There’s a term that comes to mind — “Minnesota nice” — because the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, which serves as Minnesota’s only true metro hub, has been nominated for or elected as a lot of “nice” things lately. Notably, they’ve been high up or at the top of the lists for “Most Gay-Friendly City,” “Most Bike-Friendly City,” and “Most Hipster-Friendly City.” It’s amusing, then, that the city’s most venerable indie venue, First Avenue, represents exactly none of those things. Positioned about as far away from the Gay ’90s as you can get while still being in downtown Minneapolis, First Ave. and its sister venue, the 7th St. Entry, rub shoulders with some of Minnesota’s only skyscrapers, positioned on the corner of two roads without bike lanes, and across the street from the monolithic Target Center, where VH1 Behind the Music bands go to die.
Despite that, the venue has long been the big-name location for bands aspiring to be on a Pitchfork Music Festival poster, and the venue’s grip on the Twin Cities community has only become stronger over time. Former competition like the Triple Rock Social Club and Cedar Cultural Center now advertise all of their shows on First Avenue’s website, implying either the camaraderie implied by a phrase like Minnesota nice, or a consolidation of ownership only possible in a city that seems less hard hit by the continued recession than most other urban areas. Tuesday, the smaller of the two joined venues, 7th St., played host to a performer already on schedule for this year’s Pitchfork Fest, Claire Boucher and her Grimes pseudonym, and the up-and-comer played to a sold-out show.
A sold out show at 7th St. is really just about 250 people with increasingly obnoxious haircuts, packed shoulder-to-shoulder and sweating onto their neighbor, pushing closer to the stage in an attempt to discern a single lyric. Aside from their curatorial status, First Ave. and 7th St. have also become notorious for their bad sound. Little more than a single, thin wall separates the two venues and when I enter 7th St., thunderous bass from Odd Future –playing the main room– doesn’t just bleed into the smaller venue, it actually rattles the floor. At one point I wonder how the dual lineup is going to work. “Kill people, burn shit, fuck Grimes,” I tweet.
Sound is a problem for all three bands during the night. While Odd Future’s bass is either finished or turned down by the time local openers Elite Gymnastics hit the stage, the vocals are so modulated –and it’s hard to know if the choice was intentional or venue related– that the only words I decipher while listening to the band’s set is a single lyric, the word “girls,” and a between-song bitter rant by Gymnast James Brooks that begins, “If you didn’t like that song, then fuck you.” I didn’t like the song, so fuck me I guess. The sound problems actually stop the sets of both the other opener, Canadian-based Born Gold, and Grimes herself. Born Gold’s Cecil Frena reacts by stopping between songs to fiddle with dials and drop the headliner’s name twice to keep the crowd from devolving into banter, while Boucher, alone on stage during her second song, mutes everything and immediately says –to the crowd, to the sound guy, to whoever– “Something fucked up is happening on stage,” with an endearing mix of confusion and certainty.
7th St. is laid out like a dog-eared page corner pulled from the rest of First Avenue. Immediately after entering, the lone separating wall slices forty-five degrees left, pasted crudely with sheets of foam that act as sound diffusers. Two large steps walk up the wall, becoming seating for myself and many of the crowd’s other early arrivals. It’s a smart design decision from an audience member’s perspective, as it allows me to see all of the hijinks and stage presence of each band without having to recontextualize it outside of the excitement of the front-and-center crowd. The back wall ends at the one-man bar, which spins at a sharply acute angle and heads back toward the stage in the form of a counter. Someone attaches a Radio K banner to the counter early in the night, but by the time Grimes hits the stage, its completely obscured by the crowd. Where the counter ends, a few steps drop down into a pit that is an echo of the venue as a whole, its design a quarter-circle concentric with the rest of 7th St. Instead of the back wall, however, the edge of the pit has bar-style countertops with stools, another convenient crowd option if you’re not the dancing type or are, like me, particularly height-challenged.
Aside from the belligerent early banter, Elite Gymnastics, who recently put out an interesting pair of EPs that serve as compliments to one another, perform admirably if unspectacularly. Frena and the other two live performers of Born Gold seem curiously disinterested with playing their instruments during the night, instead focusing on making sure you notice how pretty their small light show is. They play with flashlights attached to Japanese hand fans, with small square grids that are synced to their rhythms, with a black sheet that gets tangled in the crowd, and most of all with Frena’s steam-punk suit, which features buttons on its face and LED lights along the sleeves that seem to respond to his movements and seem to adjust the modulation of his voice. Cool as that spectacle may be, the lack of adequate live mixing makes their best moments merely perk your ears to try to listen to some obscured frequency, and the worst start to sound like (gulp) brostep.
Grimes changes that. Taking the stage first by herself, and then joined by three other performers, the most immediately noticeable about Boucher’s set is how goddamn hard she is working. Stationed between a four- or five-octave keyboard, an MPC or sequencer, and a device or multiple devices (it’s inscrutable from my spot on the back wall) that adjust modulations on two microphones, Grimes bounces between each with a incongruous combination of gleeful excitement and craftswoman exactitude. One one occasion, she holds one between her ear and her shoulder like a cell phone, playing chords on one keyboard and fiddling with knobs on her MPC. The entire show, when her face isn’t planted millimeters away from a knob to make sure it’s getting the decay just right, Boucher is moving her entire body to the music, anticipating every drop, melodic change, and structural switch.
After her brief “something fucked up” interlude, Grimes is the only performer of the night to balance her separate elements well enough in the small room –no bigger than three or four full-size SUVs– for people to recognize individual tracks. When the morphing bass tones of “Genesis” hit near the end of the night, everyone in the crowd cheers. Meanwhile Boucher immediately begins looping multiple copies of her own voice, still precise in her craft even as she acknowledges the crowd by thrashing around with an even higher level of manic energy. Boucher’s set is short, like all of the other bands, with no set lasting more than forty-five minutes and the entire show lasting roughly two and a half hours. Boucher apologizes before her last song for the duration, “There’s not that many songs we can play live!” she laughs, but the breakneck pace seems appropriate somehow, and the energy that Boucher expends throughout the evening seems to extend the length of her set.
The 7th St. Entry is marked only by an inconspicuous awning and a board displaying a Microsoft Word document advertising the group playing that night. By taking a blue collar approach to her “post-Internet,” decidedly not blue collar music, Grimes seems to match herself to the unassuming venue in an engaging way, one that brings a term to mind: “Minnesota-nice.”