The Dinkytowner Café's bartender is leering at the indie starlet slumped at the counter in front of him. As the live drum 'n' bass band throttles its arrhythmic beat in the background, the bartender leans closer. It's just you, me, and the music, baby, his eyes seem to croon. But as he pours a glass of wine for her, something diverts the drinkmaker's gaze. He peers over to his left. His look now says: It's just you, me, the music, and those tough boys listening from the pool tables, swiping moves from The Color of Money. He looks to the right. Just you, me, the music, the tough boys, and the gaggle of students listening from the booths, licking up platters of greasy Mexican food as if anticipating a taco apocalypse. He looks straight ahead. Just you, me, the music, the tough boys, the students, and the plague of other hipster girls who are listening from the bar, shifting their cigarettes around like nervous divorcées until it is their turn to claim a free glass of wine. The bartender stops counting. His private moment is ruined. He picks up the starlet's glass and anxiously drinks the wine himself.
The Dinkytowner's bartender has a right to be nervous. It seems that every time a music scene grows to substantial proportions in Dinkytown, it is immediately relegated to the musical graveyard, left to snarl like a subterranean Axl Rose at the end of G N' R's "November Rain" video. Commence body count: The Purple Onion's folk-activist scene is dead. Bon Appétit's hip-hop scene is dead. The Varsity Theater's goth scene is dead. But keep digging, überscenesters. Below the scuffling heels of restaurant managers, university professors, and business-association board members, under the manholes and potholes that pock the East Bank's concrete, just beneath the Dinkytown's skin, the skeletons of dead music venues are beginning to rattle their bones again. And the clatter is coming straight from the Dinkytowner.
Minneapolis's latest descent into underground music begins with a staircase. After you walk down the steps beneath the Dinkytowner's yellow awning on 14th Avenue and pay your measly entrance fee, you'll be admitted into what looks like a diner that underwent a frontal lobotomy. The C-shaped room curls around the bar, running from a half-dozen pool tables to a handful of booths, then continuing on to the scarred cavity in the floor that acts as a lowered stage.
At night, when the restaurant becomes a concert venue, many Picked to Click bands step up--or down, as the case may be--to the spotlight. (If the polls of the late Nineties were made up of Foxfire alums, the 21st Century, to date, belongs to the Dinkytowner.) On Tuesday nights Nate Johnson uses the space to showcase Undercinema, a series of film screenings and live underground music performances. DJ Paul Harding transports his Radio K International show here on Wednesday nights to mix an eclectic range of world music. The following night Crossfaded Thursdays presents a smattering of instrumental freestyle work, often paired with retro film clips.
Johnson suggests that the concept of being "underground" connotes more than just an insider scene. "I consider the term underground to mean something that is both financially independent and radically different from the mainstream in both technique and form," he says.
To interpret Johnson's definition in terms of another subterranean metaphor: The Dinkytowner is truly a grassroots establishment. The shows there are financially accessible: Ticket prices are cheap, ranging from $3 for Crossfaded Thursdays to $5 for all-ages Sundays. The performances are also musically accessible: Many DJs with marginal performing experience--like DJs Bjorn and Kasi--have used their rare musical collages of old and new sounds to generate a local Dinkytowner following. Furthermore, members of Crossfaded Thursdays--like Anomaly, Poor Line Condition, and T--have helped to establish a democratic sentiment among musicians.
"It used to be that the First Ave. guys played with other First Ave. guys, and the ones who played the Turf Club hung out with other Turf Club people," says J.T. Bates, the musician behind T, a jazzy, instrumental cooperative whose members are in constant rotation at the Dinkytowner. "Now there's a sense of community. People from all different venues are performing with each other."
Dinkytowner booker and Cropduster guitarist J.G. Everest credits Crossfaded's friendly social environment at least in part to the Dinkytowner's physical demeanor. "Sometimes I wish we had some windows," he admits. "But I think as it is, we have a cozier space and a more intimate connection between the bands and the people who are watching them."
Perhaps the lack of windows that Everest mentions is exactly what has allowed the Dinkytowner to thrive. Second Ward Minneapolis City Council member Joan Campbell notes that the disturbances that led to the demise of Bon Appétit and the Varsity "had to do with all of the young kids who were just hanging out and causing trouble in the streets afterward.
"It made things very messy for the business owners in Dinkytown," she elaborates. Unlike those who visited Dinkytown's past music venues, whatever motley groups want to wait in line for the Dinkytowner's shows can do so privately within the enclosed stairwell, where no detractors need confront their young mugs.
"In the past, the music scenes in Dinkytown have been really start-stop," says Everest. "When a music scene starts, it hasn't been able to follow through, whether that was because a business couldn't sustain itself, or because the [Dinkytown] Business Association got involved. It's made us more cautious. All we can do with the Dinkytowner now is be responsible about the space and be respectful to the other people in the community."
And once the Dinkytowner starts attracting crowds too big to be contained in the stairwell? Let's not worry about that yet. We'll have to keep the scene a secret--just between you, me, the bartender, the indie starlet...and no one else at all. Shhhhh, trustworthy reader. Don't tell a soul.