Yes, bad things happened in Minnesota music in 2018. Venues closed. People died. Equipment was stolen. One musician was shot right outside a popular club. There was even the strange case of an ill-informed but well intentioned heavy-metal tribute band wearing blackface at the State Fair grandstand, like a bad scene out of 1918.
We gotta stay positive, though. At least on the music front.
1. We gained more venues than we lost: The new music room at Mortimer’s was off and running from Day 1 in 2018, and by year’s end had fostered City Pages’ Picked to Click-winning band Gully Boys, Murf and many more. Moon Palace Books also gave a lot of none-of-the-above acts a new home with its new performance space, while jill-of-all-trades Molly Maher brought cool things to Como Lakeside Pavilion and Wayzata’s Ninetwentyfive. And let’s not forget the rebirth of the Parkway and Varsity theaters, the latter returning as-is (as in: one of the best music rooms in town).
2. Best “Best New Bands” ever?: Always offering a good pulse of what’s going on in the scene, last January’s annual Best New Bands showcase at First Avenue was tick-tick-ticking with high energy, from show-stealers the Bad Man’s spazzy breakout set to Lady Lark’s deep throwback grooves, and Dwynell Roland’s slow-building eruption to ultra-buzzing RCA recording artist Thomas Abban’s work-in-progress tryout with his new live band. Oh, and one more healthy sign: The next BNB showcase (Jan. 4) looks equally eclectic and promising.
3. The home team Bowled ’em over: While out-of-town stars such as Travis Scott and Cardi B conned fans into paying $150-$500 for bogus party “appearances” during Super Bowl mania in Minneapolis, Minnesota’s homegrown talent offered some of the best performances of the week — for free, and mostly in single-digit weather! Mint Condition, Dessa, the Revolution, Soul Asylum, Morris Day & the Time, the Jayhawks, Brother Ali, Prof and the Suburbs impressively soldiered through the cold for the Super Bowl Live concert series on Nicollet Mall, one of the all-time greatest lineups of Minnesota talent ever assembled.
4. Dessa’s Outlook calendar: Her Super Bowl gig was just the start of a manic, marquee year for the Doomtree rapper, who: a) dropped her best album yet in April, b) toured the world with a new band during spring and summer, c) sang the anthem at the Twins’ home opener and the WNBA All-Star Game, 4) published a memoir in September that’s newly listed among NPR’s Best Books of 2018, and e) collaborated again with the Minnesota Orchestra in October. Somebody buy that woman a drink! Oh wait, she: f) also started her own whiskey brand this year. So she’s good.
5. Your turn, Red Wing and Winona: After enjoying Duluth’s Homegrown Fest in prior years, I had the good fortune to take in both Red Wing’s new Big Turn Music Fest in February and Winona’s long-building Mid West Music Fest in May, each a weekend-long takeover of various bars, stores and American Legion halls willing to host bands from around the region. What a blast, but also what an eye-opener to both the local talent — and the enthusiasm for said talent — in these towns.
6. Soundset rules: Local acts took something of a back seat in the giant hip-hop fest’s 11th installment in May; even Atmosphere relegated themselves to the smaller Fifth Element stage. But it’s a testament to the scene created by Rhymesayers and other longtime Soundset participants that the world’s biggest all-hip-hop fest takes place here, one viable enough to meet the high (no pun) demands for staging a thrilling Wu-Tang Clan reunion and rare Erykah Badu set, but also a fest still humble enough to not put up with ego trips from co-headliners Migos, who had their sound cut off mid-performance after being unnecessarily tardy. Welcome to Minnesota, amigos. We take this stuff seriously.
7. First Avenue’s buying spree: Just a year after helming the Palace Theatre’s rebirth and five years since buying the Turf Club, our rock star of a local rock club went and bought both the Fine Line and Fitzgerald Theater this year. Whatever this means for the future — cries of a local concert monopoly still seem very far-fetched when competitor Live Nation owns 130-plus venues — it at least shows that the club’s long history of supporting local and independent bands has paid off.
8. Palace royalty: Selling out a two-night stand at First Ave used to be a high-water mark for local bands, but that mark has now maybe moved to the nearly twice-bigger Palace, where fans packed in for back-to-back-nights with Trampled by Turtles, Atmosphere and Hippo Campus in 2018. The latter band’s shows last month were the big surprise of the bunch, with mostly under-25 fans excitedly receiving the performance as if they were seeing the biggest thing out of England instead of Woodbury. (Then again, two nights at the Palace was nothing compared with having this year’s highest-attended Minnesota State Fair grandstand concert, which Trampled achieved in August.)
9. Never can say goodbye: Lizzo’s return to town to play another two-night stand at the Palace with Haim in February was also a 2018 bellwether moment, since the hip-hop star not only blew the roof off the place but also talked as if she were still a proud Minnesota artist a year after moving to Los Angeles, something she would also do in write-ups for Rolling Stone and Vogue. We’d hear similar comments from one of Nashville’s brightest new stars, Cannon Falls-raised soulful country-rocker Caitlyn Smith, as well as Lizzo’s indie-buzzing pal Caroline Smith, who now performs as Your Smith but told us, “I’m still yours.”
10. A lot of help from our friends: The Minnesota music scene has always been good about helping its own, but crowd-sourcing sites such as GoFundMe made this a great year for that. Red Daughters member Aaron “Hix” Lee got back on his feet with such support after being shot during a robbery near the 331 Club. The family of 21-year-old Twin Cities drummer Sarah Papenheim, slain in the Netherlands last week, is paying for funeral arrangements this way. And not to mention all the crowdfunding toward 2018 releases by everyone from Willie Murphy and Semisonic on down to worthy newcomers such as Lena Elizabeth and Keri Arnett.
Now if we could just find more people willing to pay a $10 cover for local live music, we’d be rich.