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First Avenue Best New Bands

26 Jan

We would like to think that we improve with each passing year, we become better, more complex and confident, more polished versions of ourselves, and hope the same for the things we care about. For the Minnesota music scene, to help this assessment along is the annual First Avenue “Best New Bands” showcase, highlighting the acts that our crown jewel venue most enjoyed from the preceding year. On Wednesday night, “Best New Bands” was not only a general consensus (five of the seven acts were also finalists in the last iteration of the City Pages “Picked to Click” poll) but also something of an understatement. When Local Current journalist Andrea Swensson noted from stage that she thought that, “Minnesota music is on an upswing”, it meant that the momentum from the successes of our past years (Doomtree, Peter Wolf Crier, GAYNGS) has raised the bar on local newness.

Fire in the Northern Firs opened with a woozy, pulsating shoegaze vibe that packed the punch you would expect from a quartet of experienced musicians. With vocalist Carin Barno (formerly of First Communion Afterparty) leading the charge and singing through a microphone embedded in a telephone receiver at points, the drive of the songs was wrapped up in her lusty energy that saw her lunging across stage while wailing about booze, love and blow. For the still-gathering crowd who showed up early, it was a heady way to kick off the night and set a high standard for the bands to follow.

If Barno and Fire in the Northern Firs brought a sexy rock n’ roll mess onstage, then Sexcat pulled out the electronica dance stops. Tongue (mostly) in cheek, Hannah von der Hoff and Megan Charles cooed and breathed heavy sweet nothings in our collective ears. “Your job tonight, Minneapolis, is to dance,” von der Hoff proclaimed from stage, and although 8:30 on a Wednesday may have been a little to early and a little too sober for most, it didn’t stop Sexcat from vamping it up like a more-chaste Peaches or Enigma with a libido and a bong.

Dream Crusher may have been missing Jacob Mullis of Fort Wilson Riot (in Arizona recording a new album) but with 10 men onstage and a cameo from Sean Anonymous of Wide Eyes and Ashley Gold, they weren’t wanting for sound. Keeping everything tight for Dream Crusher were the double drumming skills of Mo McNichols and Jared Isabella, while Jacob Grun of Me and My Arrow emoted via auto-tune such as to make Bon Iver proud. For a band of ad hoc membership and often no set path, this was one of the most passionate, cohesive and beautifully ambient acts of the night.

Then came the real veterans. Gramma’s Boyfriend consists of Haley Bonar, who put out a wonderful record in Golder last year, guitar whiz Jeremy Ylvisaker, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Mike Lewis on bass and the Hanson brothers, Jacob and Jeremy, on guitar and drums respectively, meaning there is altogether too much serious talent in that band, and they have to blow off steam somehow. So when Bonar came out in a pair of giant mom jeans (and she is a new mother) with an enormous fake derriere emblazoned with the sly logo “LARDACHE”, just chalk it up to her needing to be the anti-Karen O of art punk and let some septuagenarian freak flag fly.

Night Moves made it up next, fresh off the buzz that they had signed up with Domino Records in order to release their Colored Emotions debut and with a hearty recommendation as the cure to your love life troubles from Chase Mathey of Radio K. With their shaggy hair and over-sized shirts, they looked and sounded their part of the MGMT-spearheaded psych revival, falling into some mix of disco-era Stones and Pink Floyd harmonies over the course of their set. Although their sound is now an amalgam of sounds past, these are a creative bunch with some great bands under their belts (Mouthful of Bees, Battle Royale) so there’s no counting on what John Pelant, Mark Ritsema and Mickey AlfaƱo might do next.

If playing the First Avenue Mainroom is really the top honor in the Cities, then you had better make the most of the moment, and Bloodnstuff did just that. In front of a packed house, drummer Dylan Gouert and guitarist/vocalist Ed Holmberg absolutely owned the room from the get-go, using a wall of amplifiers and double floor toms to tear everything around them apart. With their sinewy, massive hooks, wailing guitar lines, open-throated screaming and devastating prog drums, these guys were unstoppable. DJ Jason Nagel of Cities 97 noted before their set that they had just reached their Kickstarter goal to fund their new record, but with four more days to go, that epic performance should earn them, as Nagel put it, “a few more shekels.”

Closing out the night (albeit to a slightly diminished house, the more’s their loss) was new hip-hop hope MaLLy. Currently nestled under the warm wing of Atmosphere (Slug is a fan, from appearing in videos to wearing a MaLLy T at Soundset last year) this young MC came across powerfully, like a The College Dropout-era Kanye, full of stories about his own hustle and family. With enough swagger and bite to claim that “if I was white, I would have been signed in ’07,” MaLLy was also moved enough by the crowd response to claim that he “wouldn’t be shit” without the fan support. If that brief flash on the Mainroom stage is any indication and with a record coming this spring, MaLLy’s going to be a lot more.

First Avenue was also showing off a bit of its own newness over the course of the night. From debuting the new Members Area for the inaugural run of the membership program to radically increasing space and visibility by removing the staircase that used to be in the center of the floor, the Mainroom was looking and feeling a fresher place, the venerable venue taking what it already did so well and making it better. If a venue can do that, then surely bands can and from fresh faces to new projects from old hands, the night was as much as we could have hoped for, and we always hope to be surprised and impressed like that.

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