Three firsts at First Avenue on Sunday night:
1. I've never been cold inside Minneapolis' landmark nightclub. Usually, there's enough body heat to warm up the main room even on the worst winter nights.
2. I've never had the men's bathroom all to myself. It was kind of creepy.
3. I've never heard anything remotely emotional come out of the mouth of the venue's stolid, no-nonsense, door-hovering operations manager Damon Barna. So you can imagine my surprise when he recounted — from behind a clear plastic face shield and cloth face mask — how he teared up when he first heard applause again in the hallowed old space.
The sounds, the look, the people and the old-friend comfort level were all the same, but the experience was definitely different returning to First Ave this past weekend for the first time in 10 lousy, lonely months.
Yes, live music is back at Minnesota's most famous room for it. It comes with stringent, new restrictions, though. It costs a bit more, too.
Charlie Parr's livestream concert series every Sunday in January became the test pilot for what will probably be the closest that First Ave gets to being back in business until at least summer, maybe fall.
Reserved tables were sold — and sold out quickly! — to three of Parr's five shows, including this upcoming Sunday's finale.
The tables cost $100 apiece for two people ($50 per person) and had to be bought as a twofer; no singles or four-tops are available. Individual tickets have to be shared between the two patrons via the AXS app, a new ticketing system at the club (also used across the street at Target Center).
That part of this new experience was pretty easy to navigate, and so was the rest of it once I got there Sunday.
After verbally pledging I didn't have any coronavirus symptoms and getting my phone/ticket zapped outside (no wait!), I walked through the 7th St. Entry doorway and into the main room. There, another club employee directed me to my table on the dance floor. And that's where I remained for the next two hours.
Per the rules, masks were required at all times except when drinking, and there was no randomly roaming the room — no rushing the stage when Parr started up his fan favorite "Cheap Wine" (a sad dirge of a song not exactly meant for bum-rushing anyway). There wasn't even a merch table to peruse.
Likewise, there was no ordering at the bar or shouting, "Grain Belt Premium, please!" at the top of your possibly super-spreader lungs.
Each table came with a printed menu offering a very limited drink selection, which you check off with a pen. Then you signal to the double-masked wait staff to come get the order by flipping a plastic plate on the table from red to green. Anyone who has ever seen a gig at the Dakota or a movie at Alamo Drafthouse will know the drill.
The only time I and the other patrons got up from our seats was to go to the restroom. There are even arrows on the floor to direct traffic to the loo. (How many First Ave patrons could've used those arrows' assistance on some of our less responsible, foggier nights at the club?)
Perhaps the most important detail, though: There really wasn't any "traffic" that needed controlling. First Ave has gone above and beyond in limiting its capacity for these reserved seats.
Only 22 tables were spread around the main floor and balcony. The club is bumping it up to 26 for this weekend's show. That's 52 people in a high-ceilinged and (as of five years ago) well-ventilated room that officially holds 1,550 patrons.
From his vantage point on stage, Parr said he felt comfortable and safe when the tables were introduced a week earlier.
"They're always so on top of things at First Avenue. I knew it'd work OK," the acoustic blues and folk slinger said.
"It made a world of difference having people in here," added Parr, who played his first two shows of the month sans an audience. "Even if it's just a few people. I'm much more accustomed to that than playing to cameras."
From the crowd's perspective, there's no denying the stark difference of watching a First Ave concert with only 40 other people vs. 1,500. Unless you're among the old-timers who saw bands like R.E.M. play to only 88 people there in 1981, it's a hard adjustment.
Part of the aforementioned "comfort level" at First Ave might actually be the discomfort of bodies bumping into each other. Obviously, the electricity in the room is toned down when no one can move because of safety rules, instead of no one moving because the place is packed.
Parr worked to offset this necessary trade-off Sunday with a few mesmerizing old folk tunes played on electric guitar, and with a spirited guest appearance by Dave Simonett. All of Parr's performances this month are viewable via his YouTube and Facebook pages with a pay-what-you-can ticket option.
Simonett's own group Trampled by Turtles taped four full-length concerts at First Ave that will be webcast via Mandolin.com each of the four Thursdays in February at $15 apiece. (Alas, the sets were all were recorded before tables were being sold.)
Another musician in the crowd Sunday, Gabriel Douglas of the 4onthefloor, remarked how the reserved setup felt a little unlike First Ave — more like the kind of pricier VIP tables offered at new would-be competitor the Fillmore Minneapolis.
"It felt a little elitist," Douglas said. "But it still felt great to be back in there, period."
Instead of comparing the experience to a traditional First Ave concert, another of Sunday's audience members, Nicole Eikenberry, offered what might be a better take: She compared it to watching over the internet, which is how music fans are consuming concerts these days.
"I'm working from home now and already spending too much of the day staring at my computer screen," Eikenberry said. "That's not how I want to enjoy a concert at the end of the day. I want to be here."
Stay tuned for more chances to be there. First Ave is readying other low-capacity livestream concerts to be announced in the coming weeks and months.