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What You Missed: Best New Bands at First Avenue

27 Jan

Driving in towards First Avenue for the now-annual “Best New Bands” showcase, presented by Radio K and the City Pages “Picked 2 Click” balloting, Classical MPR was streaming in live from Miami. There, the classical music world was gathered to celebrate the gala opening of the New World Symphony, a teaching orchestra with a grand new home designed by Frank Gehry. As the final strains of Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 (which contains the instantly recognizable shuttle launch music “Fanfare for the Common Man“) faded away and the standing Os started, Fred Child and Julie Amacher waxed rhapsodic about the nature of music, how it reaches our emotional core, draws us together in civil discourse and how this hall had been designed to make the music accessible, down to the point of feeling the vibrations resonate through your gut. And you know, that’s just what a well-mixed night standing next to the speaker stacks at First Ave can do for you too, though maybe without the trumpet fanfare but with just as much fervor.

The “Best New Bands” night was well-mixed in a number of ways- the sound mix was on point throughout; Phantom Tails, Pink Mink and The Goondas, bands who you so often might see in bars and restaurants with tinny PAs echoing off concrete walls, all sounded stellar through the First Ave boards. It was also a mixed bag of acts, and although showing up late and missing both Grant Cutler & the Gorgeous Lords and BadNRad wasn’t a particularly stellar way to kick it off, there was enough of a mix (albeit firmly in the rock camp) to keep the night lively and unpredictable. Lowlights were brief, highlights were splendid, which is as much and more than you could ask for from a night featuring eight bands.

Phantom Tails at First Avenue from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

Phantom Tails at First Avenue from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

Coming in to Phantom Tails, they certainly didn’t sound like they had just spent 30 hours dodging snowstorms trying to drive back from New York City, but were a live wire explosion. Frontman Orion Treon’s vocals mixed clearly against the rumbling bass, samples and synth lines and although there were some technical problems with the bass later in the set, you couldn’t tell from the cheering crowd. BNLX followed up with a similarly-drummerless, but nonetheless powerful set- as much as it is a best “new” bands showcase, veterans like Ed and Ashley Ackerson know what they’re doing and how to do it well. Their power-pop provided for an especially nice take on Prince’s “When Doves Cry”- sharp and loud and a personalized part of Minnesota music heritage.

BNLX at First Avenue from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

Hosts David Campbell (89.3 The Current), Jason Nagel (Cities 97), Andrew LaValle (Radio K) were genial and fun throughout, but of course they were, they’re goddamn radio professionals. Campbell and Nagel kept on trying to jinx LaValle from graduating to keep him on at Radio K and have him back next year, but that dude is gonna be alright. What wasn’t quite as alright was the internet connection in the Mainroom. Hastings 3000 had been on the slate for the evening but then booked a tour out to Hawai’i- who can blame a guy?- but instead of pulling out, the decision was made to try and Skype him in for a performance. After taunting the crowd with brief glimpses of palm trees and sunshine, the internet connection died and so they played the Hastings 3000 record while gas-masked attendants sprayed fog machines into a projector beam, where I am told there was a hologram of Hastings 3K. Don’t ask me, I was just there.

Hastings 3000 at First Avenue from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

Pink Mink at First Avenue from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

Everything came right back on track as some more vets-in-new-garb took the stage. Pink Mink’s punk-rock-via-blues-guitars generally sounds terrific and Christ Hunt and Arzu Gokcen always look great in coordinated flapper/cocktail attire, but on the Mainroom stage, they shone. Both swampy and clear, with Jacques Wait’s bass roaring through, the quartet ripped through a set that felt longer than the others, possibly because of the extra time afforded them after the curtailed Hastings 3000 experiment. After reminiscing about their old bands, Ouija Radio and Selby Tigers, playing the Mainroom, Gokcen noted the lack of drummers in the first bands and while they were great, the difference really was palpable once Charles Gehr got onstage and tore it up. After the fervor of Pink Mink, the hosts got up to announce the “special guests” of the evening, which they had been hinting at throughout the night. It turned out to be a collection of great Minneapolis talent- JT Bates on drums, Jacob Hanson on guitar, James Buckley and bass and Zachary Coulter on vocals- as “The Jah-hawks”, a dub cover band of The Jayhawks. It’s impressive that we have talent in the cities that can turn around on a dime and try something like this (the concept and act was put together last minute to fill the slot) but after the energy of Pink Mink and the bombastic promise of The Goondas, if you weren’t a huge Jayhawks or dub fan, this wasn’t your bag.

Jah-hawks at First Avenue from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

Although there were several couples skanking and some fist-pumping dudes, the general consensus on the Jah-hawks seemed confirmed by the silence that greeted Nagel when he asked for the crowd to give it up from stage. He did crack that they might be back for “Soul Jah-sylum” or “Brother Jah-li”, which got a bit of a laugh from the resurgent crowd, but at that point, the crowd had come back in for one thing, The Goondas. And they got it. Brenden Green spitting onstage, drooling out beer as he walked around barefoot, tearing up two mic cords before using the guitar amp mic to sing into, the pounding drums, the fall-down-drunk kid getting lifted out of the pit, a stage crasher, Conrad hustling the photographers out, Green climbing the speaker stack, sticking the landing, face-melter guitar solos, slurring, roaring cut-ups, a lovely boozing, swearing, falling, slurring mess of a set.

The Goondas at First Avenue from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

The Goondas at First Avenue from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

And then, after being shook out and bested, stepping back out into the night. Opera blaring from the empty big box across the street, a slick snow falling and the smoke of some heavy weed from a joint up the street. This is a good thing. Best or worst or whatever, it was good to be there, to get shook up, with you.

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