No Secret: John Mark Nelson Wows “Live Letters” Crowd

January 11, 2013
John Mark Nelson

John Mark Nelson performs in Minneapolis as part of the Live Letters series. Photos: Alex Weaver

I traipsed down the rain-soaked road, happy to be en route to a highly anticipated show from John Mark Nelson, an 18-year-old singer, songwriter and arranger based in Minneapolis.

I wasn’t heading to First Avenue, Turf Club or another iconic Minneapolis music venue. I was heading to Live Letters, a concert series hosted in a secret location in the Whittier neighborhood.

Live Letters was new to the Minneapolis music scene last year — introduced, organized and hosted by Sara Montour. Through Live Letters, Montour charges concert goers $10 a ticket and holds small concerts in her living room on a regular basis. Because the concerts are held at her private address, the address is not widely publicized and is provided via email only to ticket buyers.

It’s a fun concept. Live Letters creates an intimate concert experience with hints of underground exclusivity and music exploration. Plus, it’s less than a mile away from my apartment and at $10 a ticket, it’s totally reasonable.

As soon as the show started, Nelson warmed an otherwise cold and rainy evening with a seven-piece ensemble and thoughtful, moving ballads. He wooed the audience of about 100 from the start with humor, soulful crooning and an accordion named Marianne. The first half of the set picked up with a lively rendition of “Rain Comes Down,” an infectious, upbeat break-up song. (Yes, there is such a thing.) The song’s contagious energy rang out into the room and into the soggy crowd.

The synergy between Nelson’s lyrics and instrumentation was palpable throughout the night and it took a couple measures into each song for the weightiness to sink in. Nelson’s attention to detail across all instruments is impeccable and once the lyrics hit you, it’s hard not to feel as if you’re standing beside him, trapped in the dream of heartbreak, personal growth and teenage angst.


After a brief intermission, Nelson took to the keyboards and commanded instant attention. The focus shifted away from beer and cookies and back to the music. You could hear a pin drop — or the Live Letters cat make its way around the room — during Nelson’s performance of “Columbia,” a moving ballad from his first album. Self-described as “a little depressing and sad,” Nelson held the audience captive with emotive lyrics and seemed to put the crowd in a pensive lull. It’s hard to believe the 18-year-old has experienced enough pain, joy, sadness or even just raw emotion, to be able to breathe that kind of life into his lyrics. But he does it well.

All in all, the night was amazing and I doubt I’ll ever again be able to see Nelson perform in someone’s living room. He’s been named by The Current as one of Minnesota’s most important new artists to watch and I have to agree. The power behind his live performances will be a driving force in the promising future for this up-and-coming 18-year-old.  While his albums are notable, Nelson is at his best live and it’s hard to beat a living room set.

You can catch John Mark Nelson and the crew at First Avenue tomorrow night when he plays in the year’s Best New Bands showcase or in a couple weeks during The Current’s birthday celebration. If you’re interested in checking out great local bands in an intimate setting, don’t miss Live Letters’ upcoming shows. I promise you won’t be disappointed.