One of the happiest moments I've witnessed at First Avenue occurred this past January. What a deceptive start to the year that was.
It arrived at the end of First Ave's annual Best New Bands showcase, which proved unusually solid and entertaining start to finish this time around — from the smooth electro-emoting of FruitPunchLoverBoy to the reverberating psyche-rock of Muun Bato to the anti-hipster Southern rock of the Mae Simpson Band.
And then came Nur-D.
The comic-book-loving Black rapper from the largely white exurb of Rosemount brought along a full band, horn section, stage props, giddy dancers and an own-the-moment zeal to rule the room that night. His thrilling performance would've easily led to a breakout year in normal times.
You could trace the downward spiral of 2020 through Nur-D's trajectory the rest of the year.
In March, he became one of the first local musicians to embrace livestream gigs. In April, he earnestly cranked out one of the scene's first quarantine records, "Trapped in My Room." Then when the George Floyd tragedy happened in May, Nur-D turned into something close to the superheroes he adores: He manned first-aid stations during the citywide protests despite facing violence — and even after getting arrested for breaking curfew.
And now, at year's end, Nur-D has put out a very different kind of album. It's titled "38th" after the street on which George Floyd was fatally pinned for nine minutes. In dark, bewildered, contemplative tones, the album summarizes how much 2020 changed this once happy-go-lucky rapper.
That's sort of what happened to the Twin Cities music scene on the whole this year. It pivoted. It grew. It helped others while navigating its own dire straits. It changed forever.
Look at First Avenue itself.
The club had to abruptly shut down just before its 50th anniversary in March and be boarded up during the summer chaos. Then it became a centerpiece for the national "Save Our Stages" effort, as club owner Dayna Frank lobbied Congress on behalf of independent music venues across the country for federal relief. The effort paid off with a $15 billion allocation in the COVID-19 federal stimulus bill that passed this week.
Look at First Ave's sister venue in St. Paul, the Turf Club, one of three music venues severely damaged by looters and arsonists after Floyd died in police custody. The Schooner Tavern was scorched and looted, but repairable. Its south Minneapolis neighbor the Hexagon Bar, however, burned to the ground.
The Turf Club's operators stressed healing the community over the need to rebuild the venue. Conversely, someone behind the Hexagon Bar's Facebook account erroneously blamed Black Lives Matter protesters for the damage, causing even further damage there. (The Hex's operators later said the account was hacked.)
Look at the Hook & Ladder Theatre, which somehow survived the chaos around Lake Street.
Within three weeks of the riots, the Hook hosted its first in a successful series of livestream concerts bringing in real money to musicians. The nonprofit concert hall also served as a hub for relief efforts and as a sounding board for young community members.
Look at one of the standouts from First Ave's Best New Bands showcase in 2018, scrappy groove-punk band the Bad Man.
With their producer David Melek, the Bad Man's members headed up the "Bands for Cans" all-star charity albums to benefit Second Harvest Heartland's quickly depleting food shelves. The second volume came out last month with participants including PaviElle, Haley, Charlie Parr, Lady Lark and Grammy nominee Cory Wong.
Look at the ingenuity of Crooners and Icehouse, two venues that were lucky enough to have the space to host live music outside. Each took sizable financial risks doing so, with only modest payoff. But what an invaluable reward to the music fans and music makers involved.
Look at the folks behind the concerts outside St. Michael Cinema, of all places.
One of the oddest live music experiences of my life came in July when the Suburbs performed in the exurban cineplex's parking lot. Attendees were handed foam swimming-pool noodles upon entry to maintain social distancing. Predictably, the noodles became dance props instead, and a symbol of 2020's twistedness.
Lastly, look at all the women and nonbinary people who opened up with stories of sexual harassment and abuse from within the supposedly progressive Twin Cities music community.
These brave changemakers forced the scene's biggest record label, Rhymesayers, to address misogyny and cut ties with two prominent rappers. They got a DJ, who had a background working with teenagers, fired from the Current. They sparked the great idea of a "safe haven" music venue for artists victimized by harassment and discrimination. (Here's hoping Auntie's becomes more than an idea next year.)
Just like the fallout from George Floyd, the full impact of this MeToo movement was a longtime in coming and probably won't be fully realized within the music community until live music can return en masse. Stages are still the crux of the local music scene.
Albums are still important, too — especially this year.
One album in particular, the "#MeTooMpls" compilation — with 17 different Minnesota songwriters all tackling sexism and abuse — was among the year's most compelling releases. So was Nur-D's transformational "38th."
Here are the 10 Minnesota albums that hit me hardest in this gut punch of a year.
1. Nur-D, "38th." The Chance the Rapper-style, happy hip-hop star left nothing to chance on this outpouring of an album, which examines Minnesota Nice-brand racism and the aftermath of George Floyd with the same smart, colorful lyrical power as his much-less-dark prior releases.
2. Curtiss A, "Jerks of Fate." Roughly 33 years in the making, this soulful, tight, timeless-sounding rock 'n' roll parade proves the Twin Cities scene pioneer is much more than just a fab tribute singer/screamer.
3. Dua Saleh, "Rosetta." What a wild ride over just six songs. The subversive St. Paul rapper and singer branches out into nerve-y rock, lush electronic sounds and other sonic wizardry while weaving their opaque, reality-questioning lyrical magic.
4. Semisonic, "You're Not Alone." Just a five-song EP, the "Closing Time" hitmakers' hopeful comeback after a 19-year recording lull was enough to provide a strong respite from 2020, and a strong indicator of more good music to come.
5. Mary Bue, "The World Is Your Lover." The small-town Minnesota native became a big-time world traveler and spiritual thinker in recent years, then turned up the guitars and '90s rock influences upon returning to the studio.
6. Turn Turn Turn, "Can't Go Back." Bandmates just over a year when they made this debut record, harmonizing partners Adam Levy (Honeydogs), Savannah Smith and Barb Brynstad instantly and — so it seems — effortlessly found a sweet spot channeling '60s folk and California-breezy '70s rock.
7. Various, "#MeTooMpls." The all-new songs from Tina Schlieske, Chastity Brown, Lydia Liza, Annie Mack and 13 other Minnesota musicians address one theme with an impressive variety of musical and lyrical styles. That diversity is as entertaining as it is enlightening on the wide range of issues addressed.
8. Molly Maher, "Follow." Guitar ace and Americana singer-songwriter Maher turned more Mexi-Cali in this experimental but still lyrically cajoling record offering traces of Ry Cooder and "Kiko"-style Los Lobos.
9. Capricorn One, "Capricorn One." As he faced down terminal cancer last year, Polara and BNLX frontman and Flowers Studio sonic guru Ed Ackerson found a comforting zoned-out zone in this thick, vibrating space-rock soundscape.
10. Slim Dunlap Band, "Thank You, Dancers! Live at the Turf Club." What a fitting year of all years for this 2002 live recording to surface, like a time capsule reminding us of the warm spirit and rugged character of the man, the venue and live music on a cold Minnesota night.
(Most of these albums are for sale in local record shops or at Bandcamp.com.)
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658