “Sheep Go to Heaven” and “Satan is My Motor” in front of the Basilica at the block party’s 2012 edition.