Especially since all three bands haven’t toured much in recent years, you’d expect Twin Cities music lovers to flip out when the fall concerts by Queens of the Stone Age, LCD Soundsystem and Gorillaz were all announced. Instead, many fans ostensibly flipped the bird at the venue hosting each of these shows.
“Ugh, Roy Wilkins,” Greg Swan of Minneapolis posted on Facebook in reference to the LCD show.
“Why would Murphy pick such a crappy venue?” Twitter user @snackeru of Minneapolis asked, referring to the band’s leader, James Murphy.
“Sound can be so horrific at the Wilkins,” Bradford Froelich offered.
“Why Roy Wilkins? Why???” St. Paul’s Nate Mason wrote.
I don’t often say this about readers’ comments, but they’re right. It’s time to finally put the kibosh on concerts at Wilkins Auditorium, easily the metro area’s worst venue for rock shows.
Named for the great civil rights leader whose name should grace the new soccer stadium instead — or somewhere that doesn’t make many people say “Ewww!” — the Wilkins has seen a lot of firsts since it opened in 1932 as the St. Paul Auditorium.
It housed the first artificial ice rink in the capital city. The state’s first professional basketball team, the Minnesota Lakers, played there when they couldn’t fit in a game at the Minneapolis Auditorium. Elvis Presley also played his first gig in Minnesota there on May 13, 1956, an afternoon show that was followed by an evening performance at the other Twin City’s auditorium.
While Minneapolis has always been way too eager to tear down old buildings, it was right to tear down its auditorium in 1989 after the place had long outlived its purpose. St. Paul still gets enough other use out of the Wilkins to keep it from the wrecking ball, including Minnesota Roller Girls bouts and high school graduation ceremonies. For concerts, though, the Wilkins has never been less necessary than it is now.
The historic Palace Theatre reopened just a few blocks from the auditorium under First Avenue management in March, and the proximity seems to underline how far apart the two venues are in both aesthetics and acoustics. One has a ruggedly vintage, curvy facade, tiered sight lines with primo sonic refinements and several large bars with craft beers and even good wine on tap. The other is flat, boxy relic with all the visual character of a high school cafeteria, the acoustics of a granite cave and mostly just light beer on tap.
Even though it’s notably smaller — 2,800 capacity, compared with 4,500 — the Palace should have pushed the Wilkins out of the concert business. It actually looked like that was happening, too, since the old auditorium sat largely unused for concerts through much of this year, until this run of fall shows was announced.
For that matter, Myth Nightclub in nearby Maplewood should have replaced Wilkins on the concert block when it opened way back in 2005. Myth is closer in size, with a capacity of about 3,500. It, too, has a lot better sound and sight lines than the dumpy downtown venue — not to mention ample free parking and a Toys ‘R’ Us next door (convenient for costume- and glowstick-enhanced EDM shows, anyway).
Size shouldn’t matter
So why are concert promoters and bands still turning to the Wilkins, including local indie First Avenue and worldwide behemoth Live Nation? Two reasons: stage production and, of course, money. More of each can be had at Wilkins.
There’s more money to be made there because more tickets can be sold. True fans of a band can’t fault them for that, especially if it’s a band whose albums they’ve been streaming instead of purchasing. But then again, true fans wouldn’t mind paying more for a ticket at a smaller, better concert venue.
All of the Wilkins concerts this fall were priced around $40, including the Oct. 20 date by Muppet-voiced British indie-rock band Alt-J. Most fans of these bands would be willing to spend $60-$65 instead to see them at the Palace, or $50 at Myth. Those ticket prices would amount to about the same paycheck for the bands, and maybe even more when you consider some fans refuse to go to Wilkins concerts altogether.
St. Paul’s clunky old performance hall still unavoidably exceeds other midsize venues on the production end, because it can accommodate bigger stage setups — i.e., lighting rigs, video screens, etc. Last month’s Gorillaz concert, with its giant video backdrop to show off the band’s animated characters, would have been hard to fit in the Palace or any other theater in town. Word is LCD Soundsystem and Queens of the Stone Age are also bringing sizable productions.
This is the part where I remind bands that, unless you’re the Blue Man Group, concerts are more about musical output than visual. Your fancy video backdrops with your unemployed friend’s homemade video collages and your manager’s cousin’s giant lighting rigs are just fine on most nights, sure, but not at the expense of the concert sounding halfway decent.
There are bands that actually have put on OK-sounding concerts at the Wilkins; groups whose sound engineers deserved a bonus check those nights. They are very much in the minority, though. I’d say only 10 to 20 percent of the concerts there work out OK acoustically.
LCD Soundsystem just so happens to be one of those bands that have sounded good in the Wilkins. Queens of the Stone Age’s 2014 gig there, however, was mired by booming echo and muddied vocals, all compounded by the sound bouncing off empty seats in the balcony.
Wait: Empty seats? So much for QOTSA being too big to play one of the far superior venues in town.
Wilkins could soon be rendered all the more useless if two other new venues in Minneapolis pan out. The historic Minneapolis Armory is currently being converted into an 8,000-capacity multipurpose entertainment venue that could face its own acoustic challenges. But it couldn’t sound any worse, right?
First Avenue is in the midst of trying to sell the city on building a new 10,000-or-so-capacity amphitheater along the river north of downtown. Whatever happens with that, First Ave has also been presenting Wilkins-sized concerts in random outdoor spaces such as Hall’s Island and the Surly Brewing grounds. Those, too, make for far superior alternatives.
It’s literally nicer to be standing in a field of nothing to watch a concert than it is to be inside Wilkins, where on mustier nights I swear you can still smell beer spilled at the 1973 Doobie Brothers concert.