It’s not every night you get to see a 15-piece horn ensemble play a single monotone note for about 15 minutes. It’s also not often the opening acts are an “Eraserhead”-echoing ambient/sound-effects performer and an electronic duo with a French horn.
By comparison, the surprise of watching a popular bookstore lead a double life as a music venue seemed relatively mundane the night the Drone Band held its cassette-release party at Moon Palace Books last month.
“You never really know what to expect here, and there aren’t many music venues anymore where you can say that,” said Tim Piotrowski, a veteran experimental punk musician who turned out for the one-of-a-kind show in the truly unique space.
After moving in 2017 to its third location in five years — near the corner of Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue S. in Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood — Moon Palace opened its pizza-specializing Geek Love Cafe in March to go with its vast, lovingly stocked book aisles. That led to acquiring a beer and wine license, which then made hosting live music a more sensible if not exactly natural extension.
The store’s 110-capacity performance room is set to the side of the cafe through a separate doorway. It feels a bit like walking into your goth cousin’s basement, with brick walls painted black and ultra-low lighting in shades of purple and green, a contrast to the bright and modern cafe space.
“It’s a good, intimate listening room that’s small enough to give weirder experimental music a try, but still has the nice bar and good food,” raved Black Market Brass and Bon Iver saxophonist Cole Pulice, one of the co-leaders of the Drone Band. “And the people who run it really have their hearts in it.”
Those people are Moon Palace’s married co-owners Angela and Jamie Schwesnedl along with singer/songwriter Nona Marie Invie, who oversees talent bookings.
One of the reasons the acts have been so diverse and eclectic, Invie said, is because the performers themselves come from a wide swath.
“We’ve been trying to give priority to more programming for queer people, people of color, women and anyone else who’s been underrepresented,” said the local music vet, leader of the groups Dark Dark Dark, Anonymous Choir and now In/Via (currently on tour with Low).
Putting it a little more bluntly, she added, “Basically, my main goal all along is making sure it’s not all white men in rock bands playing there. I know what it’s like feeling like the token female musician in a rock club. We don’t want anyone to feel out of place here.”
Representing the underrepresented was exactly what the Schwesnedls had in mind when they opened their bookstore six years ago. One of the reasons they moved to a bigger space was to have a separate room for author readings and other book-related events.
“When you have 50 or 60 people show up to a reading, that gets in the way of the people just trying to shop,” explained Jamie Schwesnedl. “Then once we opened the separate room, we started thinking up other ways to use it to help pay for it.”
It could prove a shrewd business move: Bookstores and music venues are hard enough to run on their own, so why not combine them? Especially since they generally keep different hours of operation.
“We’ll see,” Schwesnedl said of the financial benefits. “Hopefully, combining one typically unprofitable business model with another doesn’t actually make it worse.”
The grim humor underlined the fact that he and his wife are fostering unique and experimental authors and artists “more for our own passion than any financial gain,” he said.
Schwesnedl mentioned sharing a kindred, DIY and artist-friendly spirit with several of the neighboring businesses, whose combined efforts are turning the 3000 block of Minnehaha Avenue into a cool indie hub — including the Hub Bike Co-op. The Hook & Ladder Theater will soon open a smaller performance-arts space called the Mission Room. Also, the edgy German-flavored brewing company Arbeiter is about to take over the space formerly occupied by Harriet Brewing.
“Hopefully, it all cross-pollinates,” Schwesnedl said, emphasizing the crossover appeal just under his own roof.
“People are going to come in and maybe see books by James Baldwin, Samantha Irby or Leslie Marmon Silko, and it sets an entirely different tone for a music performance. I think it says we’re doing this a little more thoughtfully than your average bar booking music.”
The patrons and musicians who’ve been frequenting Moon Palace by night seem to agree.
“It’s a special combination where an audience can relax but still intentionally take in a performance,” said singer/songwriter Siri Undlin, whose ethereally folky band Humbird finishes up a November Moon Palace residency next Tuesday. “We’ve experienced refreshing amounts of open-mindedness and respect there.”
After sitting through the weirdly alluring if hauntingly sound-processing set by electronic artist Lynn Avery before the Drone Band’s set last month, Mariel Oliveira of Minneapolis explained why she’s been coming to shows at the Moon Palace on an almost weekly basis.
“Just knowing it’s not going to be the normal white-boy rock show is a selling point to me,” she said.