As their interviewer pressed them for memories of long-gone, early 2000s venues like the Triple Rock Social Club, fishing for a good-ol'-days angle, the operators of the new punk Cloudland Theater quickly flipped the conversation.
"This really isn't for us, or for all the bands we played with back then," musician-turned-club-owner Brad Lokkesmoe said in October, when his E. Lake Street venue was about to open. "We want to return the kind of support we felt we had when we were coming up as musicians."
Less than two years ago, it wasn't clear which music venues would still be around after the COVID-19 lockdown; never mind the ones lost years before it. For good reason, 2022 became largely about the places and the people that survived.
This year was finally, gloriously more about newer things in local music circles; never mind all the older Twin Cities mainstay acts that also had good years.
An old tradition at the Star Tribune, here are the top signs the Minnesota music scene was alive and well in 2023.
New names in the club listings. One of the first stories of the year was on the opening of the Green Room in January, a two-level, 400-capacity music space with a strong appetite for local talent in Minneapolis' faded nightlife hub Uptown. Six months later came the arrival of the newly revamped Uptown Theater, which even under Live Nation management also has hosted big gigs by locals, including Stokley and Ondara in recent weeks.
Cloudland's arrival in November may have been the biggest development of all. It's a smaller space (150 capacity), but it has already proven to offer the right size and openness to new, undiscovered and/or none-of-the-above performers.
New names on the marquees. Another January story was on First Avenue's Best New Bands of 2022 showcase, with acts including Creeping Charlie, Mike Kota, Obi Original, Brotherhood of Birds and Harlow. Those names kept popping up in our weekly online Big Gigs roundup all year, as did other artists whose coming-out was either stalled or sparked by the pandemic. Some previous Best New Bands entries, Durry and Yam Haus, filled the Mainroom on their own.
There was enough notable new music coming out this year for: the Current to expand its Sunday night "Local Show" to five hours from two; a new "Local Show" designation added all over the calendars at the Turf Club, Fine Line and 7th St. Entry shows; and the aforementioned Green Room and Cloudland to get by largely on young local talent bookings.
New events out in the open. A trend that started out of safety concerns coming out of COVID lockdown, outdoor music bookings continued to rise in 2023. The Minnesota Zoo's Wild Nights series had music lovers hooting and hollering for local bands every other Thursday in summer. The North Loop hosted two new block parties. St. Paul hip-hop vets Heiruspecs held their first block party at Keg & Case.
It seemed like there were big, outdoor, locals-heavy gigs every weekend during the warm months — including favorites from prior years that returned strong, such as Art-A-Whirl in northeast Minneapolis, Lowertown Sounds in Mears Park, Pizza Luce's and Barbette's block parties, and the Hook & Ladder's Under the Canopy series. Keep them coming.
New investment in older venues. During the pandemic, First Ave resorted to auctioning off pieces of the old 7th St. Entry stage to generate revenue. In 2023, it became the first venue in the world to permanently install French company L-Acoustics' new L-Series ultra hi-fi sound system. And this was right after First Ave's owner committed to working with newly unionized employees — also arguably an investment in the future.
Eat Street jazz and songwriters' haven Icehouse also installed a hefty new sound system over the summer, with great results. The Under the Canopy setup at the Hook & Ladder was updated to solidify its slot as the best full-time outdoor venue in town. There's also news coming soon of another mainstay venue soon moving to a bigger space.
New life in older bands. Who could have guessed that four of the best albums by Minnesota acts in 2023 were by acts popular three decades ago that hadn't put out records in more than a decade (Martin Zellar) or even two decades (Run Westy Run, Semisonic and suddenly omnipresent-again ex-Clams singer Cindy Lawson)?
Likewise, some of the most well received, all-out-giddy live performances this year were by bands that broke big in the '80s and '90s, including the Jayhawks' Lake Harriet Band Shell gig, Soul Asylum's State Fair sets, Tina & the B-Sides' and Semisonic's First Ave runs, and the Suburbs' riverside Lumberjack Days throwdown. Their set lists, by the way, were laden with songs from recent years.
New prices for local music. While there are still some fine free live music options in town — here's to you, 331 Club, White Squirrel Bar and Schooner! — the truth is most venues are charging more at the door for local bands nowadays. It's common to see $15-$20 covers. This is nothing fans should gripe about. It's the sign of a healthy local music economy. And when bands like Blink-182 and John Mayer are getting away with $250 tickets nowadays at venues charging $16/beer, it still seems like a steal.
Best Minnesota albums of 2023
1. Ber, "Halfway." British-trained, Bemidji-raised pop-rocker Berit Dybing put a wonderfully snarky but earnest spin on Gen Z romance and angst on her ultra-catchy breakout EP.
2. Run Westy Run, "Beyond Reason." After a 28-year gap in albums, the '80s indie-rock band that once recorded for SST Records audibly had a blast grinding out grimy, groovy riffs and wild-eyed lyrical hooks.
3. Lady Midnight, "Pursuit & the Elusive." St. Paul hip-hop/electro-soul singer Adriana Rimpel evolved again into a full-on synth-pop dance-floor queen with production duo Night Stone (Lazerbeak + Icetep).
4. Turn Turn Turn, "New Rays From an Old Sun." Three distinctive songwriters (Adam Levy, Barb Brynstad and Savannah Smith) covered a wide range of Americana music flavor but remained ultra-harmonious on their second LP.
5. Laamar, "Flowers." Soothingly voiced Americana songwriter Geoffrey Lamar Wilson tried a little tenderness on this EP all about racial injustice.
6. Mayyadda, "Try & Remember: The Acoustic Album." Stripped-down versions of the neo-soul/electro-R&B singer's confessional tunes made them sound even more raw and powerful.
7. Martin Zellar, "Head West." The Gear Daddies bandleader reiterated his regular-joe songwriting chops with spirited help from his kids and old friends.
8. DeVon Russell Gray, Nathan Hanson & Davu Seru, "We Sick." Three of the Twin Cities' most versatile and adventurous free-jazz/avant-garde instrumentalists holed up in a church and let the tape and their emotions roll in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder.
9. Annie Humphrey, "The Light in My Bones." The spiritual activist folkie from the Leech Lake Reservation channels old Ojibwe beliefs and modern woes in a beautiful light with help from Twin Cities musicians.
10. Durry, "Suburban Legend." The sibling duo's fun, roundabout, pandemic-born back story gave way to a debut album full of straight-ahead rock anthems.