MN Music On-a-Stick at Minnesota State Fair, 8/30/14

MN Music On-a-Stick at Minnesota State Fair, 8/30/14
Photo by Tony Nelson

MN Music On-a-Stick
with Cactus Blossoms, Har Mar Superstar, Cloud Cult, Bob Mould, Doomtree, and Brother Ali
Minnesota State Fair Grandstand, St. Paul
Saturday, August 30

You can always count on the Current to keep you on your toes. At their third annual takeover of the State Fair Grandstand, 89.3 put together in a lineup of genre-spanning Minnesota acts. Every artist took the night in a different direction, and each one -- from Brother Ali to Bob Mould -- seemed to have a cadre of fans who were there mostly for them.

MN Music On-a-Stick at Minnesota State Fair, 8/30/14
Photo by Tony Nelson

The Cactus Blossoms started off the late summer afternoon with an appropriately cool set. The band seemed relaxed on stage, moving through classic country sounds like breeze through wheat. It seemed like basic, solid country-western, but there were a few subtle twists on convention -- like "Please Don't Sneak Around," where the perennial villain of the genre, the two-timing snake, finally gets a ballad, urging his beloved not to cheat him like she's cheating her man. "Change Your Ways Or Die," a Current staple, earned a few appreciative whoops for the lively steel guitar work. The boys held it down, and didn't break a sweat, though that might have livened things up a bit.

MN Music On-a-Stick at Minnesota State Fair, 8/30/14
Photo by Tony Nelson

Har Mar Superstar took the stage next, offering a set that was in many ways the opposite of Cactus Blossoms' musically tight and straight-laced experience. He started off wearing a colorful shawl over low-rise white jeans, and led the crowd in chants of "Har Mar is so sexy" and other odes to his own steez. The whole show was rough and dirty, and it took a few songs for the band to dial it in. "Prisoner," and the driving funk of its backing synth, seemed to do the trick, with Har Mar and guest vocalist Lizzo digging into the groove. The duo broke it all the way down on "Power Lunch," with Lizzo taking the spotlight and sexing up business jargon. By the time "Restless Leg" rolled through, Har Mar was all the way into it, and he closed the set as the fully warped, shirtless, head-standing take on a soul idol we've come to expect.

MN Music On-a-Stick at Minnesota State Fair, 8/30/14
Photo by Tony Nelson

Cloud Cult, who have been played the Current daily for its whole run, brought a huge crowd down to the standing room of the Grandstand, hoping to catch some of the vibes. A surface-level description of the experimental Duluth band makes them seem much weirder than they are in reality. Painters on stage, cellos, recordings from space flights and accounts of near-death experiences -- all sounds like some avant guard stuff. When they play live, however, the most driving sound is the drum beat, and the band works on the strength of building cohesive triumphant music that moves forward emotionally loaded lyrics. And does Cloud Cult ever move forward.

"You'll Be Bright" started with the whole band banging out one beat on one drum, gradually breaking off to their respective instruments or canvasses. After, Craig Minowa thanked the audience and shared some sad news from his life -- his family had just put has father, who has ALS, in an assisted care facility. "There's no cure right now," he said, "but we can get one." They would have done an ice bucket challenge on stage if it was safe to. In lieu of that, Minowa lead "Transistor Radio," a song dedicated to his grandfather, who died of ALS. The song, like most of their catalog, deals with a lot of big themes -- life, universe and everything. Their fans seemed more than happy to come along on the trip.


MN Music On-a-Stick at Minnesota State Fair, 8/30/14
Photo by Tony Nelson

The crowd noticeably thinned before Bob Mould took the stage. Those who ducked out of the Grandstand to join the crowds and grease outside really missed out. Mould put on a great show, blazing through songs spanning his legendary two-decade career with passion and effort, never coasting on reputation. It was clear as soon as the three-piece outfit burst on the stage that this would be a different animal from Cloud Cult's expansive set -- fast, loud, rock 'n' roll. Some of the few ballads came at just the right time, with the sunset accompanying Mould on "Hardly Getting Over It." But even his ballads were quick, and he closed with power, working in hits from Sugar and Hüsker Dü, like particularly gnarly renditions of "I Apologize" and "Celebrated Summer." The mood in the audience had built to the point that a mosh pit wouldn't have been a surprise. "Makes No Sense at All," continued that vibe, but the end of the set shifted gears, with a cover of "Love is All Around" from Mary Tyler Moore. Mould coolly waved off the ovation -- the tight set times meant no encores were possible.

MN Music On-a-Stick at Minnesota State Fair, 8/30/14
Photo by Tony Nelson

Judging by merch alone, Doomtree was the night's biggest draw. As solid as Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger's production is, most of their faithful didn't show up hoping to feel huge bass. Unfortunately, at the start of the set, that was most of what they got. The mics were down, and the beats were way, way up. A few verses were borderline inaudible, like Mike Mictlan's 16 on "Bolt Cutter." Doomtree weren't the first act to have some issues -- Har Mar's mic was quiet for the first bit of his set, and Mould's amps were adjusted a few times.--but the hyper-verbal crew was the most hindered by them. Still, they managed to pull a few things out through pure stage presence. "Little Mercy" was salvaged by Dessa and Cecil Otter's theatrical duet, conveying the tension in the lyrics that didn't quite get picked up. Sims' new track "The Audacity" managed to showcase his uniquely developed cadence and some interesting new-school production.

Doomtree ended things on a high note -- the sound was much improved, and it helped that they were playing the hits. Dessa truly bodied her verse on "Low Light Low Life," working in Betrand Russell and the decline of the American empire. P.O.S and Mictlan's political party banger "Get Down" turned the grandstand into a borderline anarchist dance club -- shout-out to all the class war hooligans out there. Though it took them a while to get there, not for lack of trying, Doomtree left the crowd in a blowout state of mind.

MN Music On-a-Stick at Minnesota State Fair, 8/30/14
Photo by Tony Nelson

Brother Ali took the stage accompanied by both a DJ and two live musicians, on guitar and keys. Both added a layer of emotional depth and live energy to many of Ali's tracks. Ali was backed by a dance crew, called We are Muslim, Don't Panic. They were fresh, contemporary, tense and always interesting, using their bodies to form intricate lines and shapes. A particular dance highlight came during "Mourning in America," when the crew donned black niqabs and recreated the eye-tricking moves from the song's music video. All this is going on on top of the rapping. For the very few readers who aren't already aware, Brother Ali is among the most talented rappers alive in terms of pure technical skill, and his lyrics never fail to be intricate. This was on display early in "The Preacher," during which Ali stood and delivered over a sparse beat to a rapt audience, sustaining a cadence that a lot of rappers couldn't physically pull off and giving credence to the boast "I'm an artist, all y'all are acts."

Ali put the political charge of his catalog center stage in the middle of his set. He added this couplet to "Uncle Sam Goddamn": "Even Obama's killin' babies with drones / And we go to jail when we Occupy Homes," referring to his own activism with the direct-action wielding housing justice group. "Mourning in America" followed, raging against everything from perpetual war to the private prison-industrial complex. After that track ended, Ali sat back for a moment of silence. Images of black men and women killed by police and vigilantes over the past few years -- Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown, and many others -- moved across the screen, with the message "Rest in Power." It was a fitting lead-in to "The Travelers," Ali's chilling song about the generational scars left on America by the slave trade and its legacy. One can't really get down to this, and there was some drifting evident in the audience, but most of the crowd remained engaged. Ali is animated by the principle of solidarity, expressed in this line from the "Travelers": "If humanity is one then we all get burned when it's hell that we're traveling through."

Still, as anyone who's at all politically minded knows, partying and progress are not mutually exclusive. The close of his set was heavy on recognizable high-energy boasting tracks from the Shadows on the Sun era, like "Self Taught." During the encore, he pulled out "Forrest Whittaker" -- "big surprise, right?" -- and closed with "Us." Before the fireworks, he had the crowd hold up two fingers in a salute to peace.

Critic's Notebook:

Random notebook dump: Best State Fair spirit goes to Har Mar Superstar, who shouted out the Miracle of Birth center and sincerely asked an audience member for directions to the Jello Salad Ice Cream (apparently at the Hamline Church Dining Hall). Honorable mention to that guy with the giant Scooby Doo plush near the front during Doomtree's set.

Overheard in the crowd: "Oh my God I love her. I love her!" Said very earnestly, during one of Dessa's verses.

Seen in the crowd: Lots of mascotry during the set breaks. Apparently their names are Fairborn and Fairchild and they're gophers, of course.

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Minnesota State Fair Grandstand

1265 Snelling Ave. N.
St. Paul, MN 55108


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