So many story lines, songs, and artistic promise were packed into First Avenue's five-hour Best New Bands showcase Saturday night. Hippo Campus, PaviElle, and Sam Cassidy represented voices that are just starting to be heard by larger numbers, but Suzie, Warey, Tiny Deaths, and ZuluZuluu all featured lead vocalists with familiar faces -- albeit for different projects.
Official numbers aren't yet in as to which acts brought the most friends and family members along to cheer them on, but only one artist came to the gig with actual cheerleaders.
Sam Cassidy kicked off the night's festivities with his unique brand of hard-luck, blue-collar rock. Cassidy, a cabinetmaker who spent two years of his time and money on debut LP Debts, was backed by Red Daughters for his seven-song set. He showcased a true ear for timeless melodies on the earworm "Hallelujah" and the hard-charging "Way Down."
The Chalice veteran Claire de Lune hasn't exploded in popularity quite like Lizzo, but the music she's been making as Tiny Deaths is just as interesting. Her dark synth-pop is in the vein of Purity Ring and Chvrches and has been getting play on both Radio K and the Current. The group's six songs included "Ocean" from last year's self-titled EP and a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere."
"This is a cover of a band that played across the street last night," was how de Lune introduced the Tango in the Night classic, before realizing that the Mac visited St. Paul's arena Friday and not Target Center. "Or did they play the Xcel? I'm too broke to go."
The band that brought cheerleaders would be Suzie, the androgynous side project of Night Moves' Mark Ritsema. His crew's 30 minutes of funky psych-rock were the first time First Avenue felt alive like a regular Mainroom show and plenty of people were cutting a rug on the floor. The effortlessly catchy "Coffin in Houston" wowed fans of dreamy guitar pop, while the miniature light show broadcast from Ritsema's microphone captivated audience members who were under the influence of more than just music.
The sartorial gender-bender and his three bandmates called up three female and one male cheerleader to the stage to support them on the last of five songs, a new cut called "Grapefruit." After the cheery finale, those on the floor fought for keepsakes when Suzie's biggest fans threw their pom-poms into the crowd.
Soul singer PaviElle claimed the night was "20 years in the making" for her. That was apparently two decades well worth it to showcase songs from her just-released Fear Not LP. The vocal acrobatics she displayed were supported by a seven-piece band that included horns, keyboards, and percussion.
Based on their tight stage show and favorable crowd response, Suzie would be the act most likely to follow in the footsteps of Doomtree and Jeremy Messersmith and graduate from this installment of Best New Bands to a slot headlining the Mainroom. That is, had suburban upstarts Hippo Campus not been added to the bill the week of the show.
Local radio hit "Little Grace" kicked things off with a bang, while an energetic performance of "Suicide Saturday" was certainly something to live for on this weekend night. The four-piece, whose sound falls somewhere between Bombay Bicycle Club and Vampire Weekend, is less than two months away from a U.S. tour opening for the Mowgli's. If their Best New Bands performance was any indication, Hippo Campus could easily keep their local momentum going on a national level.
For all the noise the members of Warey made with their instruments, they didn't make much in between songs. "We're a new band, so we're still trying to figure out how to talk to the crowd," Leaneagh said nervously with a laugh about halfway through the group's set. By the time slow-burn opener "Way Much" reached its fiery climax, it was clear that Warey's was a set worth sticking around for.
Critic's Bias: Almost none to speak of. I had listened to a couple songs each from Tiny Deaths and Hippo Campus prior to the concert, but most of the music played Saturday night was completely new to me.
The Crowd: As random a cross-section of Twin Cities music fans as you're likely to see all year. There were teenage girls even younger than Hippo Campus getting excited for that band and others, and there were also middle-aged guys lining the balcony and soaking it all in. Of course, that's to be expected when you book a bill with seven local artists spanning almost as many genres.
Random Notebook Dump: From my seat on the balcony, I saw one of Suzie's cheerleaders warming up beside the stage and thought, "They should get her up on stage." Mark Ritsema was ahead of me on that one.
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