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First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

Related:
First Avenue: An archived history via flyers, riders & contracts
First Avenue's 20 best concerts: Readers' picks
First Avenue's 40 years of rock 'n' roll
Top 20 best Minnesota musicians: The complete list

First Avenue is undoubtedly among the premier rock clubs in the country -- possibly the world. Since 1970, the building at the intersection of First Avenue and Seventh Street North in downtown Minneapolis has hosted drinking, dancing, and live music as the Depot, Uncle Sam's, Sam's, and since 1981, First Avenue. The iconic silver stars naming past performers painted on the outside walls tell part of the story of the club, but the anecdotes of obscenely cheap tickets, balmy temperatures, and youthful days arriving long before the jaded regulars are what make this building an institution. Even riskier than summing up the best shows from the club's 42-year history would be to let these ear-shattering, heart-warming evenings go forgotten. Here are 20 of the finest nights First Avenue ever had. --Reed Fischer

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

20. Arcade Fire/ Wolf Parade/ Bell Orchestre, First Avenue, 9/29/05 
Arcade Fire were well on their way to indie-rock success story when they rolled into this sold-out Mainroom show, but even the local skeptics became full-blown believers. The band played nearly all of their utterly brilliant debut LP, Funeral, as well as three tracks from their self-titled EP, but it was their stellar cover of David Bowie's "Five Years" -- the band had just performed it with him earlier that month at a Fashion Rocks event -- that truly made this show magical. By the time openers Wolf Parade came out to join the band for a euphoric version of "Wake Up" that closed out the show, the Canadian collective had alerted each and every one of us that a new day was indeed dawning in rock 'n' roll. --Erik Thompson

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

19. Meat Beat Manifesto, 7th St. Entry, 11/10/89

This was the Sex Pistols in Manchester for a good chunk of what would become the Minneapolis techno scene. Since it was a Friday night -- the day after the regular house music night in the entry, House Nation -- they already had a ton of bass cabinets to make the Entry into a giant bass bin. The Meat Beat show was three musicians and two male modern dancers in techno dinosaur armor. It was captivating and ridiculous as the dancers locked their feet into the Entry's lighting trusses, and danced upside down for large chunks of the show. There weren't more than 35 people in the room, but within two years at least 20 of them had techno records out. I watched part of that show with First Avenue booker Steve McClellan, who just kept rolling his eyes and muttering. The only other time I saw him do that was at Lisa Suckdog playing in the Entry with an act that consisted mostly of having sex, talking in French and, I think, eating chocolate cake. --Chris Strouth
First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

18. Burning Spear, First Avenue, 9/24/01

Reggae legend Burning Spear (Winston Rodney) has always been a powerful performer at First Avenue. But in the first weeks following 9/11, reggae's pillars of peace, love, and positivity seemed like Dorothy believing in the Wizard. If anyone else in the Mainroom was doubting the love of Jah Ras Tafari that night, Spear shook it out of us. He was in very strong voice, and his band was coming off of months on the road together: They could feel each other. Spear fixed his eyes at a point above and beyond the audience and swayed, his shoulders shook with a shiver and he started, "We are here to pick up the pieces, come along my brothers, come along my sisters." He seemed to be channeling more than singing that night. My friend took pictures and she swears there are "orbs" around Burning Spear in the photo. I don't believe in orbs, but I believe in reggae again. --Rachel Lee Joyce

 

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

17. Pulp, First Avenue, 5/26/96
It's stunning how much the nattily dressed Jarvis Cocker expressed with his legs during this performance. The Pulp frontman thrilled a lively, combative crowd while leading his band through a set that pulled heavily from the near-perfect Different Class album. While every Britpop fan at the time (including myself) was wasting far too much breath on Oasis, this was the band that exceeded what little stateside hype they'd earned. One woman in the crowd was either trying to flirt with Cocker, or just make a scene. Either way, she repeatedly lambasted him for the commentary found in "Common People." And, proving his deftness once again, he sidestepped it all and suggested they discuss the matter afterward. And a not-so-humble brag to those who are shelling out to see Pulp in reunion mode right now, note that this show was $5! --Reed Fischer

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

16. Erykah Badu, First Avenue, 4/30/97
Erykah Badu's debut release Baduizm had not yet received much play on mainstream radio ahead of her first full U.S. tour, but the club was still packed that night. For a change, the sweet-scented swirls of smoke weren't coming from the crowd -- Ms. Badu had filled the stage with incense, tapestries, and floor lamps with colored bulbs, which were the requisite trappings of a neo-soul session back then. She captivated us with the drawl-tinged octaves of her voice so much that even her between-song lectures in Egyptian numerology and African spirituality were met with air toasts to the stage. The jazzy/blues from the record translated perfectly with a full band, a rarity at R&B shows of the era. She mostly stuck to tracks from Baduizm, but when she introduced the unreleased "Tyrone," we seemed especially connected as we we sang the chorus and, when instructed by the true diva, pointed at our "third eyes." --Rachel Lee Joyce

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

15. PJ Harvey, First Avenue, 10/01/04 
While PJ Harvey's 2004 album Uh Huh Her didn't quite match Mercury Prize-winning Stories From the City..., her First Avenue tour stop in support of that record was memerizing. In a full-length red velvet gown and matching gloves, Polly Jean tore through her stellar catalog while confidently delivering performances of "Dress," "Good Fortune," "50 Ft. Queenie," and "Meet Ze Monsta." Harvey was also still wailing away on her guitar, this being the era before her eventual foray into the stark piano and harp-laden arrangements of her current work. --Erik Thompson

 

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list
Photo by Steve Cohen

14. Lucinda Williams, First Avenue, 7/17/01

Lucinda Williams hit the mainstream sometime between the long gestation of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1998 and her relatively quick 2001 follow-up, Essence. As her visibility grew, she'd accepted higher profile gigs such as touring with Tom Petty, which included a show just across the street at Target Center in 1999. By the time she returned to the relatively intimate First Avenue Mainroom in '01, Lucinda and her audience were ready to re-connect with these songs of heartbreak and pain in a way not possible in large arenas. In September 2009, she came back to share her joy with Minneapolis by getting married on the same stage. --Steve Cohen

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

13. Marilyn Manson, First Avenue, 10/09/96 
At the time of this show, I was 15 years old, and had recently parted with a narrow and pinched childhood by becoming a goth. This rebellion was deflated a little by the fact that it was endorsed by my mother, who believed so deeply in broad-mindedness that she sprang for my ticket, fairly ruining the main thrill of it. The show was magnificent, but the venue captivated me the most. Its soul was stranger and more beguiling to me even than Manson's, and though my affair with Manson's music, torrid as it was, proved fleeting, my affair with First Avenue has seemed star-crossed from the first. --David Hansen

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list
Photo by Steve Cohen

12. The Flops/ Dan Wilson & Friends/ Semisonic/ 3/4 Trip Shakespeare 12/12-13/03

This was a reunion of the many branches of Trip Shakespeare that emerged since the beloved psychedelic/power-pop group disbanded in the early '90s. Matt Wilson and John Munson performed as the Flops (and together have since morphed into the Twilight Hours). Munson and Dan Wilson's Semisonic had grown into a worldwide success, but their days were winding down as Dan's solo project began to take shape. Both Semisonic and Dan & Friends performed sets. With Trip drummer Elaine Harris absent, Semisonic's drummer (and acclaimed author) Jacob Slichter filled in with the rest of the original group to round out the night with a set of Trip Shakespeare classics. Everyone got a little history lesson, but also a chance to shake around a bit. --Steve Cohen

 

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

11. Dinosaur Jr./ My Bloody Valentine/ Babes in Toyland, First Avenue, 2/12/92
My Bloody Valentine was touring on Loveless, and splitting the bill with Dinosaur Jr. In this case, they were the middle act. I don't know anyone who stayed, but it was a show that bordered on the mystical. The club literally ran out of earplugs. I have had mild tinnitus ever since, and I don't care -- it was glorious. I was awash in sound. --Chris Strouth

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

10. Basement Jaxx, First Avenue, 10/08/01
Basement Jaxx's

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

9. Pavement/ Wilco/ The Dirty Three, First Avenue, 05/26/95 
There are some headlining sets that are so good that no matter who the openers are, you can't remember much about their performances. That is clearly the case with Pavement's riveting Mainroom show in 1995. Wilco were there in support of their just-released debut, A.M., along with frequent Nick Cave collaborators the Dirty Three, while Pavement were touring behind their brilliant new record Wowee Zowee. As with all of Pavement's live performances, this was a splendidly shambolic show that drew generously from all three of their stellar LPs. The band were still getting along relatively well at this point, which gave their underdog anthems an irresistible slacker spirit that the college-aged crowd clearly identified with. "Rattled By The Rush," indeed. -Erik Thompson

 

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

8. The Fugees/ The Roots/ Goodie Mob, First Avenue, 11/96
Three of the era's biggest acts hit the road on a small club tour to rave reviews, but First Avenue was the high point as each crew wanted to out-rock each other in the house that Prince built. The Fugees headlined, and it just as "Killing Me Softly" was about to repeat on pop radio. This was Lauryn Hill at her best. Her voice boomed off the walls as Wyclef Jean cemented himself as a true performer and, oh yeah, Pras was in there somewhere. The Roots were on-point creatively, and fresh with their live band and impromptu jam session. Black Thought did covers of Wu-Tang, and impersonated each member perfectly. You swore he was magically channeling Ghostface. But no doubt this new group from Atlanta had everyone talking, Goodie Mob stole the show with a high-energy charismatic performance. Cee-Lo rapping his full verse on "Goodie Bag" brought the house down. People who were in attendance knew this was a special night and knew something like this would never happen again as Khujo starting throwing buckets of fried chicken into the audience as an encore, we were all celebrating this golden show during this golden era of hip-hop. -Lars Larson

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

7. Rhymesayers Entertainment 10th Anniversary Show, First Avenue, 7/22/05
Like an early Motown Records revue, not one group was the headliner. Instead, it was the whole label, or in this case, a whole city and movement. Rhymesayers celebrating their 10th anniversary was a "we arrived"-type moment and the crowd knew it as well. From the early days in the Entry to cats, vans, bags across the country, it was time to cut the cake and drop the balloons. The venue was packed to the doors and stifling hot. But the fire came from the stage as the show was fast paced with no downtime or lull and every act from Atmosphere to Musab brought its A game with short, powerful sets. Los Nativos charged the crowd in full headdress and war paint attire and new label mates P.O.S and Mac Lethal proved they belonged. Everyone got stage time, even a real MF Doom managed to show up, and you know it's a special night when that happens. -Lars Larson

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

6. The Jayhawks, First Avenue, 7/7-8-9/95

At the height of summer, and six months after the release of Tomorrow The Green Grass, theJayhawks returned to First Avenue for three consecutive nights. There's almost nothing like experiencing a packed Mainroom with like-minded music lovers on a sizzling summer night. The band (augmented by fiddler Mike "Razz" Russell) shared the songs from their (at this point) four-album catalog and exciting covers that displayed their influences. Just a few months later, Mark Olson had left the band, marking an end to this lineup on the First Avenue stage for 15 full years. The classic line-up triumphantly brought it all back home for another three night stand in the summer of 2010. -Steve Cohen

 

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

5. U2, First Avenue, 2/21/82
In a smaller venue, the young and spiritually charged rising rock stars U2 were mixed with a devoted audience that, even then, knew every word to every song. Literally, as Bono struggled with the words to a "Southern Man" encore, he brought up a member of the audience to help him with the performance. This was Bono before the bug shades, this was Edge debating the relationship between faith and the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, and this was way before multi-million dollar Pop Mart stage setups. This was an simple Irish band, up close and personal with its fan base, they would never be this intimate and vulnerable again. The electricity of this night will never be matched again as U2 moved on to bigger venues over the years. -Lars Larson

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

4. Radiohead, First Avenue, 4/03/96
Many Radiohead devotees have already spoken out about the legendary show the band put on the year prior to this gig (6/04/95, although my ticket stub says 6/11/95). In both cases, a brash, young folk singer named David Gray was the opening act, and both shows were examples of the band right before meeting people became so easy. Having attended both, the 1996 concert had more of a feel for where the band would end up on OK Computer. For Bends purists, this would be a nightmare. But those of us looking for the band to distance itself from the Buzz Bin, hearing wild renditions of songs like "Ripcord" that would soon go in the vault forever was only the tip of those Kid A icebergs. Plus, they did an in-store signing at Let It Be Records after the concert. -Reed Fischer 

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list


3. Public Enemy, First Avenue, 12/12/88
In a time before Chuck D became the hip-hop guy who every NPR listener could quote, Public Enemy was the band that was scary. Hip-hop went from the cartoony plumage of Grandmaster Flash to the hardcore gangster attitude of Ice-T and PE. Walking into their first show felt dangerous -- at least from my perspective as gothy teenager from Fridley. It felt like a moment where everything changed. Punk rock wasn't dangerous anymore, but this was. With Griff and the hard-stepping of the Nation of Islam soldiers, Chuck D and Flavor Flav stepping so hard that it was bouncing Terminator X's turntables. It was a bit like losing your virginity, only without sex and a lot more references to Louis Farrakhan. -Chris Strouth

 

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

2. Prince, First Avenue, 7/07/07
Needless to say, there are countless Prince shows at First Ave that could fit in this slot. Take your pick from the run of mid-'80s blowouts, the filming of Purple Rain, the exploration of Sign O' the Times, and so forth. This was the most surprising show of them all. On the morning of 7/7/07, my alarm went off at 5 a.m. I rolled out of bed and got hastily dressed. It was Prince day. People had been sleeping on the sidewalks surrounding First Avenue since the night before, and I was worried I wouldn't get there in time. After an eight-hour wait I had both a wristband and a ticket.

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

Another eight-hour wait later that night proved that it was worth everything to see Prince onstage in his second home again. It came along with a performance in Macy's and at Target Center. Sheila E and Wendy showed up, among other special guests, and it took the Minneapolis police to shut down the show around 4 a.m. -Stacy Schwartz

First Avenue's 20 best concerts: The complete list

1. Joe Cocker, The Depot, 4/03/70
Nothing feels as sweet as the first time. According to the April 4, 1970 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune, "not since the truck drivers' strike of 1934 is it likely that there has been such excitement, such chaos, such congestion, such noise just off Hennepin Av. as there was Friday night." The account, which later calls the space Fillmore Upper Midwest, says that carpeting and other interior decorations weren't yet installed, but the old bus station was packed out with sun-tanned men and women wearing expensive hippie garb by the time Cocker hit the stage just after 8 p.m. The $10 tables were full, the $4 standing room was reserved for those willing fight for it, and the initial stocking of booze was used up by showtime. A long-haired Cocker worked hard on stage filled with 40 people "singing like a black man" and dancing "like a spastic" and the two sets had the feel of a circus sideshow. From day one, this club had its magnetic persona established. -Reed Fischer  

What was your favorite show at First Avenue? Write us, and send photos to gimmenoise@citypages.com and we'll include you in a list of readers' picks on the blog next week.

Related:
First Avenue: An archived history via flyers, riders & contracts
First Avenue's 20 best concerts: Readers' picks
First Avenue's 40 years of rock 'n' roll
Top 20 best Minnesota musicians: The complete list


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