"My home is Tulsa and the band is based in Chicago, but Minneapolis is absolutely our best city to play in," retro rocker JD McPherson told a thrilled, sold-out throng at First Avenue last month.
New York singer/songwriter Eric Hutchinson, who plays Saturday at the Minnesota Zoo, would say the same thing about the Twin Cities. Ditto for Dawes, a young Los Angeles rock band with a 1970s vibe, and Seattle-area singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile, both of which have done two-night New Year's Eve stands here in recent years.
"We've played twice as many shows in Chicago as Minneapolis, and we have no connection to Minneapolis, but that's where we get our largest attendance," McPherson said in an interview last week.
How did the Twin Cities become the No. 1 market for four disparate rising music stars?
The key factors are open-minded audiences who love live music; a variety of venues that help artists build a career, and support from radio and other media.
"The Twin Cities has an active community of fans that support a lot of live music," said Jim McGuinn, program director for 89.3 the Current. "From the Jayhawks to the folk scene in the early '60s, there has been an appreciation here for real songwriters. And there's definitely an appreciation of independent culture, just as there's an appreciation of craft beer. If it's something we feel we can own and grow with, we're early to adopt."
Wes Kidd, who manages McPherson, the Old 97's and Minneapolis' own Soul Asylum, thinks the Twin Cities breaks new artists because the market has "two of the more fiercely independent vehicles for exposure — the Current and First Avenue. They're entrenched and trusted."
Actually, it extends beyond those two tastemakers to what McGuinn calls a "good ecosystem that supports a lot of music."
That includes other trend-setting radio stations such as Cities 97, indie record shops such as the Electric Fetus, independent concert promoters such as Sue McLean & Associates, open-eared bookers at clubs such as the Varsity Theater, sharp music critics at various outlets, and fans who buy recordings and pay to see live music.
"It's an artistically intelligent city that seeks out great food, great theater, great music — even in a recession," said Minneapolis musician Elliott Blaufuss, who has been Hutchinson's musical director for four years and used to play in Twin Cities clubs with Johnny Holm. "People are more polite here and maybe listen more intently. It's the type of crowd that will listen to the opening act and give them a shot."
These newbies can build an audience through the Twin Cities' expansive array of live-music venues. Take Carlile, who started in 2005 at the now-defunct 400 Bar and moved on to a series of bigger steppingstones — the Varsity, the O'Shaughnessy, the State Fair bandshell, the Basilica Block Party, the State Fair grandstand, three nights at the Minnesota Zoo and now the Somerset, Wis., Amphitheater on June 29 with the Avett Brothers.
"Within 12 months, she'll be into the market six times," said her manager, Mark Cunningham, who also has worked with John Mayer, Five for Fighting and Train. "And we're not feeling like she's overdoing it. She'll probably come back in the fall. In other markets, it's not even close. She plays twice in 18 months. I think it speaks to the musical intelligence of Minneapolis."
The variety of venues has been important in building a fan base for Dawes, said frontman Taylor Goldsmith.
"It helps to play venues that are different and fresh," said the singer, whose band offered an acoustic set at the Electric Fetus in May and will return for two nights at First Avenue July 9-10. "In some markets, there's not the in-between options: It goes from 1,500 [capacity] to 4,000."
Hutchinson not only has appeared at such clubs as the Fine Line and First Ave, but he's also played exclusive radio-station gigs for KS95 and Cities 97 — in Cancun, no less — and a variety of events, including the Basilica Block Party, the fashion showcase Glamorama and the State Fair, where he did a free show after headliner Kelly Clarkson canceled at the last-minute due to illness.
"I think that show may have had a little something to do with the reception we get in the Twin Cities," Hutchinson said in a recent interview. "I think we made a lot of new fans that day."
'A singular vibe to it'
Outsiders have an impression of the Twin Cities as some kind of magical music mecca.
"You're freakish in a good way," said manager Kidd, referring to the likes of Hüsker Dü, Prince, Bob Dylan, Atmosphere and Dessa — and the long winters, too. "There's a different edge to the town."
McPherson grew up loving the Replacements, seduced by the photo on the cover of their "Let It Be" album.
"Minneapolis has a strong history of nurturing and producing great bands that aren't on people's radar," he said. "How many cool underground bands came from Minneapolis? I have a romanticized view of the city, like when English bands go to Graceland and Stax Museum when they're in Memphis. Minneapolis is cool. Minneapolis has cool shops. At First Avenue, you feel the presence of Prince. That's a huge deal.
"Minneapolis feels like a city where people are into music. They buy records. They have excellent taste. Minneapolis has a singular vibe to it."