While the cultural divide that separates commercial pop from indie music continues to blur, the division between church and taste was ever apparent at the Basilica Block Party.
On one side of the festival's second and final night Saturday in downtown Minneapolis, you had bland but wildly popular acts the Fray, Phillip Phillips, and Matt Nathanson. The other half of the bill was topped by Ryan Adams, a songwriter beloved by introverted music fans who have had their hearts broken a few times. Conversely, more pop-leaning attendees might have recognized Adams from his full-album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989.
If you’re after an emphatic review of the Fray or Phillip Phillips, you can ask any stoked teenager who was in attendance. And hopefully, while those same fans streamed toward the Main Stage for their dose of safe, tepid pop, they happened to stop by the local stage, where Eric Mayson, Holidae, and Farewell Milwaukee all put on sets deserving of attention; their innovation and inspiration overshadowed the big-name national acts performing outside the Basilica of St. Mary.
Mayson and his talented crew kicked off the day with an uplifting, restorative, impassioned set, featuring jams from his recent full-length, Detail. The Stevie Wonder-esque “Skyline” took on an added poignancy following last week's tragic shootings in Minnesota, Louisiana, and Texas. An old friend of Mayson’s, Theo Langason, addressed the death of St. Paul man Philando Castile directly, with a hopeful but anguished poem about being young and black in America. There were clearly heavy hearts onstage during Mayson’s set, but every person on stage seemed determined to let music soothe their troubled souls, as well as those in the audience.
Holidae, the winners of the recent Are You Local? best new bands contest, continued the therapeutic vibes that we were all desperate for. Their spirited performance was filled with soulful, electro-pop gems (like “Darkest Shade”) that sounded exquisite in the gorgeous summer sun. Their unifying message rang true to anyone who needed healing from the awful headlines and heartbreak of the past week.
The final local act of the day, Farewell Milwaukee, showcased a batch of new tunes from their forthcoming album, F.M. And their Americana-drenched, the Band-like tunes (the upbeat “Figure You Out," the plaintive “Hurt No More”) served as the perfect opening act for Ryan Adams' headlining set. The strength of their new songs suggests that larger stages and audiences are in the future for this hardworking band.
Seeing Craig Finn perform in the Twin Cities is always a treat, and the Hold Steady frontman never takes a return trip home lightly. His unguarded but slightly subdued set with backing band Uptown Controllers featured tracks from his recent solo record, Faith in the Future, which sounded right at home outside of his childhood church.
“I had a lot of big life moments in that building,” Finn announced in reference to the Basilica. “This song is about a place far less holy — the Riverside Perkins.”
A spirited “No Future” followed, as did a sentimental version of “Going to a Show,” which Finn dedicated to his young niece, who was in the audience. It was a fun performance, but one that was over before happy hour had a chance to take hold. The boozy exuberance typical of Finn’s local shows will have to wait until next time.
But for some, this year’s Basilica Block Party was essentially a Ryan Adams show in disguise, with the other groups on the bill merely serving as window dressing to Adams' first-ever outdoor show in the Twin Cities. And as the sun slowly began to set on a perfect summer day, Ryan and his trusty band, the Shining, rocked a 100-minute set that covered multiple eras and sonic styles of Adams’ venerable solo career.
This emphatic 17-song set (as well as Adams’ stellar previous two local shows) should finally put to rest the Good Ryan/Bad Ryan debates that have raged since his temperamental early days as a solo artist. The affable frontman was in good spirits throughout the performance, cracking jokes about the Gibson Les Paul he bought earlier in the day at Willie’s Guitars in St. Paul (“They’re so heavy. I don’t think I’m tall enough to even play it.”). He playfully teased the boisterous crowd about his past reputation (“You don’t even know what song this is. This might be the exact moment where I let you down completely.”)
But nothing in the set proved to be a let down, as Adams and his tight band churned through rollicking numbers (“Trouble,”“Shakedown on 9th Street,” “Let it Ride” ), sentimental favorites (“New York, New York,” “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” “This House Is Not For Sale,” “Dear Chicago”), and exploratory, Grateful Dead-like jams that dominated the set’s second half (“Magnolia Mountain,” “Cold Roses,” and a nearly 15-minute “Peaceful Valley”).
The house lights even came on after “Peaceful Valley,” steering fans to the exits, before the band came back on and closed the night down with a spirited run through of “Come Pick Me Up.”
Toward the end of the set, Adams joked about a skateboarding excursion he had around Loring Park earlier in the day, where he encountered a sign outside of Hi-Fi Records that said, “No Ryan Adams admittance, unless he’s in a good mood.” Even he had to laugh at that, admitting, “I hate you in such a beautiful way right now,” and promising to get even with them on social media.
In addition to the massive Fender amps that flanked the stage (with a stuffed cat perched watchfully on top), Adams brought along his beloved vintage arcade video games (Asteroids and Berzerk), a large tiger, and a Dr. Pepper vending machine. The set-up resembled an ‘80s teenager’s dream basement rather than a big stage in front of a church.
“I’m going to get up, have lunch, have a few beers, and stand in front of a big gothic church and listen to some super depressing music," he quipped about the BBP concertgoing experience for fans.
Even though the creative roots of the material stem from melancholy moments, Adams has reached a contented place in his life. That resulted in a lighthearted air to songs that were once drenched in anguish. It's also why fans of Ryan Adams have stuck with him for so long — his songs have guided us through trying moments, and we’ve endured our collective storms together, in a way. So it was gratifying and uplifting to see and hear him on a glorious summer night without a dark cloud in sight.
Critic's bias: This was, for all intents and purposes, a Ryan Adams show for me. Seeing Craig Finn and the local acts just served as a nice warm up to the main event.
The crowd: 12,000 or so people who all were excited to see live music on a perfect sunny day, as they should have been.
Overheard in the crowd: “This way to see the Fray. This way to see the Fray,” by a group of directionally helpful teenagers who were clearly there to see the Fray.
Random notebook dump: A cover of Jenny Lewis’ “She’s Not Me” and “Halloweenhead” were on Ryan’s setlist, but went unplayed due to time constraints.
Ryan Adams setlist:
Gimme Something Good
New York, New York
When the Stars Go Blue
Shakedown on 9th Street
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Let It Ride
This House Is Not For Sale
Stay With Me
I Just Might
Come Pick Me Up