It was nice to have out-of-town buzz bands like Cold War Kids and especially J. Roddy Walston & the Business for a change, each of whom added extra fire to 89.3 the Current's birthday blowouts this year, the station's 10th. However, their heavy presence did not change the fact that the annual winter warm-up gigs at First Avenue are fueled by a pipeline of homegrown talent and pride that the station tapped into the moment it hit the air.
With two new local FM stations pulling from a similar mix of millennial hipsterdom and Gen-X alternativism, the Current could face its biggest test getting ratings and sponsorship dollars over the next year.
Friday's and Saturday's sold-out anniversary concerts showed just how far the competitors have to go in reaching the local music scene — and especially in creating the kind of faithful, trusting audiences and in-club/fan-club aesthetic that the Current has cultivated so well since 2005.
The members-mostly crowds cheered as enthusiastically for underage newcomers Hippo Campus on Friday as they did for '60s-bred 70-somethings the Trashmen on Saturday; both rock bands were formed out of Twin Cities high schools. They soaked up Allan Kingdom's quirky hip-hop and Dead Man Winter's elegant twang-rock on Night One as readily as they grooved to newcomer PaviElle French's inspirational neo-soul and Atmosphere's subversive rap anthems on Night Two.
Atmosphere kicked off its visceral, classic-styled set with "Say Shh… ," a sort of crooked-hats-off-to-thee ode to Minnesota that the Current used to open its broadcast 10 years ago to the day. Ironically, it was the only song by the group used in the live broadcast coming out of the club Saturday.
"Glad we got that [expletive] out of the way," frontman Slug deadpanned as soon as the on-air switch was turned off — for obvious reasons.
Two bands gave breakthrough performances of the holy-you-know-what variety during this weekend's parties. On Friday, the big standout was Hippo Campus. Just as they did one week earlier during First Ave's Best New Bands of 2014 showcase, the young suburban rockers hit the stage with their energy level cranked to 11 and their guitars fine-tuned to a crisp, gorgeous, sunbeam-like sound.
Smiley, pointy-faced HC frontman Jake Luppen looked like he stepped out of an Archie comic but sang with impressively heavy vibrato in such staples as "Suicide Saturday." His band members' bouncy, tight musicality belied their ages, especially in a strong batch of yet-unrecorded songs, including the set's climax, "Violet."
Saturday's attention-grabbers were Walston and his Business. The long, "purty"-haired Tennessee rockers looked like they should be churning out Skynyrd covers at a KQRS classic-rock fest instead of playing the Current party, but their spazzy, bombastic boogie sound went over beautifully. The quartet built up momentum over 50 minutes like total pros, peaking near the end with the melodic boppers "Take It As It Comes" and "Marigold" before the fist-pumping, hair-tossing finale "Heavy Bells."
That the audience knew all three of those songs was a testament to the Current's deeper treatment of albums, often picking out more than just one single to spin (although it took them a bit too long of late to finally start spinning another Hozier song).
None of the acts could thank the Current for local familiarity more than Friday's headliners, Cold War Kids. Just about every song the high-wired, low-bottomed Southern California quartet played was greeted with cheers of recognition, from the openers "All This Could Be Yours" to the mid-set singalong "Hang Me Up to Dry." Only problem was, the Kids actually didn't play that many songs; they walked off stage 50 minutes in and weirdly never came back out for an encore (Atmosphere, by contrast, did 80 minutes with an encore Friday).
Like Walston's crew, the Kids made welcome use of hard-plunking piano parts throughout their performance, especially paying off in "Miracle Mile." Dead Man Winter's set right before Cold War Kids also prominently incorporated keys, in this case Bryan Nichols' organ work, which added moody ambience to such songs as "Long, Cold Night in Minneapolis."
Dead Man frontman Dave Simonett debuted several mellower, lush new tunes Friday while also reinterpreting a pair of favorites from his other band Trampled by Turtles' catalog, "Hollow" and "Walt Whitman." Lanky, jittery-tongued rapper Allan Kingdom also pulled off some new songs, highlighted by the aptly titled "Blast." The East Side wunderkind, 21, also pulled out an amusing comment about the wide age range of the crowd as he pointed to the back of the room to dance.
"It must be middle-aged people back there," he cracked, but then congenially added, "My parents are middle-aged, so that's cool."
The Trashmen actually are old enough to be Allan's grandpas, but the pioneering surf-rockers managed to charm young and old fans alike Saturday. And they did so long before they got to the obvious finale choice of "Surfin' Bird," their ubiquitous 1964 novelty hit. Their would-be follow-up hits "King of the Surf" and "Henrietta" rocked in more serious ways, and their workout of Dick Dale's "Misirlou" showed off lead guitarist Tony Andreason's underrated skills.
"Just like old times," Andreason said, soaking up the crowd's excited response near the end of the set. "Those old feelings are coming back."
It helps that there's a local radio station eager to play local talent, just like in the old days.