The Current's 10th Anniversary, Night Two
Featuring Atmosphere, J. Roddy Walston & the Business, the Trashmen, and PaviElle
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Saturday, January 24, 2015
Over the past 10 years, the little public radio spinoff that could has become so integral to Minnesota music that it's now a nice feather in MPR's cap. Chalk 89.3 the Current's success up to strong fundamentals, a deliberate "do no harm" approach, a staff full of genuinely knowledgeable and passionate people, as well as great timing. When the Current powered on back in 2005, few could have predicted just how rapidly the local music community would've grown. It's been a hell of a time to have a big spotlight to shine, but the good folks over at 89.3 have kept on shinin', and bless 'em for it.
Brace yourselves, Twin Cities, because another conquering diva is about to storm our beaches. PaviElle French is poised to own 2015 like Lizzo did a few years back, and it's time to welcome our brassy new boss. French has been honing her show with a monthly residency series at Icehouse for the last year, blowing away folks who just walked in for a cocktail with a whiplash-inducing voice. Expect her to make the jump from Wednesday night to the weekend if she keeps performing like this.
French's band is made up of longtime collaborators and a few familiar faces from the Secret Stash Records family, including Sonny Knight's horn section. They churn out a groovy mixture of neo-soul and dumpstaphunk with the occasional trace of virtuosic jazz. Percussionist Ahanti Young and backing vocalist/hype man Tai-yo provided a great charisma boost for the already-charming French, whose theater background brings a welcome flair for the dramatic and a vivacious and inviting confidence. The drum-tight musicianship shone as well, with all the seamless transitions and snappy synchronized hits that seem to be the calling card of Secret Stash-related groups, plus a few eye-popping conga solos from Young.
Nearly every song was vamped into a call-and-response pattern with the crowd, while Tai-yo and French commanded the stage with the presence of a trained MC, rather than just R&B singers. By the time she wrapped up the show with an uplifting musical tribute to her dearly departed parents, French had us in the palm of her hand. It's extremely gratifying to see any rising artist command this level of respect, but the turn takes on additional importance when one considers the context.
French is making her stand in a decidedly afrocentric, contemporary idiom. Compared to Sonny Knight's eminently lovable and deeply cultural material, the music created by French and her band is sexier, deeper, and far more outspoken. Get on the bandwagon now while there's still seats left.
In marked contrast, the Trashmen's bandwagon is like one of those autos that classic car people lust after. Like a slightly busted 1971 Buick Riviera found in a barn somewhere and lovingly restored, the Trashmen were glorious because of, and not in spite of, their age. It's hard not to marvel at the sheer audacity of a band that's been more or less active for 53 goddamn years climbing up onstage. Some of that unexpected spunk can be attributed to Robin Reed, a.k.a. the Trashkid, who's filling in for the late, great Steve Wahrer on drums. Reed is no spring chicken himself, but compared to his venerable bassist father Rob, the man is a stage dynamo, standing up dramatically at the end of of every monster surf fill, and even adding a few vocal duties.
Playing mostly classics from the Surfin' Bird LP, peppered with the occasional surf classic and Link Wray medley, the Trashmen sounded kind of like the best-case scenario for a Thursday night at Lee's Liquor Lounge. Guitarist and frontman Tony Andreason even paused to give the beer sponsors a shout out at one point. Who does that anymore? No one is under the impression that we're treading new ground here, one could even argue that the ground was pretty worn by the time Robin Reed was born, but surf is going through a major resurgence in indie-rock circles right now, and it's truly special to see the style mastered by three hometown guys.
Filling out the "semi-popular national act that the Current has made you extremely aware of" portion of the bill (night one was Cold War Kids) were the irrepressible, impressively coiffed J. Roddy Walston & the Business. While the journeyman group has a great road-dog story and seems generally likable and self-aware, they play hopscotch with the musical Mendoza Taste Line like no band in the history of indie rock. For every genuinely interesting songwriting choice and explosion of authentic rock 'n' roll personality, the Biz seem to have an equally hacky guitar solo or hoary stage move cliche as an answer.
The result of this dissonance should be frustrating, but instead it's more akin to watching a Jason Statham movie, post Guy Ritchie. One doesn't fully comprehend the whiplash between the artistic aspirations and base presentation until the dust has settled. Just like a straight-to-Netflix action flick, the Biz go right for the jugular with big, heavy grooving southern rock riffs and vocal histrionics designed to bypass any rational judgment and connect directly to the head nodding and ass-shaking muscles of the human anatomy. Also, frontman J. Roddy's prodigious locks and twitchy mannerisms resembles a denim clad Rowlf from the Muppets.
Before the final act of the evening, the Current's entire staff climbed onstage Oscars-style to take a bow and hug it out, while morning show DJ Steve Seel did the adorable things he does. Needless to say, the vibe got pretty mushy there for a second, so the appearance of Minnesota's favorite hip-hop grouch was right on time.
"You know how they do those fund drives twice a year? What if I pledged this song to the Current?" Slug asked, of the crowd, before launching into the only song from his set to be broadcast live on the FCC-controlled airwaves, a radio-friendly version of his perennial hometown anthem "Say Shhh." It was a nice nod to the station, which broadcast the song as its first transmission back in 2005, and in the moment, the full-circle love-fest felt well-earned.
Say what you will about 89.3 the Current's 10-year run, but starting everything off with a local pick took guts, and opened the doors wide for hundreds of Minnesota musicians not named Jeremy Messersmith to connect with the station and enjoy its largess. When an old coot like Slug is moved enough to give you a genuine shout-out, you've gotta be doing something right. Here's to 10 more years 89.3.
Personal Bias: Since there's really not much left for me to say about their live show at this point, I'll leave you with this: Atmosphere owns the First Ave mainroom like no other act that I've ever seen play there. Their power over that stage is simply amazing, even when they're running the same race we've seen them run for years.
The Crowd: Mostly J. Roddy and Atmosphere fans. I and the late-30s gentleman next to me seemed to be two of about ten people that got excited to hear the name "Link Wray."
Best Onstage Cheesin' from a Current Staffperson: Tie between Jacquie Fuller's beaming gigawatt smile and Andrea Swensson's noticeable blush and consistent hugging of Digital Producer Leah Garaas.
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