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Minneapolis Music Scene

Lauren Wells | February 14, 2014

The History

Inhabited by Native Americans during its formative years, Minnesota was filled with the sounds of Dakota folk songs, laying the foundation for its rich musical history.  European settlers brought choral, opera, and Christian music with them in the 1800’s.  As a result, singing groups were established throughout Minnesota, featuring patriotic songs, hymns, and folk tunes, and they began sponsoring music festivals throughout the state.  Thanks to the immigrant communities throughout Minnesota, the state is home to a wide range of musical genres including opera, folk, gospel, blues, rock, and jazz.  Bob Dylan got his iconic start in Duluth, Minnesota (two hours north of Minneapolis) before he made his mark on the music world.  Grammy award winning group Sounds of Blackness, also Minnesota natives, introduced their 60’s gospel sound to American households.  Blues icons Lazy Bill Lucas and Percy Strother brought their soulful charm to Minneapolis in the 50’s, the Andrews Sisters unveiled sultry jazz songs during the 50’s and 60’s, and the 70’s launched Prince into becoming Minneapolis’ biggest music icon to date.  Spearheading his own genre called “Minneapolis sound,” Prince melds funk, rock, disco, and R&B into a formula that works for the mainstream music industry.  Punk rock flourished during the 70’s and 80’s as The Replacements gained a following.  Semisonic, known for their popular song “Closing Time” (just reading the title will get it stuck in your head), came out of Minneapolis in the mid-90’s.  Pop-punk band Sing It Loud had a brief run on the Warped Tour circuit before calling it quits in 2010.  Alternative rock band Motion City Soundtrack’s following started locally in Minneapolis and became larger as they played shows with Fall Out Boy, The All-American Rejects, and Blink 182.  Minneapolis’ sound is all over the musical map, but it can’t be denied that some great acts have come from “Mill City.”

The Venues

The Triple Rock Social Club gets a shout out in the Motion City Soundtrack song “Better Open the Door,” and for good reason: the place is an up-and-coming musician’s paradise.  Located in the West Bank neighborhood, Triple Rock has an anything-goes kind of attitude.  Bring your appetite (they offer excellent vegan options) and bring your love for experiencing new, edgy music.  This graffiti-covered dive bar is a beloved hipster paradise in Minneapolis.  Even if you’re not a hipster (or you won’t admit you are), we hear they serve a killer Bloody Mary so it’ll definitely be worth your while.

Downtown Minneapolis’ Mill City Nights is operated by the concert-promotion mogul AEG Live.  Under their management, the venue (formerly known as The Brick) has undergone renovations to help improve the sightlines to the stage during concerts.  Want an even closer look? Over 20 HD flat screen monitors were installed so that you can see your favorite bands up close and personal.  The basement area, called “the Nether Bar,” has new audio equipment, lighting, and décor.  Check out this intimate (but not overwhelmingly crowded) venue that features acts like Citizen Cope, John Waters, Theory of a Deadman, and Chiddy Bang.

First Avenue and 7th Street Entry, two venues housed in the same building, are full of musical history.  Originally built in 1937 as a Greyhound bus station, the venue became a nightclub in 1970 to showcase a Joe Cocker concert.  Seeing the likes of classic rock, disco, and eventually progressive rock, First Avenue was put in the commercial spotlight as Prince tried out new material on the stage and eventually featured it in his movie Purple Rain.  Receiving national recognition from publications like Time and Rolling Stone, First Avenue gained popularity as an iconic venue.  When you approach First Avenue, you’ll notice that it’s covered with stars—look closer: every star represents an artist that has performed there (think The Replacements, Soul Asylum, Brother Ali, Lucinda Williams, U2, Cory Smoot, and Dillinger Four).  7th Street Entry, a smaller 250 capacity venue attached to the 1,500 capacity First Avenue was the former café in the Greyhound bus station.  The Entry, as the locals call it, became a nightclub in 1980 and eventually began featuring lesser-known bands and started hosting live recordings.  Live albums by Husker Du, Rifle Sport, and Motion City Soundtrack have all been recorded here. First Avenue and the Entry even released their own compilation CD and a promotional book celebrating their history.  You better get to a show here before more history happens without you!

A former six-plex motion picture theater, the swanky, modern Skyway Theatre is located in downtown Minneapolis and can host 2,500 people.  This venue has a little something for everybody, whether you want to dance or just talk and drink while catching a gig, Skyway has you covered.  The 50’ ceilings in the main theatre set the stage for a night of entertainment and crisp acoustics.  The lobby bar can host about 200 people and features floor to ceiling windows overlooking the theater district.  This area is styled with lounge décor and has a 20’ granite bar for your drinking pleasure.  Studio B is another space available for about 500 people to dance, drink, and enjoy live music.  Want to dance the night away?  Bar Fly Nightclub is a cozy lounge with three separate areas: the Boom Boom Room for drinking and chatting, the Main Bar for dancing, and the sidewalk patio for cooling off.  To top it all off, the fifth story Loft, with a capacity of 800, hosts music showcases and special events.  This new venue is definitely one to explore with your music-loving friends.

Kimbra (of “Somebody That I Used to Know” fame), Minnesota Original, Emeli Sande, and Bethany Larson are just a few of the many acts to have come through the Varsity Theater.  2014 will see performances by comedian Hannibal Buress, London Grammar, Fanfarlo, Tokyo Police Club, and Bombay Bicycle Club.  Located in Minneapolis’ University neighborhood, the Varsity has an impressively cool vibe—think strands of white lights hanging from the ceilings, funky couches, brick walls, and a staircase with concert posters plastered to the walls.  Many couples have chosen to host their wedding receptions here because it’s an adorably stylish space.  Sink into one of their comfy leather chairs and check it out for yourself.

The Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis is home to the Fine Line Music Café.  Located on the main level of the Consortium building (established in 1907), the first-class nightclub presents nationally touring acts like Lady Gaga, Indigo Girls, the Pixies, Maroon 5, Ben Harper, John Mayer, the Black Keys, the Avett Brothers, and Alanis Morissette.  For a place that serves up top-notch entertainment, the Fine Line has a relaxed, intimate aesthetic.

The Hennepin Theatre Trust (a non-profit organization) runs the Pantages Theatre, the State Theatre, and the Orpheum Theatre.  Bob Dylan and his brother put the Orpheum up for sale in the early 90’s, whereupon the City of Minneapolis purchased the venue.  The City originally owned the State theatre, now a historical landmark, and has since renovated it to accommodate local and touring performances.  In 1996, the Pantages’ original owner sought to obtain a demolition permit, but the City denied him and instead assumed ownership and restored the venue.  The Trust preserves and operates these venues, bringing in plays, musicals, musicians, and comedians.  Each venue brings its own unique atmosphere within the city’s flourishing music scene.

Founded in 1974, Orchestra Hall is home to the Grammy award winning Minnesota Orchestra.  The newly renovated building features modern architecture strategically planned to welcome all kinds of audiences.  With classical music programming, Orchestra Hall has a large cube motif in the rear wall of the stage and has outstanding acoustics.  It’s well worth catching a show at this popular venue.

Minneapolis’ major arena is the Target Center, which hosts concerts and sporting events year-round.  AEG manages the venue, hosting shows from U2, Beyonce, David Bowie, Dave Matthews Band, Elton John, Sting, Coldplay, and Motley Crue, among others. Opened in 1990 to the tune of $104,000,000, the Target Center not only hosts world-class shows, but it also is home to the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves and the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx.  Get to a game or concert ASAP!

Feeling a more intimate, theatrical vibe?  The McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie Theater hosts a variety of plays and concerts, ranging from Shakespearean plays to A Christmas Carol.  The design of the stage allows every audience member to view the play from the same direct vantage point.  The Guthrie Theater also has other spaces such as the Wurtele Thrust Stage and Dowling Studio that host performances.

The Cedar Cultural Center, located in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, is home to a range of musical genres including jazz, blues, indie, folk, and roots.  In addition to concerts, the Cedar also hosts spoken word events, comedians, dance performance, and film screenings.  The Cedar is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting inter-cultural appreciation through global music and dance.  There are over 200 events per year at the Cedar, so peruse their calendar and try something new!

The Festivals

While Live Nation didn’t produce the River’s Edge Music Festival in 2013, we’re keeping an eye out to see if 2014 will yield different results.  Put your worries aside, because Minneapolis hosts other events such as the West Bank Music Festival.  Past artists include the Painted Saints, Blood ‘N Stuff, Stereo Pirates, Mr. Hyde, the Union Suits, and Red Pens.  The festival celebrates Minneapolis’ West Bank neighborhood, a community that brings together artists, hippies, punk-rockers, and scholars through its great entertainment spaces, coffee shops, bars, and stores.  Want to bring the whole family?  The Stone Arch Bridge Festival features 250 artists, a food market, three performance stages, a family art park, and a car show every June on the Minneapolis Riverfront.  Last year’s performers included Symbol & Surface, Apollo Cobra, Rockstar Storytellers, Valaska, Caroline Smith & The Good Night Sleeps, and Van Stee.   Thirty minutes outside of Minneapolis in Stillwater, the Square Lake Festival hosts film and music aficionados every August.  Well into its 11th year, the festival has hosted Night Moves, Molly Dean, Kill the Vultures, Humanda, and Charlie Parr, among many others.  If you feel like going on an old-fashioned road trip, Detroit Lakes (3 hours Northwest of Minneapolis) hosts the We Festival.   The We Festival hosts the biggest names in country music: the Band Perry, Travis Tritt, Florida Georgia Line, Brantley Gilbert, Zac Brown Band, Brad Paisley, and Jason Aldean.  Held every August, the festival is an unforgettable country weekend at Soo Pass Ranch.  Walker, Minnesota hosts the Moondance Jam, a rock and classic rock festival that has featured George Thorogood and the Destroyers, REO Speedwagon, Collective Soul, Styx, Foreigner, and America.  Famous Dave’s in Minneapolis puts on the annual Famous Dave’s BBQ & Blues Festival.  The magical combination of perfectly cured and smoked meats with the intoxicating sounds of blues icons like Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and Guitar Shorty (a.k.a. David Kearney) makes for a night you’ll remember.  Feeling jazzed up?  St. Paul hosts the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, nationally recognized for featuring top Jazz artists each June.  Grab your sweetheart and dance to the music of yesteryear.