The Current's 9th Birthday Party, night two, at First Avenue, 1/25/14

Categories: Last Night
Photo by Erik Hess

89.3 The Current's 9th Birthday party
with Caroline Smith, Howler, Heiruspecs and Cactus Blossoms
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Saturday, January 25, 2014

89.3 The Current has become so thoroughly interwoven to the fabric of what's now considered to be "the local scene" that it's easy to forget that MPR's unique music-centered venture was launched here less than a decade ago. In the nine years since the station first powered-on with "Say Shh...," the Current has evolved into the reigning tastemakers of alternative music in the state, rapidly expanding its transmitters to reach further beyond the borders of the metro area. The diverse local lineup for this year's iteration of the station's annual birthday bash proved to be an apt reflection of the community and tastes that built it, while also acknowledging the perspective of its newer fans.

See Also: Slideshow: The Current's 9th Birthday: Night Two
89.3 the Current: An Oral History

One enduring facet of 89.3 is its determination to put locally-made Americana front-and-center on its playlists. While we people of the North Country certainly have a taste for this kind of folksier material, credit has to be given to the station for the level of emphasis they've placed on a style of music that most of the nation still considers to be a niche taste.

Photo by Erik Hess

That's probably what makes the Cactus Blossoms such a refreshing and fearless choice for a show like this one. Brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum play the defiantly old-school kind of country music that shuns such modern indulgences as drum sets. Their high-lonesome harmonies are as pristine as their clean-shaven jaws, and the easy two-step of their original material is so faithful to the genre's standards that only a careful listener could tell the difference. That's not to say the band is a simple revivalist rehash of a Nashville that no longer exists, as the group's lyrics and arrangements often contain subtle but brainy twists that one wouldn't find in an Everly Brothers chestnut.

While the group was undoubtedly a mellow way to kick off a birthday party in the mainroom of all places, it was great to see the Cactus Blossoms get a chance to shine in front of a much, much larger crowd than they're used to playing for, and they stepped up to the challenge admirably. Adding Mike Lewis on the electric bass gave things a bit more of a rock 'n' roll feel, although he's apparently a master of the that steady, freight-train style typical of traditional country, in addition to all of his other talents.

The stately, composed performance of the night's openers made for a sharp contrast with the raucous return of Heiruspecs during the second set. Lead MC and frontman Felix acknowledged the stylistic leap with a wink midway through the live-band hip-hop group's barnstorming show. "We're just tryna bridge that gap between Cactus Blossoms and Howler," the rapper joked self-depreciatingly, but you could tell from the fervor of their performance that Heiruspecs were clearly in a competitive mood. Swaggering like two boxers back from retirement for another season in the ring, Felix and his partner Mua'dib seemed to be lit with a fire that we haven't seen in them in years, owning the stage with a confidence that no other performer could match that evening.

Photo by Erik Hess

Their bravado was undoubtedly drawn from the strength of their sensational new material that we'll finally be seeing on wax in March. Neither of the two rappers have lost a single step when it comes to lyrical or rhythmic innovation, if anything, new songs like the "Who Do You Answer To" -- sorry if I got that title wrong, guys -- show Felix and Mua'dib experimenting with exciting new cadences and sung hooks that really get the crowd going. At the climax of the latter, Felix led a massive call-and-response that felt positively epic with support of the musicians that make up the rest of their band.

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