Friday’s sixth annual Are You Local? contest at First Avenue/7th Street Entry proved to be a fiery affair.

Each of the four competing acts stoked a palpable heat, making for one of the most intense AYL? competitions in years. Impassioned Ojibwe rapper Baby Shel, though, rocketed to the top of the night’s lineup with a spitfire freestyle that was easily the highlight of the night, embedded in a galvanizing set of unrelenting rap cuts.

For winning Are You Local?, the Red Lake Reservation-based rapper, 25, will add First Ave’s Midwest Day Party on March 20 to his handful of performances during South by Southwest in Austin, Texas — plus $1,000 spending money.

Even his rivals had to hand it to the rapper. “Baby Shel blew my mind up here,” said the Stress of Her Regard lead singer Ciaran Daly during his band’s set in the Entry. “I’m so glad I didn’t have to go on right after that.”

That’s not to say the other bands didn’t impress the crowd and the judging committee. Jean-jacketed Sam Cassidy and his supporting band opened the night with a set of striking folk-rock, tinged with more hard-hitting blues and soul notes than we heard on his debut album, “Debt.” The otherworldly Moon & Pollution followed Baby Shel, momentarily redirecting the mood with a fascinating dreamy diversion. The Stress of Her Regard closed out the Entry competition with their spiky rock ’n’ roll as Tiny Deaths kicked off the Mainroom lineup.

Once the competition bands had played, it was up to the Blind Shake to keep the party from burning out in First Ave’s main room. Thankfully, these experienced rockers threw an absolute fit onstage, busting out some extraordinary acrobatics. Guitarists/brothers Mike and Jim Blaha shredded the living hell out of their instruments while thrashing around on the floor.

The final two hours belonged to contest winner Baby Shel and then headliner Brother Ali, both of whom were able to fan the flame of the crowd of hip-hop fans.

“I never thought in my life I’d be performing at First Ave,” said Shel during his resounding victory lap on the main stage. “This is crazy, this historic venue.”


Alex Nelson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.