The Current's 9th Birthday Party, night two, at First Avenue, 1/25/14
Photo by Erik Hess
89.3 The Current's 9th Birthday party
with Caroline Smith, Howler, Heiruspecs and Cactus Blossoms
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Saturday, January 25, 2014
89.3 The Current has become so thoroughly interwoven to the fabric of what's now considered to be "the local scene" that it's easy to forget that MPR's unique music-centered venture was launched here less than a decade ago. In the nine years since the station first powered-on with "Say Shh...," the Current has evolved into the reigning tastemakers of alternative music in the state, rapidly expanding its transmitters to reach further beyond the borders of the metro area. The diverse local lineup for this year's iteration of the station's annual birthday bash proved to be an apt reflection of the community and tastes that built it, while also acknowledging the perspective of its newer fans.
One enduring facet of 89.3 is its determination to put locally-made Americana front-and-center on its playlists. While we people of the North Country certainly have a taste for this kind of folksier material, credit has to be given to the station for the level of emphasis they've placed on a style of music that most of the nation still considers to be a niche taste.
Photo by Erik Hess
That's probably what makes the Cactus Blossoms such a refreshing and fearless choice for a show like this one. Brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum play the defiantly old-school kind of country music that shuns such modern indulgences as drum sets. Their high-lonesome harmonies are as pristine as their clean-shaven jaws, and the easy two-step of their original material is so faithful to the genre's standards that only a careful listener could tell the difference. That's not to say the band is a simple revivalist rehash of a Nashville that no longer exists, as the group's lyrics and arrangements often contain subtle but brainy twists that one wouldn't find in an Everly Brothers chestnut.
While the group was undoubtedly a mellow way to kick off a birthday party in the mainroom of all places, it was great to see the Cactus Blossoms get a chance to shine in front of a much, much larger crowd than they're used to playing for, and they stepped up to the challenge admirably. Adding Mike Lewis on the electric bass gave things a bit more of a rock 'n' roll feel, although he's apparently a master of the that steady, freight-train style typical of traditional country, in addition to all of his other talents.
The stately, composed performance of the night's openers made for a sharp contrast with the raucous return of Heiruspecs during the second set. Lead MC and frontman Felix acknowledged the stylistic leap with a wink midway through the live-band hip-hop group's barnstorming show. "We're just tryna bridge that gap between Cactus Blossoms and Howler," the rapper joked self-depreciatingly, but you could tell from the fervor of their performance that Heiruspecs were clearly in a competitive mood. Swaggering like two boxers back from retirement for another season in the ring, Felix and his partner Mua'dib seemed to be lit with a fire that we haven't seen in them in years, owning the stage with a confidence that no other performer could match that evening.
Photo by Erik Hess
Their bravado was undoubtedly drawn from the strength of their sensational new material that we'll finally be seeing on wax in March. Neither of the two rappers have lost a single step when it comes to lyrical or rhythmic innovation, if anything, new songs like the "Who Do You Answer To" -- sorry if I got that title wrong, guys -- show Felix and Mua'dib experimenting with exciting new cadences and sung hooks that really get the crowd going. At the climax of the latter, Felix led a massive call-and-response that felt positively epic with support of the musicians that make up the rest of their band.
Bassist Twinkie Jiggles, aka Sean McPherson of Dessa and Triva Mafia fame will always be at his most manic and adorable when rocking out on the four-string with his old buddies from St. Paul's Central High. The rest of the group, including local engineer extrordinare Joel Mabbot on percussion for this show, followed suit, always keeping the attention tastefully focused on the MC's except for when it was time for guitarist Josh Peterson's blazing solo on "Get Up."
Photo by Erik Hess
Charged up by the excitement of showing off the fruits of their labor, Heiruspecs were in a rare form Saturday night, eventually winning the support of even the most timid members of audience, who seemed hilariously intimidated during the band's initial onslaught. Throwing out a few classic 'specs joints for the faithful, Mua'dib joked that he was never going to get away with skipping the achingly beautiful love ballad "Heartsprings," or the band's closest thing to a bonafide hit, the seminal "5ves," which debuted at roughly the same time as the station whose birthday made for this occasion.
Logically, the only way for our snotty, barely-legal surf-punk world-beaters to follow an act like that would be continue doing what they do best: not giving a rat's ass. While Howler have endured their fare share of local infamy for their devil-may-care 'tude and hilariously bratty personas, it would be extremely uncharitable to credit their dazzling success in the U.K. to dumb luck and good looks. No, the reason Jordan Gatesmith and his band of merry men have captured so much attention is the fact that they're an utterly catchy and unapologetic punk rock band with great songs and a whole lot of charisma. Still, they do love to push our buttons. During an early lull between songs, guitarist Ian Nygaard squinted out into the crowd and cracked "Hey...so...are there any dads in the crowd tonight? Only two? That's weird..."
Photos by Erik Hess
Good thing they also delivered a white-hot performance, chock full of fun new material from their forthcoming World of Joy, which appears to be pushing the group into noisy, thrashier territory -- with a few exceptions. Gatesmith and Nygaard make for a great guitarist pair, slashing out their signature surf leads with a great sense of timing and melody that belies a strong musical talent underneath all their onstage goofing. Wearing a cutoff flannel that looked like a castoff of Brenden Green from the Goondas, Howler's frontman channeled a similar reckless energy, nearly toppling over during some heavy shredding. Their short but explosive set closed with a pair of suprisingly pretty, jangly new songs that Gatesmith dedicated to the "sad boys" and "sad girls" in the audience before shrugging off that moment of sincerity with a "sorry I'm such a buzzkill...whatever."
After the storm of buzz and feedback at the end of Howler's set, the night took a turn for the wholesome, with The Current's entire staff of hosts and producers taking the stage to thank everyone for their years of support. Led by an adorably tipsy Steve Seel and Jill Riley of the morning show, the Staff took a bow and also gave a heartfelt goodbye to Local Show producer Jon Schober, who's apparently off to NYC to join the big leagues. Things got pretty mushy from there on out, bloggers Andrea Swensson and Leah Garaas turned on the waterworks and Seel kissed the departing DJ on the mouth. I can't 100 percent confirm that there was tongue involved, but the chemistry was there either way.
All of this touchy-feely stuff needed a nice musical chaser, so of course Caroline Smith was there to steer the night to a close, and it became immediately apparent as soon as the singer struck the first few chords to her opening song that the crowd was all hers. With the effortless charisma that's made her Minnesota's new musical sweetheart, Ms. Smith and her band took a spirited run through the material from their new album Half About Being a Woman with numerous pauses to effusively thank the station for its continued support.
Between inviting Mike Lewis back to the stage for some sexy sax work on "Bloodstyle" and doing some "funking" with an older song called "Time Problems," Caroline played around a bit with the formula she's been establishing for her new, soulful live show, but mostly gave the people what they wanted: more of that sensational voice. Smith, a Detroit Lakes native, is exactly the kind of obviously talented, yet overly humble and gracious personality that Minnesota seems to prize even more than our loveable losers. "It's so hard not to swear!" The singer moaned at one point, "I'm such a potty-mouth. But I'll do it for The Current!"
Photos by Erik Hess
Undoubtedly, Smith and her band's biggest moment of the night occurred after their twin radio singles "Magazine" and the title track of her new record, stretching the later's breakdown to show off the talents of her backup singers in a show-stopping fashion. A personal favorite moment from the set followed on "Walking Off Strong," which channels an uplifting gospel hook and shows a real depth of songwriting talent. Prior to her rousing final number "All That I Know Is (I'm Your Baby)," Caroline coyly suggested that the song would have been so much cooler to her best pal Lizzo had been around, so naturally the TC's newly minted rap diva had to sneak onstage for a guest verse during the song's outro. While it could have been corny if anyone else had done it, Lizzo and Caroline really did seem like two good friends egging each other into a total Mariah-moment vocal duet to close out their set.
Just to put a ribbon on the evening, Caroline returned for a solo run at the first song of hers to ever be played on The Current, the tender "Closing the Door." Overflowing with earnest gratitude and love for the station and her fans, the singer finished the acoustic ballad and blew the crowd a kiss while the house DJ threw on "Say Shhh...," just to bring things full circle. Happy 9th Birthday 89.3, here's to many more years of public radio love-ins like the one that occurred Saturday night.
Critic's Bias: I'm predisposed to love public radio because of my time at Radio K, where I worked with some of the folks who now staff the Current's airwaves.
Random Notebook Dump: In a nice spin on tradition, The Current's staff hijacked the usual between-sets projector program to showcase some of Nate Ryan's snaps from the Current's in-studios.
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