52 Weeks, 52 Concerts — Part III

February 14, 2017


For those following along, I made a vow in 2016 to catch as much live music as I could, as part of a larger effort to bolster creativity and to take advantage of off-work hours. I ultimately attended 52 concerts and am chronicling highlights for Peepshow readers. (Here are Part I and Part II of the four-part series, and Part III appears below.)

Could creating a four-part blog series about my concert-going adventures be construed as a lazy attempt to avoid coming up with a new blog topic? Maybe. But one does not go to 52 concerts every year, and I sincerely hope the following list of diverse recommendations inspires people to expand their musical horizons, buy some new records and/or quit thinking twice before nabbing tickets to the next tour coming to your city.

Felice Brothers – Turf Club, St. Paul
I first discovered the Felice Brothers amidst a packed bill at the Beacon Theater in New York. It was part of an annual fundraiser for the local public radio station, in which they pick one artist who then fills out the rest of the lineup with their own friends. In this case, Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes fame) was headlining, and Felice Brothers emerged as one of the most memorable acts among a seriously incredible concert. I’ve since seen them perform as Oberst’s backing band, and they play on his soon-to-be-released album – but their own original tunes are wildly underrated, and they’ve released some of my favorite records in recent years. At times, they channel serious songwriting legends like John Prine; other times, it’s pure raucous fun, driven by accordions and violin. Here’s a song that skews toward the latter, including some fun references to Duluth and St. Paul.

Shonen Knife – Turf Club, St. Paul
Wow, where to begin with Shonen Knife… they’re a trio of Japanese women who have been playing poppy rock ‘n roll tunes since the early ’80s, and they’re unlike anything that came before them or has emerged after. Sure, there’s a sort of kitsch factor to the fact that they sing songs with titles like “I Am a Cat,” “Flying Jelly Attack” and “I Wanna Eat Cookies,” using very broken English that is adorable. But there’s much more to it than that: I’ve seen them twice, and each time they put on some of the most fun, energetic, positive shows I’ve ever witnessed.

Margo Price – Turf Club, St. Paul
I’ve previously mentioned a renaissance of phenomenal songwriters who are firmly rooted in classic country music. Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell have (rightly) gotten the most attention, but Margo Price is an incredible force – one that, ironically, was overlooked by the traditional Nashville record label machine and discovered by none other than Jack White. Her debut album on his Third Man label is unforgettable, and after an SNL performance helped land Price before a mainstream audience, I was lucky enough to snag a ticket to her sold-out Turf Club show before she got too big. Ditch preconceived notions about country music: Check out her song “Hurtin’ on the Bottle” for a really driving tune – or this moving Tiny Desk performance, which really showcases her voice and songwriting.

MXPX – Triple Rock Social Club, Minneapolis
High school marked a period of musical exploration for me: I had an insatiable appetite for learning about bands, and the ones I discovered during those formative years remain on my playlists (or turntable) today. That said, there was one band that had the biggest impact on me before high school: MXPX. Taken out of context, today they’d sound more at home in a Zumiez store at the Mall of America than in true punk circles. But as a sixth-grader, their mohawks, tattoos, fast-paced drumming, and irreverent lyrics were life-changing. I learned dozens of their songs on guitar, performing them at middle-school talent shows and anywhere else I could. Catching them at the Triple Rock last fall, while a sold-out room of late-20s/early-30s fans stage-dove and screamed along, was nothing short of cathartic.

Trampled By Turtles – Commons Park, Minneapolis
If you haven’t heard Trampled by Turtles by now, you’re seriously missing out. Their melodic, fast-picking, bluegrass-inspired tunes have become one of the Twin Cities’ (by way of Duluth) top musical exports, building huge audiences around the country and beyond. (Their singer also charted an acclaimed solo career, recently releasing a new title under his Dead Man Winter moniker.) This summer, before the home opener at the new Vikings stadium, TBT played a free show with Mason Jennings at the all-new Commons Park, with the stadium as their backdrop. It was a weird environment and a weird crowd, but that only made it work all the better.

Russian Circles – Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Russian Circles took some of the best parts from what other instrumental, so-called “post-rock” bands were doing at the time (think Sigur Ros, Explosions in the Sky, etc.) and added a layer of thick distortion that brought an entirely new level of intensity to the style. I’ve caught them live several a couple of times, and their 2016 release, Guidance, is among their most powerful albums to date. Like any heavy music, it’s not for everyone, but they pepper in just enough unexpected, complex time signatures to their otherwise-repetitive sound, and it keeps me on the edge of my seat. Here’s some live footage from a set back in 2012:

Echo & The Bunnymen – First Avenue, Minneapolis
Perhaps I should be embarrassed by this, but Echo & The Bunnymen first captivated my attention via the soundtrack for the film Donnie Darko. Many people have mixed feelings about that movie, but the power of its ’80s soundtrack is undeniable, and it’s a great listen, cover to cover. Echo’s “Under the Killing Moon” sets an eerie, almost surreal tone in the film’s opening scene, and it’s one of my favorite songs from the era. (Of course, you can’t deny the great Tears for Fears tracks on that soundtrack too.) Anyway, I’ve scooped up Echo’s albums on vinyl in recent years, and it was a treat seeing them perform at First Ave., even if I’m too young to have listened to them in their heyday.

La Dispute – First Avenue, Minneapolis
There are an overwhelming number of genres when it comes to describing off-shoots of punk and hardcore music, but I suppose La Dispute could loosely be labeled as “post-hardcore.” They have a spoken-word-type lyricism that is reminiscent of bands like mewithoutyou, and an intensity that harkens back to the early “screamo” scene – stuff like Saetia, Hot Cross, etc., but more reserved. Does that sound like a bunch of jibberish to you? If so, just listen, and decide for yourself what you think.

McCoy Tyner – Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis
Born in 1938, McCoy Tyner is a living jazz legend, and watching him perform in the intimate space of the Dakota was unforgettable. Tyner has performed with everyone from John Coltrane to Wayne Shorter, and while I don’t fancy myself a jazz aficionado, he has always stood out to me as one of the all-time greats. Especially at a time when we’re losing so many musical heroes, it was an honor to catch him live. Here’s a fun clip of Tyner playing with bassist Stanley Clarke, another of my favorite musicians of all time.

Brand New – Roy Wilkins Auditorium, St. Paul
To address the elephant in the room, Roy Wilkins is one of my least favorite places to catch live music. But when I heard that Brand New, one of my favorite high school bands, was coming to town with Modern Baseball, a younger band that is now carrying the torch for a similar genre, I had to check it out. Brand New frontman Jesse Lacy captured teen angst (at a time when I happened to be a teenager) in a way that few other bands could. Nerdy? Yes. Fun even to this day? Absolutely.

Whiskey Rock ‘N Roll Club – Stone Arch Festival, Minneapolis
I’ve shared a few local bands whose members I count among my friends, so I’ll close this post with a shoutout to Whiskey Rock ‘N Roll Club, featuring the inimitable Taylor Carik. I caught them performing midday on the shores of the Mississippi River during the annual Stone Arch Festival, and their brand of driving, stomping, riff-driven rock ‘n roll will have you pumping your fist, banging your head and singing along in no time.

Stay tuned for the fourth and final installment of my 2016 concert streak. In the meantime, and as always, recommendations for new music, upcoming shows, etc., are greatly appreciated.