The Current's 6th Birthday Party at First Avenue, 01/21/11

The Current's Jim McGuinn with Mayor RT Rybak
The Current's Jim McGuinn with Mayor RT Rybak
Photos by Stacy Schwartz

The Current's 6th Birthday Party (Featuring Free Energy, Brother Ali, Jeremy Messersmith, Roma di Luna, and Trampled By Turtles)
January 21, 2011
First Avenue

The Current has had such an impact on the local music scene in its six short years of existence that it's hard to remember a time when the station wasn't an integral part of the Twin Cities musical landscape. And Friday night at a sold-out First Avenue, it was a chance for all of us music fans to celebrate not only the 6th birthday of a radio station that so many of us hold dear, but also the talented local artists that they champion so passionately on the airwaves.

And that mutual admiration and sense of community was made clear by just how fast this show sold-out, especially since only three-fifths of the lineup was announced when tickets went on sale. Everyone knew that this was going to be a party that they clearly needed to be at, and the night delivered on all accounts.

Unlike last year, when long lines and late arrivals left the Mainroom less than full while the first few bands got the show started, the place was packed well before Trampled By Turtles took the stage. Serving as a last-minute replacement for Cloud Cult, the Duluth quintet obviously felt right at home  in a room they just sold-out themselves two nights in a row last weekend, causing them to joke, "This is like a weekly gig for us now."

And they got the festivities underway in a rousing manner, delivering their rapid-fire bluegrass to a warm, receptive audience. They stuck mainly to songs from their most recent record, Palomino, delivering lively renditions of "Victory" and the crowd pleasing "Wait So Long." But their best move of the night, and certainly one of the classiest, was closing their set with an impassioned cover of Cloud Cult's "The Ghost Inside Our House" after wishing Craig Minowa a speedy recovery from his heart issues, a sentiment I'm sure was echoed by everyone in attendance.

After that boisterous opening set, it was going to be a bit of a challenge for the understated majesty of Roma di Luna to keep the crowd's attention. But it certainly helped that Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, sporting a Roma di Luna sticker on his lapel no less, was there to introduce the band. And while at times the party atmosphere of the room threatened to overtake the band's subtle allure, the rich vocals of Channy and Alexei Casselle rang true, allowing their songs to truly shine, at least to those that were listening.

Their set was aided sporadically by a two-piece horn section, which gave their brooding numbers a bluesy edge. And while "Mars," a lovely, keyboard-driven cover of the Beatles "I Will," and stirring set closer "Before I Die" were all lovely renditions, they were just occasionally lost amongst the celebratory din of First Ave.

The Current's 6th Birthday Party at First Avenue, 01/21/11

Mark Wheat, David Campbell and Mark Mallman all took part in hilariously introducing Jeremy Messersmith, who came on stage solo, guiding a lovely version of "Novocaine" forward himself, before the rest of his band (all-clad in matching white attire) seamlessly filled in behind him while finishing the song. His over-in-a-flash, 35-minute set was augmented by an exquisite string quartet that only enriched his already grand, retro numbers. "Toussaint Grey, First In Life And Death" and "Franklin Avenue" were both splendid, as was "A Boy, A Girl, And A Graveyard," making it clear why The Reluctant Graveyard ended up topping so many local year-end lists.

There was a buoyant, Beach Boys-like sound to "Violet," which gave way to the stirring set closer "Dilinger Eyes." My only complaint with Messersmith's performance was that his was the only one of the night not to feature a cover song, as it (selfishly) would have been wonderful to hear him play just one more number. But alas we would have to settle for Jeremy coming back onstage later on to receive the Best Local Album award from the Current, causing him to joke, "It's the bowling trophy that I always wanted."

It was now time to give a firm nod to the Twin Cities vibrant hip-hop scene (and perhaps wake some people up in the crowd), as Brother Ali took the stage along with Ant manning the decks. The two made a lethal combination during their fiery set, as Ali began by tearing through "The Preacher" and "Fresh Air," both of which truly set the place off. Ali joked about the frigid Minneapolis weather before a rousing, and appropriate, rendition of "'Round Here" stating that: "You know, on days like today, you have to fuckin' love it here to live here. Any motherfucker can live in California."

That easy camaraderie with his hometown audience made for an explosive, but also a deeply affecting, set from the talented MC. For it truly is an uplifting, spiritual performance every time Ali takes the stage, and in-between incendiary versions of "Crown Jewel" and "Breakin' Dawn," he preached to all of us to find and be our true selves, no matter how difficult that may be.

Ali also touched on one of the most tragic things to befall the Twin Cities music scene recently, the passing of his good friend Eyedea. He mentioned that as long as Eyedea's music lives on, he's still right here with us, before tearing into an impassioned cover of "Smile" that had everyone doing just that by the end of the song, which featured a freestyle by Ali in honor of his fallen friend. And, after instructing the crowd to turn to the person on our left and right and say "I love you motherfucker," Ali closed his set with a rowdy version of "Forest Whitaker" that ended things on a total high note.

The Current's 6th Birthday Party at First Avenue, 01/21/11

Photos by Stacy Schwartz - click for slideshow

Surprisingly, a large part of the crowd filed out after Ali's set, due to either his enormous popularity or the the fact that it was nearly 1 a.m. But those that left early missed a fun, spirited set by Free Energy that ended the night with a bang. The local transplants started out with a rousing rendition of the eponymous track that kicks off their entertaining, James Murphy-produced debut, Stuck On Nothing, which was quickly followed by a lively version of "Dream City." Even though the band has played here nearly 10 times over the last couple years, this city still clearly wants more Free Energy, and the band only built on that swelling passion of their adoring crowd.

"Something In Common" soared, and the simmering "Wild Winds" took off towards the end, with both band and fans alike losing themselves in the enormous arena rock riffs and straight-out-of-the-70s rhythms. The band even debuted an unruly new song for us, "Backscratcher," before delivering an on-fire rendition of "Bang Pop," which found frontman Paul Sprangers climbing into the crowd while everyone sang along to the chorus.

The band also graciously brought out former Hockey Night drummer Alex Achen to play along with them on the one-time Hockey Night track "Hope Child," which enthusiastically closed out their main set. But the night wasn't done, as the band retook the stage along with Jeremy Messersmith, some members of Roma di Luna and a whole host of Current DJ's to do an all-star rendition of Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown," a song Sprangers claimed was "recorded at the top of the IDS."

It was truly a fun, celebratory way to bring to an end an evening that was jovial and entertaining right from the start. Everyone knows that we're lucky to have the Current here in the Twin Cities, and on Friday night we got to thank them for filling the airwaves with inventive and exceptional music, local and otherwise, and they in turn thanked us for our continued support by putting together a truly memorable show.

The Current's 6th Birthday Party at First Avenue, 01/21/11
The Current's 6th Birthday Party at First Avenue, 01/21/11

Critic's Bias: I am a proud founding member of the Current, and have lived in enough other cities in the U.S. and abroad to know just how lucky we are to have this wonderful radio station here.

The Crowd: A large, Current-loving crowd that was ready to have a good time right from the get-go.

Overheard In The Crowd: "I just bought Mark Wheat a beer." "Dude, that wasn't Mark Wheat."

Random Notebook Dump: No Prince sightings this year, but Dessa was given the "Best Local Tweeter" award by Barb Abney, and she responded by giving an awesome 140-character acceptance speech.

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