On a scale of one to ten, your chances of stumbling across something new or relevant at the Basilica Block Party fall roughly between a three and a four.
Now in its 23rd year, everything at the annual concert was tinted with desperation, from the marquee that greeted guests with the hashtag-ready tagline “Witness It” to the constant shoutouts to sponsors Bud Light. But if you were looking for place to take enough Instagrammable selfies to create a FOMO zone with a three-block radius, the BBP was the place to be.
Far from its sellout of 15,000 in 2015, the crowd of 11,000 in attendance felt a little light on Friday evening in downtown Minneapolis. The night started with the non-threatening, cookie-cutter, bluesy rock of Cobi, an L.A. resident originally from Grand Marais. Much better was John Paul White, a soulful rocker leaning towards country who uncannily resembles Johnny Depp. Even if White’s name is unfamiliar, you may have heard of his past project the Civil Wars. During his quiet set, White noted they had stuck him on a stage next to the freeway. He was not there to cheer up the crowd, he declared before launching into “Simple Song,” a tune about his grandfather. White’s songs can head right on past "sad" to "depressing," but the conviction of his singing pulls you into his stories.
One of the original kings of emo, Andrew McMahon has come a long way since his days fronting Something Corporate; his intervening work with Jack’s Mannequin was a bridge to his current sound as Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. The crowd had doubled by McMahon’s set at 7 p.m., and with lyrics like “You're the reason I’m still up at dawn, just to see your face,” this was the perfect time to grab the hand of a significant other For as much as he’s evolved over the years, McMahon’s constant appeal has always been his winning mix of personal awkwardness and perfect songcraft.
Wedged in between the two large stages and behind some food trucks, the Star Tribune Stage featured locals Nick Jordan, Jaedyn James & the Hunger, and Night Moves, who displayed some amazing guitarwork. James and her 11-piece band offered up a little funk and a little controversy with a protest number about Philando Castile’s shooting. Listening to James’s song, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of diversity, both in the audience and onstage.
The two headliners, Brandi Carlile and the Shins, sound more like what Cities 97 used to play rather than what fills the sponsoring radio station’s airwaves these days. Carlile was steady as a rock, and a highlight of her set was a cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World.” for which she was joined by John Paul White.
As for the Shins, in the past they’ve been criticized for their lack of onstage energy. But lead singer James Mercer’s reinvented the group, with new musicians and a sound influenced by his side project, Broken Bells. These changes had a good effect on songs like “Gone For Good” and “Caring Is Creepy.” And there’s no denying the magic of spending a perfect Minnesota night outside listening to the last strains of The Shins’ “New Slang” as the breeze pushes past you.