They arrived in vans, the day before the Super Bowl.
And nobody gave a shit. While the drunk and the frozen stood on Nicollet Mall listening to the Great Elders of Minnesota Rock and Roll (the Suburbs, Bob Mould, Jayhawks, and Soul Asylum) the comfortably weird and awkwardly beautiful shuffled into the Whole Music Club to see four educated clowns from Glasgow—the Spook School—and two American indie bands fronted by women named Alex: Great Grandpa and Diet Cig.
The Spook School’s latest, Could It Be Different?, sounds like Mitch Easter produced the Wedding Present. If that sounds simultaneously fantastic and falteringly precious, you have your band. Opening their set with a break-up song that should be the anthem of our times (“Fuck you I’m still alive/ And I’m not going anywhere with you.”), the trans/queer band who met doing improv at the University of Edinburgh played a set spanning all three of their albums, from Dress Up’s “I’ll Be Honest” and Try to Be Hopeful’s “Burn Masculinity” to a fair selection of songs from their newest (“Body,” “Less than Perfect,” “Keep in Touch,” “Bad Year”). If you got to the show late, you missed the best set of the night: If there’s a band making better music of the struggle to be both safe and wildly, ecstatically seen I don’t know it, and every damned one of us will nod our heads with the Spook School, despite everything: “It’s been a bad year/Tomorrow we’ll wake up/And keep on going.”
Great Grandpa were just in town at all-ages venue the Garage around Thanksgiving, but are back supporting their first album, Plastic Cough, for a college audience. Lead singer Alex Menne began their set burying her mic in the shade of her oversized hoodie, but soon shed both it and her scowl. Menne and bandmates have not only mastered the trademark Seattle sound (the album can’t quite shake its distant-dream-of-Rev105-all-nighters quality) but have successfully aligned themselves behind her canny ability to be at once commanding (“Teen Challenge”), goofy (“28 Js L8r”), and, as in their four-and-a-half-minute version of “All Things Must Behave,” achingly beautiful.
Alex Luciano and Noah Bowman of Diet Cig (newly backed by Spook School’s bassist/singer Anna Cory and synth player Karli Roberts-Helm) immediately summon one of the eternal philosophical questions of rock-n-roll: “High art or good fun?” Diet Cig land firmly on the good fun side, while being as earnest about their good times as a vegan band-camp counselor. They have a studied feel about them, even in their abandon, and don’t fully seem to have inhabited their music.
It’s a complaint they’ve heard before, you can tell, as Alex rips into her anticipation of this criticism in “Link in Bio”: “I'm not being dramatic/ I've just fucking had it/ With the things that you say you think that I should be.” Even better was when she and the entire band, slightly behind the beat, all chanted, syllable-by-syllable, “Don’t. Tell. Me. To. Calm. Down!”
Unfortunately, certain songs are so loopy and discordant to their presentation (from “Dinner Date”: “And I'm going through these phases of people and places/ And the turkey is tasty, just like the shit that you're talking/ So you know I had to shoot that dog”) that the band’s image shimmers and pixelates even as you’re bobbing uncontrollably in the audience. Your head is nodding, too—you agree with all the words that make sense—but somewhere in both your brain and your boogie, there’s a persistent disconnect and a waiting for Diet Cig to fully ground the guitar pedals they gleefully kick across the stage in more than just… performance.
All three bands converged on the stage to play a half-assed but wildly ebullient version of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” as an encore, and of course the audience sang along with them before disappearing into the still-falling snow. A persistent theme of the night, sometimes to the point of tendentiousness, is that all three of these bands are trying to make a scene: one where LGBTQ are not only safe, but seen; one where wildly flailing hands know exactly where they are; where difference doesn’t disappear in the mosh pit, but rises proudly from it, again and again. If you want to know what rock ’n’ roll looks like on the other side of gender-neutral johns, #metoo, and safe spaces, here’s your answer: It looks perfectly capable of getting its Chucks vertical, its feedback looping, and its reverb pedals smoking.
The crowd: A couple hundred of the Whole faithful: the philosophy major with awkwardly retro sweater, the Pitchfork review panner with considerate hair, mostly male but not by any means all cis—and a good third of the crowd young women out looking for their great time, dammit.
Overheard in the crowd: “She [Alex Luciano, lead singer of Diet Cig] makes rock ’n’ roll look even more fun than dancing on your bed—and she does it while playing a real guitar.”
Random notebook dump: It took the Spook School drummer, Niall McCamley, a few tries to understand the crowd’s relationship to the Super Bowl Madness three train stops down on Nicollet Mall. After a rising crescendo of “boo” and “nooooo” responses to his attempts at cheerleading, he unlocked the key to the crowd (and night) with, “Well, then—snow angels on the college green after the show!”