First Avenue at 45: Our First and Favorite Shows

First Avenue has been such a steady and supportive influence on the music scene of the Twin Cities and beyond that it's easy to take the place for granted. That's why a special weekend like this one -- commemorating the 45th anniversary of the opening of our beloved local club -- is so important, where we can take the time to celebrate just how fortunate we are to have such a venerable music institution in the heart of downtown Minneapolis.

So, ahead of a weekend full of shows in the Mainroom commemorating the grand occasion -- Har Mar Superstar/Sonny Knight & the Lakers/Cactus Blossoms tonight, Father John Misty/King Tuff on Saturday, and Clean Bandit on Sunday -- we asked area musicians, writers, and music fans to look back on their first shows at First Avenue.


"When I first played the 7th St. Entry almost a decade ago, I thought, "This is the BEST!" Then after I FINALLY managed to SELL OUT the Entry, I thought, "THIS is the best!" Years later, when I was asked to play in the main room for the first time, I was standing on that stage in front of all those people, and I thought, "This HAS to be the best!" But then, Sims and I joined forces for a show, and we sold that big ass room out, and I swore "THAT was the best!" But really, it is all the best. Every show I played from the Entry to the Mainroom, every time I jumped on stage with Doomtree, every Friday I was dancing and sweating in the crowd up in the Record Room for Cryphy, it was all the best. Because First Avenue, from the space, to the staff, to the sound, the heavy pours of Jim Beam, is the best. The best god damn club in America. Amen."
--Astronautalis

"First Avenue is still a sanctuary for me. It's a safe haven where indie bands and rock'n'roll bands and singer/songwriter bands and band bands can let their hair down and have a show. Pete Yorn was my first show at the club. I had seen him the year before (2002) with Weezer in Fargo with some old friends. He validated my grandiose plan to grow my hair out after high school. Have the locks I always sought out but never buckled down to have previously. He had a big nose, shaggy hair, an energetic band, great songs, and an album that I still hold dear. I had never been in there and had heard a handful of stories. It was downtown, man. It was in the heart of that metropolis called Minneapolis. Parking is a nightmare. You'll be hassled the entire way to the show. It's dark in there, man. DARK IN THERE, MAN.

I found street parking painlessly a couple blocks behind the club. It was in surrounded by those skyscrapers I had seen on the annual trips down to the Metrodome for state championship football. And it was dark. It was painted black. Everything. I hadn't really seen anything like it before. It was funny to me how welcoming the staff was at this dark place. How welcoming the space was with all the black. There's no pictures from this show I have. I don't even think I brought my cell phone in, it stayed in the car. This was before texting and pictures on a phone. Pete had a great show and I drove back to Duluth hoping to catch some more artists I adored in that same room. And boy, have I. I would never have imagined being able to see as many shows there, much less play a show there. People will talk about it as Prince's place, I am sure. But I have met some of the most brilliant music enthusiasts in those doors, seen some of the greatest shows on that stage, and shared so many memories within those walls, that it stands on its own in my book."

An Ode to the Stars

Here's to the place,
resides at the 701
to all the great times
and all the fun to come
to the little brother entry,
and those who hang from it's truss
to the Turf across the river,
and that Mainroom we adore so much,
to all the folks
who make the shows go on,
to those audience members,
who decide to singalong
for the cold, cold beer I bought from atop his head,
for the time I crowd-surfed,
didn't get kicked out, but helped down instead
for the lights, the sound, and confetti we've had
for the helpful guidance from our dear Conrad
so keep the paint black,
and the stars blazing white,
here's to First Ave
may it always shine bright
--Gabe Douglas of The 4onthefloor

"Growing up in the Twin Cities music scene means going to lots of shows at First Avenue and mythologizing everything about the place. It's the mecca of music in Minneapolis. The first time we played the 7th street entry I remember going down into the basement/green room. The walls were covered with the names of bands who had played there in the years past. After our show, First Avenue talent buyer Sonia Grover informed us that our show was the first time a band had the crowd doing a choreographed group dance in the Entry. We've still never played the Mainroom. It will be one of the highlights of our lives when we do."
--Koo Koo Kanga Roo

"My first show at First Avenue happened a long time ago with another band. Long enough ago that I have no recollection of it other than it was a LOW Holiday Concert. Maybe before? But I'm pretty sure that was it.

My first gig as Actual Wolf was at First Ave Best New Bands and there was something magical about that evening. Maybe it was that fresh new band feeling. Like a new pair of cool socks... ya know? or the smell of a fresh container of tennis balls? But we sure felt like Rock n Roll Stars. It's the crew really. They are all top notch folks who are down to earth. They treat you with respect as long as you do the same. I've known that Conrad has existed in this universe since I was 13. That's Heavy. Me & The Boyz have grown up with/in First Ave and we hope to sell it out one of these days."
--Eric Pollard of Actual Wolf

"My first time playing in the Mainroom was with my old band called the Lemon Merchants. We were beyond excited to play at the place so many great shows have happened! The people who work there know how to take care of performers and their crew, and that is what keeps great bands coming there to play. RIP Billy."
--Ryan Young of Trampled by Turtles

"It was in August of either 1999 or 2000 for the very first "England Swings' show. I kept seeing posters around town and the writeup in City Pages and I was so annoyed that my band The Camdens hadn't been asked to play! We were 50% English. The guitar player, Scott Walker and myself, both from London. Anyway just a few days before the show the organizer of the event came to see us play at the Fine Line and said he'd been trying to track us down and asked us to play. So we were a last minute addition and we played "Crash" by The Primitives and "Train in Vain" by The Clash. I'll never forget how amazing it was to be up on that big stage. I felt so small and so awed to be up there! An amazing night with some of the best bands in town."
--Katy Vernon

"First show I can remember attending at First Avenue was a local ska music festival - must have been 1998 or around then. Luke Anderson, the drummer for Rogue Valley, was in a band called The Hoodlums and I remember being amazed at not only the size of the venue - but also it's defining black and grey color palate. The venue seemed cold and aggressive, and I felt like a total outsider. I wasn't punk, I wasn't rock; I was a young idealist who would need a lot of time to figure things out. It wasn't until early 2005 when I was asked to participate in a new bands showcase when I got to play the Ave. Amidst the black and grey, Conrad was - and still is - a radical swatch of brilliant color keeping the peace, and the spirit of a historical musical landmark and amazing venue." 
--Chris Koza

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"The first time I set foot on the historic stage in the main room at First Avenue, it was almost too exciting to handle. I was eighteen years old, and had spent the last several years dragging my parents to shows, so that I could get around the 18+ and 21+ restriction, and attend the incredible lineup of local, national, and international bands. It felt surreal to kneel down on the stage and plug in my guitar, where countless stars had done the same. I will never forget the feeling of staring at the microphone directly in front of me, as the screen slowly and ominously rose, revealing a sold out crowd. It was the first night of The Current's yearly birthday bash. In a flash of sound and lights, it was over. Forty five minutes flashed before my eyes. I walked off the stage into the dressing room, and looked down at my hands, which were shaking uncontrollably. I remember thinking, "Did that just happen?'" --John Mark Nelson

"In August 1994 I escaped from New Jersey and graduate school in a used Chevette with $500 cash, and Minneapolis was my third stop along the way to Seattle. I wouldn't move here for another three years, but I was convinced I should move here during that trip more specifically, while the Hang Ups played at the 7th Street Entry, a show my friend
(and the band members' housemate) Laura Sinagra dragged me to. I had no idea how
much time I'd come to spend over the next two decades in that small room, or in the
larger adjacent venue, where we'd all relocate between sets to dance and talk and smoke."
--Keith Harris

"People who give guided college tours no doubt get asked a bunch of weird, random questions. Little did my tour guide at the University of Minnesota know how much his response to my question, "Where do you go to see live music around here?' would wind up shaping the direction of my life. Of course he said First Avenue, so I headed downtown that night to see what the club was all about. Mudhoney was headlining (supported by Gas Huffer and Poster Children), and their untamed performance that evening, along with the grimy cool of the club itself, solidified my decision to attend the U of M the following fall in 1992. Being in college in the '90s in Minneapolis was a dream. There were spectacular shows to see every night, and I did my best to see as many of them as I could. The hundreds (thousands?) of stellar shows I've seen there in the decades since have also played a major role in motivating me to write about music for a living. I wanted to take those fantastic experiences within those dark, black walls and the sea of music fans and describe them for others, while getting the chance to relive them all myself."
--Erik Thompson

"One day in the turbulent early aughts, my stoner roommates came home to our cigarette-strewn party hovel with the uncharacteristic air of a couple of bobbysoxers. Household favorites The Faint would be playing a show in "the Mainroom," they exclaimed, and a road trip away from our depressingly rural college town was in store. I knew that my waning innocence would be dealt a critical blow on this pilgrimage to the legendary First Avenue, and boy was I ever excited. Queued along 7th Street, we tried to play it cool under the rows of silver stars as we passed around the communal Lucky Strikes. We made our way inside with wide eyes and naiveté, squeezing by and throwing elbows to secure our spots near the stage, country mice engulfed in a sea of city slickers. When the band finally made their entrance, the light show picked up and the fog machines kicked in, and I soon forgot my small-town self-consciousness. I succumbed to moving my body with the driving drum machines and throbbing synths until my head swam and the sweat ran down my back.

I had been to concerts at other venues before (mostly unserious ska and indifferent Smashing Pumpkins), but it was the first time I witnessed a band so thoroughly enraptured in their performance, and yet intimately connected with the audience. That unrelenting energy arcing from the stage to the churning dance floor and back again was like a new drug. We were at once young and grown, possessed and liberated, a mob under a spell. When I finally made my way to the bathroom to towel off, my reflection above the sink was all flushed cheeks and running mascara, and my feet had been stomped on and my ears were ringing mercilessly, but the thrill I felt would be one that I'd pursue again and again for years to come, often under that very roof. Sure, there's nothing like the first time, but the impression was indelible. I never could have dreamed that I'd get to play live music -- much less set foot on that sacred stage. Big thanks to First Ave for lighting a fire in my belly."
--Kate Murray of Haley Bonar

"April 5, 1993. Nearly 22 years ago to the day. I still have the ticket stub, it sits framed in my office among other stubs--I'm looking at it right now. I bought it a few weeks in advance of the show and waited, often thinking about what it would be like to actually go to First Avenue. It would be my first time inside those legendary walls, but not the last. The band? House of Pain. Yes, House of Pain. But what I remember most about that show was the opening band: Rage Against the Machine. They came out angry, the dreadlocked lead singer telling us to learn about AIM and about Mumia Abu-Jamal and telling us our Euro-centric education was "fucking bullshit" between songs that made him sound even angrier than when he was speaking. As a 16-year-old still very much in the process of finding himself, I couldn't get enough. I bought the album the next day, it featured that famous photo of Thích Quảng Đức, and I was smitten with the band's outright defiance and ideas about things that up to that point, I had never really heard about before--or at least had not cared much to explore. I never really listened to House of Pain much after that night, not that I remember anyway. My eyes had been opened in more ways than one and I was never going to look back."
--Pat O'Brien

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"As the world was emerging from the grunge era, 1997 ushered in Blur and their self-titled album with mainstream "Song 2" -- but I guess I shouldn't call it mainstream, because this was when selling out really meant selling out. The song was everywhere -- especially on 93.7 The Edge where I would find all of my new music. I listened and studied the album back to back and let it influence my 17-year-old poseur self. The band toured to support the album, so I bought two tickets to their show at First Ave. (June 24, 1997) with the hopes of finding someone cool to go with, but I eventually ended up going with my sister, since I didn't have many "cool" friends at the time.

This also being my first concert ever (the hoe down on a family vacation Branson, Missouri does not count), I had no idea what to expect, where to go, where to stand, or even how to stand -- in a self-affected way that makes you seem cool, even if you are a jerk. We got to First Ave. and could not see a thing, so we tried going upstairs, but were turned away because we were both underage. The person who turned us away was super nice since he could tell we had no clue what we were doing. We ended up on the balcony by the women's bathroom, and I brought a disposable camera, thinking I could be sneaky and take a photo. When I did, the flash went off, and everyone turned to look at me like, "What the fuck are you doing?" This was long before everyone had phones and documented every moment of their life. I don't remember much else about the show -- I was too busy trying to not look like I was at my first concert -- except people going nuts when they played 'Song 2.'"
--Youa Vang

"My first ever real concert experience was seeing Muse at First Ave when I was 14 years old. I went with my friend Trav and his dad. The venue was totally packed and I was so overwhelmed. I remember thinking that the there was an earthquake happening once Muse took the stage. I had never heard anything that LOUD. I couldn't see anything that was happening so I took my jacket off to stand on it. I just stood there mesmerized by the sound system, crazy lights the moshing crowd. I then remember looking right to see Trav crowdsurfing all across the floor and then looking back and seeing his dad just hanging out by the bar, being a cool dad at a rock concert. Life was good. I'll never forget that experience. As well as many others at First Ave."
--Jake Pavek from Taj Raj / A Piano In Every Home

"My introduction to First Avenue was sophomore year in high school for an all ages Anti-Pop Consortium show in the Mainroom. As much as I'd like to claim cool points for the avant-garde concert choice, I was there tagging along with my father, who introduced me to the experimental hip-hop group and was very excited to see them live. Stricken by their off-kilter approach to glitch-tinged electronic rap, I also was amazed at the space and the people who occupied it: punk rock kids with Public Enemy patches, older bearded record enthusiasts, and golden age rap fans congregating in the dimly lit confines of what I came to learn was a historic venue.

Watching Purple Rain for the first time later that year held special significance knowing my parents had been concert-goers during the 80's Minneapolis Sound heyday, and as I started to attend more and more local hip-hop shows at First Avenue from crews like Rhymesayers, Interlock and Hecatomb, I recognized the local music scene continued to thrive from their generation to mine. Thanks to their continuing appreciation for new music, my parents and I have continued to party under the same Mainroom roof through today, most recently getting Cryphy as a family for the crew's 7th Anniversary. First Avenue represents for me both the lineage of the thriving local music scene through the decades and my own family's ongoing love of attending local shows."
--Jack Spencer

"From the moment I started playing guitar my dream was to play First Avenue. I had seen so many great shows there as a teen thru the '90s. I viewed playing the First Avenue's main room as the final achievement towards "making it." Something I did not think I could achieve when I was that teen going to shows. My first time playing the main room was a sold out headlining Motion City Soundtrack show. It was an amazing and memorable experience. --Josh Cain, guitarist for Motion City Soundtrack

"There was a time when First Avenue would hold the kinds of all-ages shows that would make current-day teenagers weep with envy. I spent countless summer evenings crammed into the Entry sweating to bands you think are great when you're 14, the One Man Armies and Impossibles of the world. I don't know for certain if this was my first Entry show, but it's definitely the first one I remember, and for good reason. It was Dillinger Four opening for Toys That Kill from Chicago. This was around 2001 or so, so the time where Paddy was regularly getting blissfully naked on stage. During the Dillinger Four set, they brought a kid up on stage and shaved his head. Paddy got naked. Paddy stayed naked, because in the middle of Toys That Kill's set, he emerged from the back of the stage in all his natural glory, took the microphone and announced the audience, "This song is so fucking good, I'm going to masturbate to it." He then proceeded to punch himself in the dick for a good twenty seconds while Toys blasted away. It was magic. Was it a sex crime? Who fucking cares. It was magic. It's how all-ages shows should be."
--Jordan Porter of Brilliant Beast

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"I remember playing my first show at first ave back in the fall of 2005. I was playing bass with The Fray, and we were on tour opening for Ben Folds. It was a surreal experience. I had seen so many of my favorite bands play there before. One of my favorite parts of the venue was seeing all the old setlists on the wall behind the stage for the first time. Definitely a show I'll never forget!" --Jimmy Stofer of Weather Maps and Van Stee

"While I don't remember the first show I experienced at First Avenue, the best show I've ever seen was The Faint in 2008 or so. From the moment they took the stage, it was like a cinematic assault of lights and moves and sounds and awesome. If I could play guitar and keys while slide-dancing with the fervor of a thousand aerobics instructors, I would also start a band called The Faint (part 2). My favorite part about First Avenue is the inclusion of Ron Anderson. From the 400 Bar (RIP) to the main room, he's a good man to have behind the boards."
--Adam Svec of Adam Svec, Camp Dark, Coloring Time, Proofreader

"The first time I ever got to play the Mainroom at First Avenue was opening for Peter Himmelman in the late '90s. We had actually just added a new bass player, so I was especially nervous about it. But it went great. It was just such a thrill stepping onto that stage for the first time, thinking about all of the greats who had performed there. I have a recording of the show somewhere on a cassette and now I want to go find it and listen to it. I do know we made the classic mistake that so many bands make when they get one of their first "big" shows -- we played every song way too fast. The anxiety makes you a little nervous so you BURN through the songs at this ridiculous tempo. Nevertheless, we were well-received, and Peter was obviously happy too, as it would be the first of many times I would go on to open for him over the succeeding years.

My first concert was Michael Penn with Lloyd Cole and Victoria Williams opening. Great show -- I was so excited just to be there, and at the time, I was crazy about Penn's debut album "March" so basically I was in heaven. I don't remember too much more about it, other than that I was so thrilled to be seeing one of my favorite artists at First Avenue (for the first time)! This was probably around 1990. No, I never went to First Ave. while I was in high school -- I wasn't all that cool, I guess."
--Dan Israel

"The first time Pert Near Sandstone played at First Ave was a quick opening set before the Kissers and Trampled By Turtles in 2007. That experience has been nearly reduced to a sensation: the recollection of an anxious half hour set amidst the buzzing whir of a sold out show and a vehement audience anticipating the headlining act. It was a year later that we had the opportunity to get back on that stage, then as the closing show. From that vantage we were able to relax into the stage and really relish the sound we were achieving, creating a groove with the room characteristic of First Ave. The Main Room has an ability to make you feel like you are performing for the entire city while the stage still lets you believe you can reach out and touch each member of the audience. As youngsters,Pert Near grew up seeing hit bands rock that stage, and it was a real pleasure to bring our acoustic music there and let it ring as loud and true as our early idols. To this day it is always a pleasure to perform at First Ave." --Nate Sipe of Pert Near Sandstone

"I haven't lived in Minnesota long -- only about 6 months -- but I've always known about First Ave. Of course, there's the connection to Prince and Purple Rain, but I remember seeing its name tagged all over Rhymesayers' Twitter and Facebook and wishing I could be a part of the culture that was centered on that building. People from the city spoke about it with such reverence, though it wasn't until my third month here that I actually got to see a show there. It didn't' end up being Atmosphere or Brother Ali but The Pizza Underground (which was an experience itself). I remember being disappointed I wasn't bellyflopping into the Twin Cities' storied hip-hop scene, but looking up at the wall of stars as I waited in line to see Macaulay Culkin's pizza band, it was pretty clear that First Ave didn't belong to any one scene. It was an emblem of an entire city."
--Jerard Fagerberg

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"I've seen a plethora of First Avenue shows over the years. And while there are many notable ones--Joey Belladonna-fronted Anthrax three times, Fugazi twice, the Rhymesayers 10th Anniversary, Del the Funkee Homosapien, De La Soul, Public Enemy, early-'90s Bad Religion, Femi Kuta, Culture--the single most memorable one is so stereotypical Minnesotan that I'm almost embarrassed to admit it and may actually lose any shred of street credit I have left in doing so. It was Soul Asylum in December 27, 1988.

Hangtime was released that year and the band was beginning to pick up some traction nationally, with blurbs popping up in mags like Thrasher and RIP. My uncle Robert, an OG Minneapolis scene denizen, took my brother Rafe and me as Christmas gift. I had heard his stories for years--how he'd seen them play basement parties as Loud Fast Rules alongside The Replacements--so my excitement was at an all-time high.

The three of us took the city bus downtown. We killed time before the show by walking around the City Center and eating slices of pizza. Which, I imagined, is exactly how it was supposed to be done in 1980s Minneapolis. Eventually we went over to 7th street and took our place in the world-famous First Avenue line. I was in awe, as this was the first time I had ever been around more than two punks at one time. I have vivid memories of waiting in that line, eavesdropping on the young couple behind us who had devised a way to sneak a flask into the all-ages show by tying a string around the neck of it and wearing it as a necklace under their clothing. And I soaked up the fashion. Oh, the fashion: mohawks, spikes, studs, pins, patches, Doc Martens, etc. Remember, this was 1988 and Soul Asylum was still part of the punk lexicon.

Inside the club was the most amazing sight I had ever seen. It was wall-to-wall, full of the most glorious people I had ever had the pleasure of laying my eyes upon. Punk rockers and headbangers. (Local thrash legends Coup De Grace opened the show.) My brother and I recognized several areas where scenes from Purple Rain had been filmed. The music blaring over the P.A. added to the aura--Dead Boys "Sonic Reducer", The 'Mats "Kids Don't Follow", Sex Pistols "Anarchy in the UK", Minor Threat, the Ramones, Husker Du and so on.

When Soul Asylum came on, it was like a mushroom cloud of fun exploded in front of the stage; everyone engaging in the proverbial going off. That was the first time I saw stage diving, crowd surfing and slam dancing in real life. Believe me, it was a much more visceral experience than watching the Red Hot Chilli Pepper's scene in Thrashin'. Soul Asylum were raucous, sloppy, loud, fast, and just fucking fantastic. Never has a pair of ripped jeans and dirty Chuck Taylors looked as good as it did on Dave Pirner that night. And his hair. His glorious, filthy, ratty, perfunctory dreads, recklessly whipping sweat all over both the pit and his bandmates, Dan Murphy, Karl Mueller, and Grant Young. I wished that they would never stop playing. I was completely in love with it all."
--Nathan O'Brien - Senior Staff Writer at Scene Point Blank

"It took me a while to remember my first show at First Ave -- I thought it was the time my wife Priscilla and I went to see Frank Black and the Catholics. It was a 21+ show and Priscilla and I weren't quite there yet. So, a friend at the club had security pull us out of the ticket line and introduce us to the bar staff as minors. Then they walked us right to the front the stage before doors opened. Great show! However, it wasn't the first... Priscilla reminded me the FIRST one was actually an 18+ Weezer show with Dynamite Hack as the opener. DH was sooo bad that the crowd sat down waiting for them to finish. Then Weezer went on -- it was the time frame when they had that really crappy bassist for half a year (he's the weird looking critter on the green album); he was so sloppy. Then he dropped his bass into the crowd while climbing the speakers and they the crowd refused to give it back."
--David Priebe of Maudlin

Sun Gods To Gamma Rays wouldn't exist without First Ave and Matt Latterell (our spirit animal). Matt had the crazy/amazing (crazmazing?) idea to gather local musicians for a collective cover of The Magnetic Fields' '69 Love Songs.' The project was ambitious enough to be officially titled "Absolutely Cuckoo" and performed in the First Ave main room in December of 2012. My then-girlfriend's band, Caetani (Brianna Kocka) was invited to play, but her bandmates couldn't make the show. She asked if I knew anyone who could fill-in. I suggested some friends and I play with her (mostly because I really wanted a chance to play in front of a packed First Ave crowd). She agreed, and I pulled in my buddies Brian Gollnick on bass and Paul Flynn on guitar. My amazing roommate-at-the-time Joe Johnson sat-in on drums. Even though we played like a brand new band (not so great), we had enough fun that we decided to try writing some songs together. Soon we brought in the incomparable Mitch Miller on drums and SGGR was formed. A year and a half later I married Brianna. How's that for storybook? Thanks to First Ave, I have a band and a wife.
--Peter Bregman of Sun Gods to Gamma Rays

"Back when I first moved to Minneapolis and all I knew was the Walker library and the Pizza Luce in Uptown, my then girlfriend and now fiancée quickly added a third location to my repertoire - First Avenue. The first show I saw at my favorite music venue in the world was The Temper Trap in October 2010, and I remember not wanting to go inside so that I could keep finding my favorite bands' silver stars. In the four and a half years since, I've gone to over 75 shows there. It still feels special every time."
--Alex Rice

"My first experience at First Ave was a KMFDM show in 1995. My friends and I made the 3+ hour drive to watch the band, along with openers God Lives Underwater and Life of Agony. Nobody watched GLU, who had just an EP out at the time (I think), and a heckler yelled a favorite dis of all time at Life of Agony: "Go back to music tech." KMFDM were, of course, a great time. This is back when they had original members.

First Ave still holds a special spot for me. Not just because of first time concerts there and nostalgia, but because it's always been a mid-sized club that's maneuverable inside and features good sound and, most of time, solid sightlines. It's downtown location is a big draw--in fact, one of the few things to get me downtown these days--and that iconic corner makes it identifiable not only to music fans, but to anybody who has been through town to visit Target Field, Target Center, the theatre district or, god forbid, even Block E. I do miss the giant "this side up" arrow on the Shubert Theater as I waited in line oh so many times."
--Loren Green

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