No. 1 memories for First Avenue's 40th

Musicians playing Wednesday's anniversary party name their all-time favorite moments at Minneapolis' landmark rock club.

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New stars at First Avenue

Photo: Tom Sweeney, Star Tribune

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If you hang out at First Avenue long enough, the nights/concerts/bands/years all tend to blur in a dark haze of black paint and multicolored stage lights.

Now imagine how fuzzy your memories might be if you're one of the musicians who have performed at the club year in and year out. Never mind that the beer supply in the dressing room has a tendency to make things foggy by morning -- especially if your band is the Replacements (or one of the 943 bands that have played there trying to be the Replacements).

It's hard to remember things inside a room that has changed so little, for better or worse. Mostly better. The layout is a little different from 40 years ago, when the former Greyhound bus station opened as the Depot with a concert by Joe Cocker. Over the past two to three decades, though, the place has mostly been the same.

Only first-timers go around looking for the exterior ticket booth, dancing ramps and spacious backstage area featured in Prince's "Purple Rain" (all added for the movie). Even the stage manager who greets the musicians, Conrad Sverkerson, is a constant fixture, although he has gotten a haircut.

People like First Avenue the way it is. Proof of that came this past summer, when even the routine, once-a-decade repainting of the stars that adorn the club's exterior was met with a wave of anxiety and great debate. As if Minneapolis would lose all of its cool cachet if Rifle Sport or Savage Aural Hotbed were to lose their stars.

With the club celebrating its 40th anniversary Wednesday, a half-dozen acts with their stars and a few younger regulars have been rounded up to perform. They generally aren't the most famous First Ave alumni, but they are many of the musicians who have played and/or hung out there the most over the years. We knew they would have at least one great memory.

TONY GLOVER

of Koerner, Ray & Glover

When Lucinda Williams released her groundbreaking Rough Trade album [in 1988], music man Peter Jesperson talked First Ave manager Steve McClellan into booking the then-unknown. When I heard her first set at the Entry, it literally sent chills up my spine. I sat in for the next set, an intense experience. Next time she came back, it was on a split bill with Ray & Glover. Her label prez came to town for the gig and wound up signing us to the label.

She was a frequent flier on the main stage, and a circle was filled out when -- à la Hank Williams -- she got married there last year, in front of a capacity crowd.

ROY FREEDOM

House DJ and longest-tenured employee

My most memorable show was the Waterboys right after 9/11. Very emotional. But probably my all-time favorite memory was when we finally got ownership of the building [in 2000]. Before that, it was always, "Lease this, lease that," or, "The Target Center is going to kick us out," and all these different kinds of threats to the club for years and years. The landlord before that was Ted Mann of the Mann theater chain, who owned the whole block. Finalizing the ownership was huge. That was when we all realized the place really could live on for a long, long time.

ERNIE BATSON

Hypstrz and Mighty Mofos

Gang of Four in 1982 was the single best concert I've seen anywhere. And my favorite playing gig was the Hypstrz opening for the Ramones the first time they played the club -- '78 perhaps? I remember their leather jackets had a special wardrobe case. The monitors were unbelievable: I could hear myself breathing when I was almost a foot from the mike.

We had to play a 90-plus-minute set because the club couldn't afford more than one support act (really?!). If we had done just 45 minutes, we'd have had the crowd eating out of our hands. By the 70-minute mark, people were asking us to leave. Some bottles were thrown, with the guys from Hüsker Dü being among the culprits. We spoke to them later at the Longhorn about their bad manners.

JOHN MUNSON

Semisonic, Twilight Hours

Seeing Prince right after he finished filming "Purple Rain" was pretty amazing. The band was tight as only can happen coming out of extended rehearsals for something like a record or a movie. The songs were fresh, the guitar playing was scintillating and the groove was explosive. Hard to top that. Gang of Four on their "Songs of the Free" tour comes damn close, though. Can't wait to see them there again [Feb. 12].

SEAN TILLMAN

Har Mar Superstar, Sean-Na-Na

I've seen countless shows there from the age 15 onward. One story that really sticks out was at Sebadoh in '94 or '95. They were my favorite band at the time, and I was super-excited. As I walked in, [frontman] Lou Barlow asked me where the bathroom was. I was star-struck. I had never been backstage at that point, but I had seen a door near the front entrance that staff were always going in and out of. I assumed it was the rock-star/staff bathroom and excitedly pointed him in that direction.

Seconds later, he was running away from security who were trying to find out what he was doing in an unauthorized room. When they took the stage, Lou was in a terrible mood. The show was rocky for 15 minutes and, after a meltdown, Lou huffed off stage. It was over just as it was starting. I was directly responsible, and I was mortified but still found it hilarious.

That's the last time I ever got star-struck. We're all just looking for the bathroom, man.

SEAN McPherson

Heiruspecs

As a 10th-grader [1997], I begged my mom to bring me to First Ave to see a band I loved, the Shipping News, and a band I'd never heard of and promised to leave before they started, Built to Spill. It was a 21-plus show, but Mom said she'd vouch for me and my two friends, Mario Diaz de Leon and Jay Schecter, who looked as different as night and day. The door guy looked at the IDs and said, "Are you saying you are all of these kids' mother?" Without missing a beat my mom said, "Different fathers. Let us in." The dude waved us in, and I did leave before Built to Spill.

PETER LEGGETT

Heiruspecs

My second time playing in the main room was the day after Christmas in 2001. Heiruspecs backed both Oddjobs and Atmosphere in front of a sold-out crowd. I was 17, and still in high school. I'm not sure that I have ever felt as nervous before a performance. Luckily, my nervous and rushed drumming was forever captured through the recording of that night, which was later released as the "Sad Clown Bad Dub 3" CD.

BRIAN VANDERWERF

Chooglin'

The very last show by my previous band, the Midnight Evils, in the Entry in the fall of 2005 was a joyous occasion, when it could have or should have been a bummer. It was sold out and many of our close friends were there to see us out -- lots of good-natured shenanigans. At the time, the show broke the record for bar sales in the Entry. A badge of honor, I say!

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

  • FIRST AVENUE 40TH | When: Wednesday. Doors at 6 p.m. • Main room: Gary Louris, Har Mar Superstar, Grant Hart, Matt Wilson & John Munson, John Koerner & Tony Glover, Heiruspecs, Mighty Mofos, Hypstrz, plus DJs SovietPanda, Roy Freedom, Woody McBride, more. • 7th Street Entry: Chooglin', Birthday Suits, Con Queso. • Tickets: $10. 18 & older. 612-338-8388.

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