They drove around the block looking for street parking before heading into a ramp. Then they lined up out front in the cold waiting for a pat-down, a wristband and a hand stamp.
Once inside, the patrons stopped at the long back bar or headed upstairs looking for a shorter line. Then came time to scope out a vantage point. Near the back of the main floor by the soundboard? Down the side and then push in toward the front? Or up in the balcony near the railing to look down on the action?
Anticipation built as production manager Conrad Sverkerson — known to bands around the world for his accommodating, no-nonsense ways — looked over the stage one last time. Finally, the house music died, the stage went dark, and the room came to life with the opening chords or booming beats of the opening act.
Sound familiar? Of course it does.
After three straight nights of grand reopening concerts, it’s already clear where the Palace Theatre stands among Twin Cities music venues. The new crown jewel of downtown St. Paul nightlife really isn’t comparable to other theaters in town such as the Orpheum, State or Fitzgerald. Instead, the Palace should simply be known as First Avenue East.
While competitors including Live Nation and AEG have tried to replicate the formula of Minneapolis’ legendary rock hall at such forgotten venues as the Quest and Mill City Nights, one company has finally come up with a pretty good copycat: First Avenue itself.
The Palace is nearly double First Ave in size (2,800-person capacity, compared to 1,500), but the newly reborn, 101-year-old theater feels remarkably akin to the 46-year-old Minneapolis nightclub. This is exactly what Mayor Chris Coleman and St. Paul staff wanted when they hired First Ave to manage their new $15 million civic-project-meets-historic-preservation-meets-hipster-bait.
There’s a grittiness to the theater that’s similar to the club, with walls and ceiling that proudly show off the deterioration from 30 years of closure, and a vast, open main floor that’s one big free-for-all.
The Palace’s ruggedness, however, is balanced out with professionalism and polish where it’s needed most: top-notch lighting and sound systems; plenty of efficient, easily accessible bars; a floor staff that’s welcoming but also knows how to hastily kick out a drunk moron; and a smart talent booking crew that has already lined up 25 mostly noteworthy concerts, and counting.
Not only did this weekend’s three opening shows offer a discernible First Ave vibe, they each also carried an extra level of electricity and communal celebration. Opening weekend came off like a musichead’s answer to March Madness. Let’s hope it becomes an annual tradition there.
On Friday, Minneapolis rap vets Atmosphere — the group that turned “Minnesota hip-hop” from a punchline to a sales pitch over many packed nights at First Ave — broke in the refurbished venue with a playful set of new songs and way-oldies. On Saturday, the Americana band that has been one of First Ave’s most ubiquitous hometown headliners since the early-1990s, the Jayhawks, delivered one of their most bustling and best local performances of recent years.
On Sunday, the Palace welcomed the first of many 89.3 the Current-branded touring bands that have outgrown the First Ave main room, Phantogram. Unlike the first two headliners, the pulsating New York synth-rock band showed up with a spectacular, hi-fi production of lights and video that also showed off the venue as a dramatic visual setting.
All three concerts tested the venue in different ways and brought in three distinct, packed crowds to experience the place. Mayor Coleman highlighted the changeover in audiences on Saturday when he introduced the Jayhawks (he also later joined them on guitar; ah, the perks of running the city).
“This is what’s great about this place,” said the mayor, who has been pushing to reopen the Palace since he took office in 2006. “Last night, a group that’s been a big part of my son’s wasted life performed here [Atmosphere]. Tonight a band that’s been a big part of my wasted life is here.”
Based off the three distinct nights, here’s an assessment of the finer points of the Palace.
Layout: Traffic flowed smoothly throughout the venue except in the middle of the main floor (just like at First Ave), but patrons could push out to the side aisles and get out easily that way. Having bars and bathrooms on multiple levels helped a lot. I never saw a line for drinks more than four or five people deep. I never saw a toilet line, period — although that might not hold up at, say, the first Indigo Girls gig.
Accommodations: There wasn’t much waiting time for drinks, but both the coat check and the box office window had long lines the first two nights. The coat check even stopped taking jackets on Night 1, because it got too crowded. Another station in both cases should be considered.
Beverages: The 10-tap beer selection was rudimentary but smart, ranging from Surly’s Furious and Hell brands for $8 to Summit, Miller Lite and even Old Style (the latter a nod to another First Ave property, the Turf Club). There’s wine on tap, too, one each for red and white. One nice bonus to the many bars: There are also several water fountains throughout the building.
Acoustics: With a curved facade around the stage that naturally points sound outward, the Palace was already blessed with good acoustics 100 years ago. At this weekend’s concerts, the sound seemed spotless aside from some volume issues: too loud sometimes on the balcony, and too quiet on the back tier in front of the bar on the lower level. The latter might be a welcome feature, though, since it allows for more conversations back there.
Very little bounce/echo was detectable on the floor or in the balcony during Atmosphere’s booming, bass-heavy set. On Saturday, the high, lonesome harmonies of opening band the Cactus Blossoms elegantly filled the room, as did the Jayhawks’ and the Cloak Ox’s noisier, piercing guitar work. And this was all accomplished with a temporary, rented sound system.
After this weekend’s test run, First Ave staff and its partners at Chicago’s Jam Productions are ordering a permanent system that should be up by May. So the place could even get better.
As for the concerts themselves, here’s a quick review from each night of the Palace’s opening weekend.
On tour since last summer behind their seventh album, “Fishing Blues,” co-founders Slug and Ant and their auxiliary DJ, Plain Ole Bill, seemed to be treating the night like just another tour stop as they opened with a new song, “Perfect,” followed by two of their most-played fan faves, “Shoulda Known” and “Trying to Find a Balance.” Slug didn’t even take off his oversized parka at first, as if he wasn’t quite ready to cozy with the hometown crowd (or maybe he, too, got turned away at coat check).
Soon, though, the rapper loosened up, as did the set list. He dusted off the group’s early hit “Scapegoat” by proudly noting its 20th anniversary, and later he dropped in another from that era, “God’s Bathroom Floor.” He added the oddball 2008 song, “Happy Mess,” as a tribute to his wife and sons. Perhaps the most personal touch, he saved “Flicker” till the end as a tribute to his late peer Mikey “Eyedea” Larsen, who proudly called St. Paul home.
Also steadily on tour for more than a year, Gary Louris hinted toward the end of Saturday’s set that his band is ready for another extended hiatus. “We’re going to go away for a while, but we’ll be back,” he said.
Although they still have more dates on the books through April, this one seemed to carry the weight of a grand finale. It was grand in size and spirit, anyway, clocking in at 2¼ hours with very little filler or breather moments. The paisley-pop hue of “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” and “Lovers of the Sun” — both from the band’s 2016 album, “Paging Mr. Proust” — fit in rather seamlessly with the country twang of such oldies as “Two Hearts” and rockier mid-era anthems “Big Star.”
The mayor wasn’t the show’s only surprise guest. Studio ace John Jackson, who worked with the group on Ray Davies’ upcoming solo album, dutifully filled in on the fly for ailing multi-instrumentalist Chet Lyster, while local mainstay Kraig Johnson returned to play guitar on several tunes, including the Golden Smog encore finale “Until You Came Along.”
One of the big reasons Phantogram stood out from the crowd of electronics-addled rock acts getting ample airplay on the Current was its consistently dazzling First Ave live shows going back to 2011, an alluring combo of visual gimmickry and burning musical chemistry synced together cohesively. Sunday’s set reiterated why the duo (a quartet in concert) graduated to the bigger Palace, where the spectacle was even more spectacular and the booming beats felt as heavy as the venue’s massive plaster work.
Singer Sarah Barthel — whose silky siren voice soars above partner Josh Carter’s grinding guitar work and the throbbing rhythms — truly rose up for the occasion. She was splashed via video across the all-white, four-tiered stage backdrop. She also jumped around the second-tier stage riser where the drummer and keyboardist were perched on high. All the while, an impressive arsenal of hyperactive lights and artsy video effects lit up the stage and its high-ceilinged facade like a neon carnival.
Songs from the group’s new album, “Three,” also raised the stakes this time around by bringing a little more variety into the whir and roar. “Run Run Blood” came off as a fervent hard-rocker nicely counterbalanced by the moody and mellower “Answer.” The vibrant, pounding new singles “Cruel World” and “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” made for a powerful one-two encore knockout.
Barthel seemed gobsmacked by the response, too, gushing at one point, “You guys really are our favorite city to play.” Never mind that she actually crossed over to a new city and venue this time out.