I simply had no idea. I had no idea what people in my town will do to support the bands they love. I had no idea how many people love a bunch of guys from Duluth who play a rockin’ style of bluegrass and call themselves Trampled by Turtles. I just had no idea that this state could continue to surprise me like it did on Friday night.
It was cold. After a balmy winter where it hasn’t gotten below 25 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks at a time, Thursday and Friday last week were cold. Minnesota in February just-like-it-should-be cold. A strong northwest wind brought windchills of -25 to -30, making life just dangerous enough.
When I finally got out of work on Friday, all I wanted to do was go home and spend a couple hours on the couch with a beer. Unfortunately, the doors for the show were at 6:00. And, like I said, it was cold. I won’t deny that not going crossed my mind. I’m glad I didn’t give in to that temptation. I got a little worried that a lot of other people would and on the drive over, I had visions of First Ave.’s cavernous space occupied by just a couple hundred of the most ardent fans. Two hours later, I would marvel at my ignorance.
We picked up our friends Wrench and Nurse and headed downtown. When we got inside, my worries about the turnout seemed to be validated. Sure, no band would step foot on stage for another half hour or more, but there seemed to be just a few dozen people lost to the shadows when we got inside. The image of the solid mass of people that would pack the venue at the peak of the night was unimaginable.
The first act was a late addition to the bill, the side project of Alan Sparhawk â€“ singer and guitarist of Low, who the Turtles opened for in December, which nicely underlines the feeling one gets of Duluth coming down to the Twin Cities for a night every once in a while â€“ under the unassuming name of the Retribution Gospel Choir. This was the second time I’ve seen them play, and words still fail me in trying to describe their music. The easiest thing to do might be to compare them to some other bands, but that proves to be the hardest thing to do. Maybe a little bit of Neil Young or Flock of Seagulls, but as soon as that or any comparison comes to mind, the next bar of the song shatters it.
There was definitely a sense of post-rock to the performance, down to their tendency to fade from one song to another, leaving little space for the audience to applaud or absorb. It got me to thinking that maybe they were trying to make a statement that they didn’t need the audience’s validation or approval. Which later in the set got me to thinking that while they might have just been trying to exhibit indifference or modernity (two of rock’s unavoidable tendencies), they were robbing their audience of a powerful aspect of consumption: the ability to express ourselves right back at them. An audience needs to applaud â€“ or whistle or yell or something! — every so often. They didn’t get much of it with the Choir.
Don’t let all that verbal staggering lead you to think for a second that their set wasn’t enjoyable. For everything I know, maybe the music was the direct descendant of some previous tradition, and maybe the Choir just didn’t want to stop rockin’ long enogh to let us clap. I was so distracted by the strange sights and sounds of the Choir that I hardly noticed the club slowly filling up.
There may be no better chaser for Maker’s Mark than Premium. When I went to get another beer after the Choir left the stage, I found myself having to weave between clumps of people. Everyone seemed to be laughing. Beer was being rapidly consumed by one 24 oz. bottle of Corona or Newcastle after another.
And Premium. Oh, blond-headed stepchild.
The next act up, White Iron Band, was one I had heard of in passing, but the only thing that stayed impressed on my mind was reading somewhere that they had been voted best country band in Minnesota in some poll last year. I thought they could be all right, but I was waiting to see.
The movie screen that serves as a curtain at First Ave. â€“ this night alternating surreally between “Mystery Men,â€ “Forrest Gumpâ€ and “Being John Malkovichâ€ — went up and revealed a stage full of musicians. The lead singer could have just got off a construction job site in his boots, grungy jeans and flannel and headband. The rest of the seven guys seemed to occupy some step on the spectrum from roofer to hippie.
The stage was still and silent for just a moment, then it exploded into sound with the leader ripping away on the harmonica and everyone else joining in on a song that was a long way from my ideas of country. Rhythm filled the place.
The band played a far-reaching set. The music touched on country, but just as often it was a flavor of blues and rock. One of their last songs was about Minnesota and when they shouted out a line about drinking Grain Belt, many bottles were raised in the air.
When it was finally time for the Turtles, people were lined up six deep along the railings of the balcony. In the absence of a band on stage, my ears were filled with that strange symphony of the busy club: the cacophony of clinking and clanking, the voices yelling over each other. The energy level had been set high for the headliners.
When Trampled by Turtles took to their folding chairs on stage and started playing, I thought I detected a certain tightness. This show had been on the calendar for months and I’m sure they had been looking forward to it. Now that they were finally on stage, they seemed like they might be just a little nervous. They played perfectly well, but their usual accelerated style of playing seemed ever more sped up than usual, and they played without hardly looking out at the exuberant crowd at their feet. They played tight all the way through the first two or three songs (the names of which I couldn’t even guess at, as I have a terrible memory and I didn’t bring a notepad and pen… I really rarely intend to write about shows, it just kind of happens, which might be hard to believe as I reach word 1140…), but slowly the fun broke through and you could see them start enjoying it.
We had run into three friends during the White Iron Band, they now went to get on the floor. We joined Wrench and Nurse along one corner of the balcony and watched for the rest of the night from there. I couldn’t believe how many people we ran into. A friend of mine from work and her boyfriend; a college classmate of whom I have hazy memories of a semester of giving her a ride to a political science class; a coworker of Wrench’s who I’d hung out with once before at a 2-for-1 Tuesday night at the Triple Rock. Then there were all the people that I recognized from previous shows, especially for Duluth bands like Low or at the Green Man Festival.
The Turtles played a great set. They were lined up in the usual order across the stage, beginning at left with the long-haired mandolin player, then the bearded Nordic banjo player, then the guitarist and frequent singer, and on the right, the bassist. They look like the kinds of guys who were simply destined to become friends at college and start playing first in basements, then bonfires, then some bars. Now, this night, headlining for their first time on the most famous stage in the state after a successful year of touring around the country and recording.
Late in their set, the harmonica player/singer of White Iron Band, the drummer from the Retribution Gospel Choir, a fiddle-playing friend and a washboard player came on stage for a big floor-buckling version of Bob Dylan’s “Isis.” The crowd moved as one, and even up in the usually-sedate balcony, a few clusters of drunks danced enthusiastically through, colliding occasionally with those of us who like to stick to foot-tapping and head-nodding.
The Turtles played two encores and could have played three. When the lights came up and we knew they wouldn’t be coming back to the stage, we collected our coats from the coat check and bundled up against the freeze that was still outside the doors.
I had lunch last week with a guy who’s been doing executive recruiting for a long time (and no, it had nothing to do with recruiting me, I have a ways to go before anyone wants to make me a vice president of anything). He said that Minnesota has a reputation as the hardest state to recruit people into, and the hardest to recruit them out of. There are lots of reasons why. Last week, it seemed appropriate to tell him about meeting a friend at a bar in Minneapolis on a Saturday night last fall and the two of us having a near-wilderness canoe trip on the St. Croix not 10 hours later, and me making it to dinner at my in-laws for Sunday dinner.
Friday was another exclamation point. This time it was the sense of community, the sense of depth, the strength and the insanity of the people and the place. With the wind ripping down the concrete canyons of downtown Minneapolis, I looked down from the balcony and knew that no one in that tightly-packed, constantly-moving crowd could feel the chill.