There were a lot of firsts at Semisonic’s Turf Club “warm-up gig” Wednesday night.
It was the beloved local hitmakers’ first show in five years, the first time they debuted a new song since 2001’s All About Chemistry, the first dusting-off of several Great Divide deep cuts since last millennium, and the first Semisonic concert since Now That’s What I Call Music! 2 to not include “Closing Time.”
Yes, you read that correctly. The St. Paul bar must still be open from last night, having not received the proper musical cue to shut down shop for the evening. No need to hurry in finishing that whiskey or beer, friend.
Then again, the Semisonic that singer Dan Wilson, bassist John Munson, and Jacob Slichter conjured Wednesday night had not yet hit it big with their ubiquitous 1998 single. Reunited and back in the Twin Cities for two sold-out First Avenue dates this weekend, they’re celebrating their first LP, 1996’s Great Divide, by playing it in full this go-round.
Although Wednesday’s concert wasn’t advertised as one of those full-album shows, the trio kicked things off with energetic album opener “F.N.T.” and never left 1996 until the lush closer “I’ll Feel for You” 45 minutes later. In between, they treated the capacity crowd to superb takes on fan favorites such as “Down in Flames” and “Across the Great Divide” alongside rarely-played gems like “Temptation” and “No One Else.” (Munson estimated they’d only ever tried the latter live a dozen times.)
Munson’s passionate lead vocal turn on the penultimate “In Another Life” was one of the night’s highlights, while he and Wilson harmonized as gorgeously as ever on “Falling.” Slichter propelled “If I Run” and “Delicious” behind them, proving no worse for the wear after the winter wrist injury that had postponed Semisonic’s three-night Twin Cities stand from January to June.
Somewhere in those five months, the Turf Club date seemed to have become less about warming up and more about pitching full-speed for Wilson. “Of course, it’s become an all-out, life-or-death spectacle, so I want to go back in time and book a warm-up gig for last week,” he joked midway though his band’s 95-minute set.
The packed audience ended up getting the best of both worlds. At times the concert felt like a fully-rehearsed preview of the First Avenue shows; at others it was as if the audience was peering into the band’s practice space, like when they tossed out a cover of Prince’s “Erotic City” or ran through “F.N.T.” for a second time.
The most special treat of the night, though, was the brand-new “Basement Tapes,” the first fresh Semisonic material anyone at the Turf had heard since “Over My Head” appeared on the Summer Catch soundtrack 16 years ago. The tune’s hooky guitar line recalls the EP the band recorded as Pleasure in 1995, while Wilson sings about taking Highway 35 all the way to Kansas City. It’s a very promising return for the group, which has been “writing a bunch of new songs,” according to its singer.
For the encore, Wilson and company reached back to that 1995 release for Walker Art Center ode “Sculpture Garden” before sending their fans into the humid night with their second-biggest hit, Feeling Strangely Fine’s “Singing in My Sleep.”
Maybe that catchy number wasn’t the most obvious closer, but they can sing that other song in their sleep. Call the bullpen – Semisonic is all warmed up.
Critic’s bias: Considerable. This was my third Semisonic show and I’ve read Slichter’s excellent music-biz memoir So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star three times. They’re one of my all-time favorite Minnesota music exports.
Overheard in the crowd: “John, can I have your sweaty towel?” Munson then joked throughout the night that he would be auctioning it, his pants and stage-worn Semisonic shirt to benefit the purchase of three acres up north for the Minnesota Land Trust.
If I Run
Down in Flames
Across the Great Divide
No One Else
Brand New Baby
In Another Life
I’ll Feel for You
Erotic City (Prince cover)
Singing in My Sleep