I didn’t go see the Replacements in September. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Replacements, but I’m a casual fan. When the reunion show at Midway Stadium was announced, I considered trying to grab a ticket but I didn't want a more hardcore fan to miss out on the show of a lifetime just so I could sate my curiosity. And besides, it wasn’t like the Replacements were the only gig in town. In a stellar bit of counterprogramming, Doomtree member and local hip-hop hero P.O.S. managed to book a fantastic lineup of underground rappers, DJs and vocalists from across the country for an event the same night modestly known as The Fucking Best Show Ever. Any other weekend, this would have been the premiere entertainment event in the Twin Cities, and to the credit of the local press, P.O.S.’s showcase did get a fair amount of coverage. But given the big-ticket competition, on that particular day it was decidedly a page-two story.
Even so, you wouldn't have known that rolling up to the Fine Line parking lot late that Saturday afternoon. I got there around six in order to catch Open Mike Eagle and found a considerable mass of people already crowded around the stage. The audience continued to swell through the evening -- lines for the beer vendors snaking around at crazy angles, the makeshift skate park at the back of the lot humming with the sound of wheels on concrete. And by the time P.O.S. took the stage, it was a shoulder-to-shoulder affair, and the audience was worked up to a fever pitch. These weren't just casual downtowners who’d ducked in to see why the street was shut down. These were rabid fans. When P.O.S. called out, "They on some nonsense," the audience’s response, "We on some nonstop!," echoed off the steel and glass of the cityscape. At the rear of the crowd, I spotted one of the greatest sights I've ever seen at a concert: three boys, about 12 years old, standing on a parking barricade, pumping their fists and rapping along to every line, lost in the ecstasy of seeing their hero perform live for what I assumed to be the first time.
In the midst of all of this celebration, I was struck by the sense that this kind of thing doesn't happen just anywhere. Sure, every metro has its beloved local musicians, but how many towns can pack a stadium for a group of returning legends on the same night they’ve shut down a city block for a rising star? How many other cities have a 24-hour radio stream dedicated to local music? How many can boast more than a dozen clubs hosting high quality regional and national bands every night of the week? Or have a dedicated audience sufficient to blow up local Twitter trends when a hometown artists like Lizzo, or Jeremy Messersmith debuts on The Late Show with David Letterman?
From a fan's perspective, the Minnesota music scene sure feels like a uniquely supportive community, but I wanted to see if that's a viewpoint shared by artists who have come here from other environs. Take Astronautalis: he was an up-and-coming rapper on the Jacksonville, Florida scene when he befriended P.O.S. during a Warped Tour stop in 2004. He eventually relocated to Minneapolis and has since built a dedicated following as one of the top talents in local hip-hop.
According to Astronautalis, the Twin Cities scene really is as special as all that. "There is a stark contrast in the size of the crowd here and everywhere else I have called home. My crowds in Minneapolis are literally about eight times as large as they are in Jacksonville. But that would, I think, not be giving enough credit to Minneapolis. It's not just that lots of people come out to my shows here. It's how quickly this city embraced me and my work -- from the stage to the street to the radio to the press."
The super-duo behind Four Fists, Astronautalis and P.O.S. Photo: Graham Tolbert
Part of that warm local response, I suspect, is due to the openness of Minnesota’s performers themselves. Collaborative projects abound in the Twin Cities, from benefit concerts to musical collectives like Doomtree to all-star albums like Absolutely Cuckoo and the annual Minnesota Beatle Project. Astronautalis has seen the benefits of that communal spirit. He's worked with a diverse range of local artists, including Bon Iver, Culture Cry Wolf and Marijuana Deathsquads, and he’s currently teaming with P.O.S. as the hip-hop super-duo Four Fists.
"It's why I moved here," he says. "In all the great music towns I've had the pleasure of living and working in, none of them have the sense of camaraderie or the love of collaboration that flows through the veins of every musician working in this town."
Former Pennyroyal singer-songwriter, Ethan Rutherford, agrees. After paying his dues on the Seattle and New York City circuits, Rutherford relocated to Minneapolis a few years ago and was struck by how quickly he felt accepted in his new hometown. "I came to the Twin Cities for graduate school. I had been living in New York and had never once been in the Midwest. But almost as soon as I got to the Twin Cities - seriously, about a week after moving there - I met Angie [Oase, co-founder of Pennyroyal], and we decided to start a band."
What stood out to me immediately was that it was a very open and welcoming community," Rutherford says, "Which goes for booking as well. I mean, everywhere else I'd been, you couldn't even get a foot in the door, couldn't even sign up for an open mic. And in the Twin Cities, it seemed like a lot of venues were willing to let you play, even if they hadn't really heard of you. I know that booking can be a really tough job, and it can be thankless (there are a lot of dick bands out there). But it means the world, when you are starting out, to be treated kindly and openly by venues who, even if they don't book you, get back to you to say, 'Can't do it, here's why.' Then when you do get up there on stage, you realize that this is a city full of people who just love music: hearing music, seeing bands, including bands they've never heard of. The bar scene is unbeatable. We played mostly bars for years, and it always felt like people were listening. But much of that had to do with Angie Oase, who everyone listens to, because she is amazing.
Rutherford recently moved to Connecticut for work but says he sorely misses the Minnesota scene. But he also posits some less high-minded explanations for our close-knit performance community:
I can't say for sure, but I think part of it is weather-related. It's so cold, you kind of go, 'Let's spend the night at the 331 and just see what happens, because we are not going to hop bars when it is 30 below.' You end up seeing a lot of bands that way, bands you wouldn't otherwise go out of your way to see. And everyone is so miserable in the winter that there is this, sort of, frozen bonhomie - we're all in this together! But I also think that music is just something that a lot of people in the Twin Cities do. It's in the air. If you live anywhere in the greater Midwest and are into music, eventually you're going to hear about that and get pulled to the Twin Cities, because that's where a music community has already established itself.
Whether it's cold weather, an incomparable infrastructure or just plain Minnesota Nice in action, the Minnesota music scene does seem to be an especially hospitable environment for artists and fans alike. And Astronautalis says that's nothing to take for granted:
Beyond the fact the concert-goers here actually go to, and actively participate in shows, there is a network of [professional] support in the Twin Cities that doesn't exist elsewhere. I think many people - especially musicians - in this town have no idea how good they have it. Even much larger cities than ours don’t have the options we have when it comes to independent radio, music and culture press. And on top of all that, we’ve got a populace that doesn't file noise complaints when a 20-year-old night club can be heard from the bedroom of their two-month-old condo.
On the whole, this city cares about art and culture in a way that most towns do not. We are one of the few places in America where record stores are still in business, radio stations play local music, the press is genuinely enthusiastic about and supportive of local bands. On any given Friday night, you can have some pop star selling out the Target Center, some indie darling selling out First Ave, some punk legend selling out the Triple Rock, and some up-and-comer packing out the 7th Street Entry. That does not happen in other towns. Ever. I have the good fortune of having a job that allows me to live anywhere (anywhere with an international airport), but I chose to move to this place - so far from my home, so different from my roots, and so goddamned cold - because this place, this town, this culture, is truly magical. I am lucky to call it home.
And so am I. And so are those three boys bobbing their heads to P.O.S. And so are all of us.
Ira Brooker is a writer and editor residing in Saint Paul's scenic Midway neighborhood. He writes about all sorts of things, especially the arts in the Twin Cities and beyond. He is a former editor of Minnesota Playlist, has been published in a number of venues both local and national, and even has a couple of awards to his credit. He occasionally prattles on about pop culture at A Talent For Idleness and maintains an archive at irabrooker.com.