Local music: What's old is New Century

Downtown Minneapolis’ faded City Center is the unlikely home to a promising concert series.

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Taj Raj opened for Messersmith. The 250-seat venue has “a great, intimate vibe,” says series creator Sam Anderson.

“City Center used to be the center of our scene / Now City Center’s over, no one really goes there.”

The Hold Steady might have to rework those lyrics to “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” now, thanks to the New Century Sessions.

For four Friday nights at least, City Center will prove it isn’t over. The once vibrant, now ghost-townly downtown mall — not to be confused with downtown Minneapolis’ other skeletal retail ruins, Block E and Gaviidae Common — is the unlikely new home of what looks to be a popular new concert series.

Resuming Friday with a sold-out performance by Dessa, the New Century Sessions take place in the namesake New Century Theatre, a small, 250-capacity venue with tiered chairs on the ground floor of City Center. Hennepin Theatre Trust, the organization that runs the Orpheum, State and Pantages theaters, opened the New Century in 2011 as an incubator of sorts for local/fledgling theater and comedy productions. The venue sits on the site of the original Century Theater, which opened in 1908 but was destroyed by a fire in 1965.

The idea for the series was sparked by Cities 97’s well-received Studio C performance there with Icelandic folk-rockers Of Monsters and Men in December 2012 — with the stage props for “A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol” humorously providing a quaint holiday backdrop.

“That show really taught us it’s a great space for music, with impeccable acoustics and a great, intimate vibe,” said Sam Anderson, interactive marketing coordinator for Hennepin Theatre Trust, who spearheaded the series.

Eager to work with more local musicians besides the few who can fill the State Theatre — see: Mason Jennings, playing there next weekend — the HTT crew tested out the series with two shows last September featuring Jeremy Messersmith and Rogue Valley. After Dessa, the series continues April 4 with Adam Levy and Bethany Larson & the Bee’s Knees, followed by Communist Daughter on May 2 and Chastity Brown on July 25.

“I definitely didn’t know about the venue prior to our show,” said Rogue Valley leader Chris Koza, who was pleasantly surprised once he found the place. He compared it to attending a seated show at the Cedar Cultural Center.

“The sound was great, and from what I could tell, the audience that is interested in seeing a show like this appreciated being able to hang on every nuance. The fact that this is basically an undiscovered venue for most people really gives it a ‘first-time-experience’ [appeal].”

Something else to make the New Century Sessions a unique experience: All the shows include VIP meet-and-greet tickets and a Q&A on stage, modeled after that initial Studio C radio session. Dessa’s show will feature an interview with Cities 97 jock Paul Fletcher, but most other shows offer fans a chance to submit questions on paper before show time.

“They’re another way to take advantage of the space, make it even more intimate,” Anderson said.

He compared Messersmith’s recent album-release parties at First Avenue to his New Century gig. “These shows aren’t meant to compete with something as great as a First Ave show, they’re just sort of a supplement to that. It’s a very different way to enjoy local musicians you love.”

Random mix

Speaking of the Hold Steady, the band’s overdue sixth album, “Teeth Dreams,” finally landed Tuesday, featuring some of the slick production of 2010’s “Heaven Is Whenever” but a little more of the classic guitar grime. No word yet on a local tour date, but you can bet it’s coming. … Fellow rocker Mark Mallman did a great interview with Hold Steady’s Craig Finn for the Voice Media chain (via CityPages.com). …

Hunkered down for months writing its second record for Domino, Night Moves will step back out to play the Varsity Theater Friday with Red Daughters and the Cactus Blossoms. Bassist Mickey Alfano described the initial songs as abundant and “all over the place.” Now comes the whittling. … After going 27 years between albums, Chan Poling reports that the Suburbs have also been working up new tunes — yes, newer than last year’s “Sí Sauvage” collection — and might even try out one or two at their show Friday at First Ave. …

Local do-gooder folk hero Larry Long will helm a tribute to Pete Seeger (“my mentor for over 40 years”) at the Fitzgerald Theater on May 3 with guests including John Gorka, Prudence Johnson, Robert Robinson and Chastity Brown. The $30 tickets benefit the Children’s Defense Fund. … Also at the Fitzgerald, an all-star “State of Hip-Hop” concert has been booked by 89.3 the Current and Twin Cities Public Television for May 10, details of which will be announced soon. The buildup to the show included a panel at Intermedia Arts on Monday about local media’s treatment of hip-hop — a lively discussion, to say the least. Read a recap of it at startribune.com/artcetera. …

One of the leaders of Monday’s panel, Toki Wright, will host a “night of experimental hip-hop and neo-soul” at the Triple Rock on April 18 with his new collaborator Big Cats!, plus K. Raydio and Sarah White’s new act, Shiro Dame. … Also on hand for Monday’s discussion, Christian rapper Righteous Jonez will promote a new mixtape, “Jesus in My Ride,” Saturday at City of Refuge (7 p.m., free, 867 Pierce Butler Route, St. Paul). The young St. Paul wordsmith is part of 1-Way Entertainment’s “holy hip-hop” roster with Xross and T-Hud, also performing. …

Another sign that business reporters are full of it, two new record shops have opened in St. Paul in recent weeks. Barely Brothers, a cool, all-vinyl store in a garage-like space at 783 Raymond Av., was packed for its grand opening last Saturday. Just a few blocks away sits Agharta Records, another all-vinyl joint, which will host its official grand opening on national Record Store Day (April 19). … Old-favorite Hymie’s Records is planning another big Record Store Day block party with sets by Chastity Brown, Black Diet, Pennyroyal, the Ericksons and more. Pray for sun.

  • NEW CENTURY SESSIONS

    Friday: Dessa, A Piano in Every Home (7:30 p.m., sold out).

    April 4: Adam Levy, Bethany Larson & the Bee’s Knees.

    May 2: Communist Daughter, Black Diet.

    July 25: Chastity Brown, BB Gun.

    Where: New Century Theatre, 615 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. (ground floor of City Center).

    Tickets: $15-$45 at eTix.com.

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