A skateboarder with long hair clacks down the sidewalk and veers into the street, losing his balance at the curb. He leaves the board behind him, meeting the pavement running, then turns to pick up his ball cap before retrieving the board from the empty lane of traffic. He's in no hurry: It's a warm, dead Saturday afternoon in downtown Minneapolis, and there aren't any cars coming. The only witnesses to his spill are the shaggy high school kids across the street, lining up to get into the 7th St. Entry.
When the door of the club opens at 5:00 p.m., hours before most nearby venues come to life, a line already stretches down the side of the building. One by one, ticket buyers get their hands stamped, then dash into the empty darkness of the room to claim a spot right in front of the stage. They talk and laugh as they form a front row, then a second row, in anticipation of the opening band scheduled to go on in 15 minutes.
Sing It Loud have never played a show before. Appearing on this July 14 bill under three other local rock groups, and one from Illinois, they have little more claim to fame than a song on their MySpace page. But right now, they might as well be the Beatles.
"The singer is popular with the girls," says Jaci Howart, 21, a regular at these rock matinees, seated in back. "He used to be in the Semester."
Time moves faster at "all-ages" shows. If lanky, bushy-haired Sing It Loud lead vocalist Pat Brown, age 20, is a rock star, then the other groups at this alcohol-free gig, however new, are old-school constellations. Headliners Small Towns Burn a Little Slower, who have played the local all-ages circuit for five years, might as well be classic rock. "I'm always the oldest person at our shows," says 29-year-old guitarist Tommy Rehbein, who put together today's concert and is mentor to many of the bands, his mop of dark hair betraying hints of Mr. Fantastic white around the ears.
One thing is no exaggeration: This scene is new. Teen rock has been around since the skateboard, with local kids joining in since the garage-band explosion of the early '60s. But the Trashmen never had this much buzz before debuting. The mood for Sing It Loud is giddy, as if the crowd were about to break into a giant game of tag. And when the two-guitars-plus-keyboard five-piece finally takes the stage and eventually kicks into the MySpace hit (swinging a bit like an emo Joe Jackson), three Pat Brown fans shout along, identifiable by their matching brown T-shirts decorated with the word "Pat."
"A lot of shows these days are going 18-plus, so kids like her get left out," says one of the "Pat" fans, Ryan Trudeau, 20, nodding at his 14-year-old sister, Emily, after the band's set is over. "But all-ages shows have a lot more energy."
No kidding. Since Small Towns Burn a Little Slower made their debut at the late Fireball Espresso Cafe in Falcon Heights half a decade ago, the number of youthful bands, fans, and clubs catering to them has mushroomed. Some of these venues have closed in the past couple of years, including the Twin Cities Underground, the Quest and its Ascot Room, and the Java Joint in St. Cloud. But many more have opened during that time—spots such as the Toybox and the Beat Coffeehouse in the metro area, plus a dozen others in suburbs and small towns such as Buffalo, Stillwater, and Hudson. All-ages punk roars out of Minneapolis's Bedlam Theatre and Belfry Center, while promoters Homocore Minneapolis and Twin Cities Skins & Punks book almost exclusively all-ages gigs. That doesn't even include half a dozen "unofficial" venues such as the Alamo and the Pocketknife, with a wave of new groups rocking the cramped basements of private homes.
"There's insanely more bands," says James DeCoursey, owner of Mr. Chan Presents, who specializes in booking all-ages and 18+ shows at clubs such as the Varsity and Station 4. "If you go back to the mid-'90s, there were 30 or 40 bands that regularly play those kinds of shows, and my guess is that there's probably close to 200 of them now."
Even traditionally 21-plus-only venues are welcoming kids. "I can remember when I couldn't imagine an all-ages show at the Fine Line," DeCoursey says. "Now I do maybe one a month [there]. It's definitely gotten bigger."
Small Towns, say DeCoursey and others, are the face of this scene. They're one of a growing number of local bands going national by captivating the under-21 set. Funk-metal Screaming Mechanical Brain (a.k.a. SMB) and pop-punk Motion City Soundtrack (with a forthcoming album on Epitaph) similarly cut their teeth in local teen clubs, namely the still-going Garage in Burnsville and the late Foxfire Coffee Lounge in downtown Minneapolis (respectively). Today both groups play all-ages dates across the country, with MySpace their effective radio station. "As much as we've sold out, we come from loving bands like Fugazi," says Josh Cain of Motion City Soundtrack. "When I was in high school I could really devote my life to a band. Music's for kids, man."
There might be more money in bars, says Rehbein, but there's less transacted. "It sounds kind of cornball," he says, "but when I was 16 and sometimes shit sucked and you didn't really understand the world around you, you had music."
Standing in the 7th St. Entry and watching the other bands, Rehbein and the rest of Small Towns are dressed in keeping with the concert's advertised theme: a rock tribute to Wet Hot American Summer, the cultish 2001 film about 1981. Rehbein, who was two years old that year, wears a vintage jogging suit and fat headband. Bassist Ryan Traster, 23, wears tube socks, a T-shirt reading "I never claimed to be perfect, just very good," and skimpy running shorts. "As long as I don't get a boner onstage, I'll be fine," he says.
When Gloria, the fourth band, kick into their song "The Quickest Way to a Man's Heart Is Chuck Norris's Fist," Small Towns bound onto the stage and sing along, jumping up and down. "Tommy, that headband is all kinds of you," says Gloria's singer.
These bands all know each other and share equipment and friends between them. "There's a lot of camaraderie in Minneapolis that you don't see in other cities," says new Small Towns drummer Josh McKay, 21, who has been saddled with the nickname "Newbs."
"People jokingly refer to Minneapolis as 'the family,'" adds Jaci Howart, his fiancée.
At 7:30 p.m., with the venue sold out, Small Towns finally take the stage for their own set. Confident in his quintet's new music—culled from a bracing forthcoming sophomore full-length due out on a label-to-be-determined this fall—26-year-old singer Danny Wolf tosses his hair and wails right on key. He has Bono's unembarrassed abandon, and the band has previously acknowledged its U2 fandom, dressing up as the group for Halloween (albeit with a second Edge, guitarist Joel Trowbridge). Inevitably, other musicians come up to participate, and the three "Pat" fans on the floor beam as Pat Brown himself takes the second vocal part on "Alias: The Beekeeper."
When the song is done, Brown leaps out from the back of the stage, elated, his thumbs busy on his tiny flat phone. He's already texting his girlfriend out in the crowd.
The band name Small Towns Burn a Little Slower, coined by original singer Jeff McIlvenna, proved fitting for the various Newbs who succeeded him: All the band's members, including Iowa native Wolf, hail from small towns or suburbs. But the title also seems widely prophetic: Small-town rock has begun to catch up to cities, to the point that a house in Austin, Minnesota, recently hosted 25 punk bands from across the nation. Punks have made the commute from the country to the city since the '80s, but the notion of doing the reverse is relatively new.
The day after the Entry show, an all-ages club called the Vault hosts its grand opening one hour's drive away, in the cobblestoned, lakeside town of Buffalo, Minnesota. The show draws kids from Minneapolis and beyond for 15 punk bands—including a few national Christian ones picked up from the SonShine festival, held the day before in Willmar ("Cheaper than SonShine," trumpets the Vault poster). Looking a little like a young Buddy Bradley from Hate comics, Vault co-owner Bobby Olson, 20, folds his arms outside the white-brick venue, looking on as police disperse the punk-looking fans emptying out of a set by Duluth's No Wings to Speak Of.
The cops say they've received a loitering complaint and are enforcing the law in question, which came onto the books the last time somebody started an all-ages club here, the government-funded (and now discontinued) Cafe 22 up the street. To avoid citations, Olson asks ticket buyers to take a walk for the 15 minutes between sets, and many head to the nearby grocery store.
"I was a kid, too," says one of the buzz-cut police officers in shades, shaking his head at one young man's T-shirt, which reads, "I GIVE NO FUCKS."
"That's his statement. But this is downtown Buffalo, not Minneapolis."
Soon the police disappear, and a distant siren follows them. "See, now they've got a more important call," says Olson. "So they can stop bugging us."
Idyllic towns such as Buffalo will have to get used to DIY rock shows as a commonplace occurrence: There are now nonprofit and for-profit all-ages venues featuring amplified music in Shakopee (the Enigma), Stillwater (the Firewall, next to the Salvation Army's skate park), St. Cloud (Cheap Thrills), Northfield (the Key), Morris (the Common Cup), Brainerd (the Eclectic Cafe), Duluth (the Knockout and the Encounter), Rogers (Showcase Skatepark), Hudson, Wisconsin (the Coffeehouse Live), and La Crosse, Wisconsin (the Warehouse). The local suburban models for many of these organizations are the Garage in Burnsville and the Depot Coffee House in Hopkins, which are run by many of the same young people going to shows.
"The intention was never to be a music venue," says Garage manager Eric Billiet, 35, who helped open the gym-sized club in 1999, initially as part of an all-around teen center housed across the street from a police station. "It just happened that the diverse groups that came here, whether they're African American or Latino or punks or Goths, they found something in common with music. We really just used music to do education about democracy—the process is the focus, not the product."
At many venues, participation is a way out of boredom. "There's nothing to do in the suburbs but drink and do drugs and get into trouble," says Clint Dietz, 18, the skate park supervisor at the Firewall in Stillwater. "And if there's more community areas like this that they can go to, it might help some kids stay out of trouble."
In Rice Lake, Wisconsin, Scott Geiger Sr. has attracted Minnesota punk and emo bands to his "Bubbafest" concerts at various Elks-type venues, funding a proposed skate park in memory of his son, Scott "Bubba" Geiger Jr., who booked all-ages shows before his death in a car accident. "In this town, there isn't really much for them to do, outside of rollerblading," says the dad. "But the kids, they can't wait for the next Bubbafest. I'm doing it to see that my son's hard work wasn't for nothing."
The Vault similarly draws kids from its hometown, Buffalo. "I've been waiting for a place to come around here for ages," says Abby Rausch, 15.
Rausch and her friend Aubrey Norten, 16, had kept to the side of the mosh pit during No Wings to Speak Of's set, as boys karate-kicked the air. Now the slightly more glam and inviting Children 18:3 have taken the stage, urging everyone to the front, and more girls enter the fray.
"We're not hardcore, but we try," says shirtless, muscled drummer Seth Hostetter, 21, before kicking into a righteous pop-punk groove that sends his two siblings, both in Alice Cooper makeup, thrashing their long manes in circles.
Black-haired guitarist and lead singer David Hostetter, 22, and blond bassist Lee Marie Hostetter, 19, look like creatures out of a Tim Burton fantasy. But this is a wholesome family operation from Morris, Minnesota, with Dad parking the van outside, and Mom upstairs on the second floor, minding the merch table. The band, which calls itself "Christian" against any detectable visual or aural evidence, recently signed to the Seattle label Tooth & Nail; its members hadn't been on an airplane until they were recently asked to play Creationfest West in Washington.
After an amp-climbing finish and a Minnesota-style "Thaynx," the trio hauls gear back to the van, Lee Marie's white makeup half-drained by sweat. She says the group, which has played in its current all-family lineup for five years, got signed during a competition at Club 3 Degrees, the downtown Minneapolis all-ages Christian venue. But the band has also played the Ascot Room, Showcase Skatepark, and secular clubs in Iowa and Michigan.
"We all love Jesus and stuff, but it doesn't mean we only play churches," she says. "I don't like the label thing."
Does she dig on Alice Cooper? "I like Gwen Stefani."
Nearby, a bunch of young men with large earrings and tattoos are anticipating the next, much faster band. "It takes a lot more effort than it looks," says Marcus Fiori, 23, explaining the air-punching style of moshing during hardcore sets. "You're pretty much exhausted by halfway through the song."
He remembers the old Fireball Espresso Cafe with fondness, as well as the year-old Toybox in Minneapolis—before the latter banned moshing. "We'll go to some venues and the security guards will stop us from what we're doing because they think we're trying to fight each other, but usually it's our friends we're hitting, anyways," he says.
"Friends don't let friends go home without blood on their face," interjects his buddy, who won't identify himself and soon admits he's been banned from the Toybox. "None of us are allowed there anymore, because we kicked over the speakers and started throwing tables."
"This kid got kicked in the mouth, and got his teeth knocked out," explains Fiori. "They tried to make a no-moshing rule, but that didn't stick, because otherwise shows get really boring. It's like going bike-riding downhill. If you get hurt, it's your fault."
Windmilling fists are just one potential headache when putting on all-ages shows: Curfew laws force concerts to end early (which explains the existence of 18+ events), and without the sales of alcohol, profits are thin. Legally, says Erik Funk, co-owner of the Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis, he could sell booze at all-ages events by monitoring patrons with wristbands and doubling up on security, "but it exposes you to so much more risk."
Violence, not alcohol or money problems, has hurt the privately owned Toybox, which opened on Hiawatha Avenue in March of last year. Though the venue's turned a profit since its first couple of months, proprietor Andy Everson now says it will close at the end of August if he doesn't find a new owner. Everson, 21, reports that he's burned out on club running—and the lost-teeth incidents were the last straw.
"It's happened multiple times," he says. "I was against the whole no-moshing thing, but there was just one too many times when people got kicked in the face, and something like that can literally take every business in the building down"—a danger that hits close to home, considering his father and uncle own the adjoining cafe, Hiawatha Joe's. "We're technically going off the building's insurance now. We don't have a whole lot of money over here, so they're going to go after whoever does."
Cory Ramsey, of the Twin Cities' A Present Help Booking and Promotions, sees a minority of dancers spoiling the fun, and wasn't surprised when the Toybox canceled his remaining hardcore shows. The practice of "crowd killing"—dancers purposely trying to hit onlookers in the audience—in particular, he says, is alarming.
"My rule is, I don't care what happens in the pit," says Ramsey. "To me, it's going after the people trying to stay away from the pit that pisses me off. To the people doing that, I want to say: You're ruining the scene."
Well before First Avenue and the 7th St. Entry began hosting all-ages punk shows, basements were the place to avoid all those legal entanglements. "For punk rock, the best-case scenario for an all-ages show is a house or something where there doesn't need to be security or insurance," says Erik Funk, who started out in basements with his band Dillinger Four, and still regularly books all-ages shows at the Triple Rock.
Funk praises the recently relaunched Alamo, and at least seven other houses routinely host off-the-map shows, including Castle Greyskull, the Organ House, and the Chicken House.
A week after the show at the Vault, Fargo band Gumbi rock the basement of the Pocketknife, the Whittier neighborhood house where Baby Guts members and former Garage volunteers Laura Larson and Taylor Matori have been putting on events since last summer. A few blocks away on the same night, punks crowd into the backyard behind a Minneapolis house known as Two Pines to hear dreadlocked banjo player Angie Lynch sing under a rising half moon. Farther south, the much louder Retainers blow out a basement party at another punk house called White Trash.
At the Pocketknife, Gumbi hunch over their instruments as if to reach through the metal and wood and tear into their own bodies. Like most basement shows, this one is about 15 degrees hotter than the warm night air outside, the ceiling insulated by white mesh and orange velvet curtains. About 30 people under age 25, plus a few oldsters, are stuffed in here between a couple of pillars, glistening with sweat, some resting their hands on the pipes crossing the low ceiling overhead.
During the fuzz-funk breakdown on "Jaw," a dozen people break into slam dancing. Jostled but smiling, Larson collects gas money for the out-of-town bands.
"It's a lot more intimate in a basement," she says, "because you're all kind of packed into one tiny little place. We'll have house meetings to book bands, and we use MySpace. Our neighbors have to be okay with it. It's a constant worry when you're having house shows, that something is going to go wrong, or your neighbors are going to call the cops, because it's one less place where kids can go see shows."
At one point, Gumbi's bassist announces, "Thanks to Baby Guts for setting up the show. Also, we need a fun place to stay tonight."
"You can stay here," comes a shout from the back. The vote has already been taken.
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