Like Target Field laying out new turf or Matt's Bar changing the cheese in its Jucy Lucy burgers, one of Minneapolis' most iconic sites unveiled a new key ingredient the night before Thanksgiving that should make it even better.
First Avenue plugged in a new, purportedly ultra hi-fi sound system Wednesday, reshaping the acoustics in a venue that most music lovers already thought was one of the best-sounding rooms around. Its previous sound system had been in place since 2012.
The sound in the room is so sacred, in fact, some of its regulars worried that downtown Minneapolis' 53-year-old live music hub was taking a risk messing with a good thing.
Those concerns were emphatically cut down by the first headliner to break in the new gear.
"Of course it sounds better!" said Illinois rocker Ike Reilly, whose Thanksgiving Eve gig at First Ave is a 20-year tradition.
"There's a reason this is probably the best rock club in the world: The people here know what they're doing, and this thing is no exception."
The new top-line equipment — house p.a. speakers, subwoofers, stage monitors and accompanying gear — comes from Paris-based company L-Acoustics. Its advanced L Series system has been previously been used at festivals such as Coachella.
First Avenue is the first venue to install the gear permanently.
"To sound people, this would be big news no matter where it's being installed," said First Ave's head sound engineer, Alex Johnson. "Having it at First Avenue just makes it even cooler."
Johnson served as the club's lead liaison for the installation. Work began Sunday and culminated in a special listening session Tuesday afternoon, when the club's staff assembled to hear music played through the new equipment for the first time.
First Ave's team got to pick the first songs played, too. They started with AC/DC's "Back in Black," a nod to the overwhelming paint choice on the club's walls, and the first tune played when doors re-opened after COVID-19 lockdown. Then came "Purple Rain," which Prince famously debuted and recorded live at the venue in 1983, a year before it was released to global recognition.
"When the track ended, the place erupted in cheers," L-Acoustics' application engineer Steele Beaty proudly recounted of the initial test run.
After that, the L-Acoustics team spent hours overnight testing and tweaking through a bingo card of music genres — hip-hop, folk, metal, electronic dance music — to essentially "be ready for anything," said Beaty.
"It's such a uniquely shaped room, with not a lot of parallel surfaces or [sonic] reflections," said the Oklahoma-based engineer. He believes the new gear will be appreciated on stage as much as out in the audience.
"The bands on stage are only going to hear two things now: themselves playing, and the audience," Beaty said. "I think even more bands are going to want to play here than already did."
At the first pre-show sound check Wednesday afternoon, the musicians and audio technicians on hand regularly flashed kid-in-candy-stores smiles. Colin Campbell of local opening band the Shackletons quipped, "If we don't sound good tonight, it won't be this sound system's fault."
Midway through the first full-volume song played by Reilly and his band to start sound check, Johnson held up his hands at the sound console in the middle of the room as if his job was already completed.
"It'd normally take me several more songs to get it that good," he said.
To the audience members, the most noticeable difference will be the size of the house p.a. speakers that hang from the ceiling on both sides of the stage. The new ones are almost half the size of the prior speakers.
Having smaller house p.a. speakers opens up the view of the stage a lot more to fans standing off to the sides, and especially those in the balcony. The L-Acoustics team also hung smaller speakers throughout the room to improve the sound for fans standing to the sides or back corners.
Having already heard skepticism from old-school rock 'n' rollers who believe bigger is always better when it comes to sound systems — memories of Motörhead on the First Ave stage with a wall of amplifiers behind them come to mind — Johnson said, "They'll just have to come down to hear it."
"Think of how much cellphone technology has changed in the 11 years since the last sound system was put in here, and what all you can do in the palm of your hand now," Johnson said. "It's a similar thing here."
Probably the one person who had to be most sold on the new system, First Ave owner Dayna Frank said she's satisfied the expensive gear was a (no pun) sound investment.
Just two weeks ago, Frank agreed to work with First Ave staffers who wanted to unionize for better pay and treatment. Just two years ago, her club began bouncing back from a 16-month shutdown due to COVID-19 that threatened to shutter the place for good.
Frank would not disclose what the new L-Acoustics gear cost, but simply said, "It was definitely worth it."
"We have the first install in the U.S. of the best-sounding and looking system around," she said. "Our artists and concertgoers deserve nothing but the best."
An audience filled with First Ave regulars — the same will probably be true Friday night when hometown hip-hop heroes Atmosphere give the new system its second spin — sang praise for the new system after the Reilly show.
"The sound is really clean, especially upstairs at the back bar where it was always muddy," raved Scott Burns of Minneapolis, whose wife, Laura Burns, made another observation.
"You can see a lot better on the sides now," she said. "It definitely improved the sight lines."
John Eichten of Minneapolis said, "It sounded way less muffled in the areas around the periphery of the room, and a lot more vibrant with a lot more depth down on the floor."
From the sound board in the middle of the room, Johnson simply summarized, "I'm looking forward to all the upcoming shows."