A good opening line to sum up opening night of the Basilica Block Party: Things got a little hot under the collar.
Boasting a cooler-than-average lineup, the 17th annual rock 'n' roll 'n' beer bash outside the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis suffered hellfire heat at first. The 25-page program has never been more useful than as fans during early sets by hot newcomers Lissie and Fitz & The Tantrums.
"I never take off my jacket," Fitz & The Tantrums' stylish frontman Michael Fitzpatrick said on stage, "but Minneapolis, you just broke me."
Things were also more heated than usual outside the gates. A small contingent of gay rights supporters handed out stickers and carried signs to protest the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis' support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
"Let's party as if we already have marriage equality," read one of the signs belonging to Catholics for Marriage Equality, whose stickers ("I support marriage equality") were plastered all over concertgoers. Co-founder Michael Bayly said his group did not want to discourage people from attending. "We want people to feel welcome and know that there are many, many Catholics who believe in equality," Bayly said.
A Facebook page that drew 15,000 "yes" responders did call for a boycott of the party before its creator took it down two weeks ago. The page did not seem to affect ticket sales, which neared 13,000 on Friday. It did draw the attention of organizers and performers.
One headliner, Michael Franti, met with members of the gay rights group OutFront.org and pledged his support to them. Local rockers the Jayhawks dedicated a new song, "Hide Your Colors," to "free choice in marriage." Illinois songstress Lissie drew cheers when she said, "It's really not anyone's business how people choose to love one another. Love is always a good thing."
Basilica representatives said they support everyone's right to respectfully speak out on the issue, but they believe the block party was unfairly singled out. "All of the money this event raises stays entirely within the walls of the beautiful Basilica buildings to preserve them, and preserve the good work that is done here," said Emily Carlson Hjelm, the church's director of development.
The block party started in 1995 to help pay for the church's structural upkeep. Money still goes to that as well as to St. Vincent de Paul charity's efforts.
The issue did not do much to distract concertgoers from the party's usual action-packed night of music.
Fans flowed in both directions under Interstate 394 between the two main stages as British balladeer David Gray played opposite Franti, and Fitz & The Tantrums across from the Jayhawks. The audience found total harmony in Gray's acoustic version of "Babylon," which allowed for a giant singalong. The reunited Jayhawks also had people singing with "Blue."
While introducing keyboardist Karen Grotberg, Jayhawks co-leader Gary Louris made what may have been yet another protest statement. "She drove all the way here from St. Paul, up I-94," Louris said, which sounded like a subtle jab at the state of road construction.
Tickets ($45) should be available at the gates for Saturday's block party lineup, which includes Maine-reared song man Ray LaMontagne, acclaimed southern rockers the Drive-by Truckers, Amos Lee, Gomez, Citizen Cope and more starting at 5:15 p.m. On Sunday, the party outside the church continues for free with the Move & Groove Family Fest featuring kids music acts Justin Roberts and Koo Koo Kanga Roo, games and more youthful activities from 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 Twitter: @ChrisRstrib