If a rock club closes in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District, does anyone notice?
The answer to that question should be known by Nov. 30, when Mill City Nights will host its final concert. Thus ends a four-year run of trying to bring live music to a part of downtown that favors Top 40 DJs and shot bars — and of trying to make a dent in First Avenue’s Teflon-resilient grip on the Twin Cities concert market. Clearly, Mill City Nights’ operators at concert industry behemoth AEG Live failed on both fronts.
“A venue this size is a challenge in this market,” Joe Litvag, senior vice president at AEG’s St. Louis office, admitted when the closing was announced in September.
The fact that Mill City Nights was run out of St. Louis was one of its problems. I felt lucky if I ever got anyone there to e-mail me back, and I was probably the only music writer in town to write nice things about their place — even after they assured me the room could hold 2,000 people before opening night in March 2013. That led to the notorious Jane’s Addiction concert, so overcrowded they doled out refunds, slashed capacity to 1,200 and even changed the name of the place (it opened as The Brick). But it never quite got over the bad reputation.
By coincidence (a good one!), Mill City Nights’ last show on Nov. 30 features one of rock’s gloomiest and doomiest bands, Finnish death-metal vets Children of Bodom. The venue has several other gigs in the interim, too, including Danish electropop singer MØ on Nov. 26, country singer Kelsea Ballerini this Saturday and — what are the chances? — another Finnish metal band, Sonata Arctica, on Tuesday. Jake Rudh will also spin a Thanksgiving Eve Transmission dance party Wednesday.
If you’ve never heard of any of those acts besides local boy Rudh, that’s no surprise, nor is it an anomaly. Except on nights First Ave was already booked, Mill City Nights’ calendar in recent years was usually loaded with outcasts, underdogs and unknowns, from country singers on the periphery of major-label rosters to second-stage Warped Tour bands to, yep, a lot of extreme metal.
That lack of familiarity is actually a reason to lament the venue’s demise. It’s always nice for bands to have a choice of where to play in town. It’s just obvious that so many artists favor First Avenue, just like most fans.
AEG is the second mega-sized entertainment corporation to go up against First Ave and lose. Live Nation did so with more success in the late-’90s and early-’00s, but at a far worse venue. Still called Clear Channel back then, the company booked the Quest, a 1,600-capacity venue that replaced Prince’s Glam Slam across the street from Mill City Nights’ future site on 5th Street N. If there is a hell for defunct nightclubs, the Quest was a shoo-in. It had horrendous sound, even worse sight lines and was always managed like a cattle corral.
That’s the real reason I never put down Mill City Nights: It wasn’t nearly as bad as the Quest. The big concert companies will have to do better than that, though, if they plan to ever find a permanent home here.
After winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest early in the year and touring both sides of the Atlantic, Duluth singer/violinist Gaelynn Lea will cap off 2016 by dropping a new Christmas CD, “Deepest Darkness, Brightest Dawn,” featuring elegant traditional instrumental pieces and a few classics with vocals, such as "Silent Night." She’s promoting it with a St. Paul show Saturday at Amsterdam Bar & Hall with Al Church, who also plays on the album, and opener Mary Bue (8 p.m., $12).
A new grant-winning organization dedicated to promoting African-American artists in town, the Avant Garde hosts its New Renaissance showcase Sunday night at the Amsterdam with spoken-word performer Joe Davis and his band the Poetic Diaspora, plus singer Dahlia Jones, poet J. Otis Powell and more (8 p.m., $10-$15). … A chance to help out a food shelf and guarantee that Ike Reilly and his band actually do a sound check, the Illinois rockers are selling VIP tickets with access to their preshow warmup and a reception before their annual Thanksgiving Eve gig at First Ave on Wednesday ($66, First-Avenue.com).
On a related note to the Mill City Nights news: The Varsity Theater — a room people always liked — only has five concerts on its calendar between now and May. Live Nation representatives, who typically book concerts there, did not respond to questions about the lull. The Varsity was the object of boycott calls after 1980s-era sexual allegations surfaced against owner Jason McLean, which McLean denies and plans to fight. … While Harriet Brewing has announced it will close early next year, live music will continue there in the interim, with the Thunderheads on Friday, Lolo’s Ghost every Wednesday and the continuation of the Mad Ripple Hootenanny over the winter.
New Year’s Eve shows are taking shape and on sale: The Lamont Cranston Band’s annual bash will land at the DoubleTree in Bloomington this year with openers the Jimmys and Reverend Raven; the Big Wu will settle in at the Turf Club with Frogleg; Davina & the Vagabonds will return for two sets at the Dakota, and most curious of all, the Minneapolis Convention Center will play host to the Snowta NYE party, sort of an indoor winter version of the Summer Set festival with Big Gigantic, Infected Mushroom, Prof, Waka Flocka Flame, DJ Abilities and more. I sure hope the chill-out tent is heated.