It might be a difficult year for partying, at least among the arty, post-college music lovers who make up 89.3 the Current’s core audience.
Friday and Saturday’s 12th birthday parties at First Avenue for public radio’s rock station boasted the usual jovial DJ backslapping and raising of the beer sponsor’s tallboys. However, a discernible amount of dourness and doomsday-ism permeated the performances during the sold-out, two-night, 10-band marathon.
No leader’s name was mentioned, and no specific travesty was singled out, but a majority of the performers made references to dire causes for concern. It’s a good thing the shows were not broadcast live, because many F-bombs were dropped as they tried to strike a balance between the party vibe and political atmosphere.
“It’s a great thing to be able to make art and appreciate art right now,” Meegan Closner of the Portland, Ore.-based folk trio Joseph said Friday.
Timothy Showalter of the smoldering Philadelphia band Strand of Oaks was a little more blunt in rallying the audience: “Lose your [expletive] mind because the world is about to end,” he yelled before his final song.
Many of the local acts on the bill were especially vocal about current affairs. Friday’s headliner, Jeremy Messersmith, sang a new song about “finding new ways to kill each other” and taped the letters “RESIST” to his guitar. Saturday’s show ended with Haley Bonar cranking up the volume on her song “Last War.”
“It’s appropriate now,” she said, “because the only place to stay quiet is in the [expletive] library.”
At least one of the acts, ZuluZuluu — which also delivered the most dazzling musical performance of either night — repeatedly voiced outrage and hope in their wigged-out electro-funk music, with lines about “living in a tragedy” and “throwing off our misery.”
By coincidence, the weekend’s first performer, singer/songwriter Jay Smart, is an immigrant who transplanted to Minneapolis from Kenya three years ago and caught on last year with his willowy, Jeff Buckley-like voice. Smart didn’t make any statements between songs, but his lyrics in “Almost Lover” — a reflection on coming to America — spoke volumes, including, “I’m going to see if the grass is any greener between the stars and the stripes.”
While Smart arrived in more ways than one, a few of the acts still have a ways to go.
More than any prior year, the Current staff went out on a limb booking adventurous and/or untested hometown talent, from Smart and Saturday’s opener Monica LaPlante — both baby-faced young, and each playing with brand-new bands — to the musically daring ZuluZuluu and Black Market Brass (BMB).
A 10-man Afrobeat big band fronted by a horn section, BMB blasted noisily through six deep-grooving instrumental jams that had some audience members plugging their ears but more shaking their tails. LaPlante delivered the hardest-rocking set of the weekend, her indistinctive voice offset by hers and bandmate Christopher White’s gnarly, Pixies-surfy guitar work.
Each night featured young touring acts the Current has been spinning heavily, but ones that still need some improvement as live acts. Joseph’s all-acoustic performance Friday had a few soaring moments — including a hand-clap-filled singalong of the hit single “White Flag” — but the trio of sisters wore thin and got a little too emotionally thick even in just a short 50 minutes. Their intro of one song, “It’s about loving yourself through sadness,” sounded like a line from the TV series “Portlandia.”
The Lemon Twigs proved to be a dynamic live act Saturday but didn’t yet have the songs to match. Led by underage, Long Island-reared brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario, the throwback pop-rockers came on strong, with Brian at the helm channeling Badfinger in “These Words” and pre-disco Bee Gees in the harmonious ballad “How Lucky Am I?” Once Michael took over, however, they turned into a kitschy Who-wannabe act, complete with numerous high-flying kicks that only highlighted how little oomph there was in such tunes as “So Fine.”
Each night also featured a more time-tested if less-buzzy touring band. Antithetical to the Lemon Twigs, Strand of Oaks could have used more time to let all of its slow-burning, mighty-but-melancholy songs sink in, though Showalter’s subtle power did shine through in the new gem “Radio Kids.” Canadian pop/rockers the Sam Roberts Band stuck to their two most recent albums, fusing Franz Ferdinand-like grooves with Squeeze-style melody for a charming-enough but ultimately forgettable set.
Two acts the Current has helped buoy, Messersmith and Bonar, spotlighted their continuing evolution. One-time folkie Bonar piled on the guitar whir from her rocky 2016 album “Impossible Dream,” living up to Saturday’s headlining slot with the charged, triumphal energy of “Stupid Face” and “Kismet Kill.”
Looking like George Harrison’s bookkeeper in long hair and a vintage faux-fur coat, Messersmith enlisted the Laurels Strings Quartet to add dramatic tinges to “Ghost” and “It’s Only Dancing” while also previewing a lush and slightly quirky new album due later this year. Foremost among the new songs was “Once You Get to Know Us,” for which he sat down on the stage’s edge and serenaded the crowd about alien visitors and end of days. For Messersmith, in particular, this could be a weird year.