Are You Local? at First Avenue, 3/6/14

Categories: Last Night
Photo By Mark Kartarik

Are You Local? 2014
Featuring the Cloak Ox, Dave Simonett, John Mark Nelson, Gramma's Boyfriend, Black Diet, Step Rockets, Botzy, Teammates, and Jillian Rae
First Avenue & 7th Street Entry, Minneapolis
March 6, 2014

The fifth annual Are You Local? showcase was their biggest production yet, as the event returned to First Avenue's Mainroom and also filled the Entry with emerging acts the entire night. The five-hour show ended up providing a decent cross section of the current Twin Cities music scene, though hip-hop was woefully underrepresented -- with a brief 15-minute set by Botzy the only rap music offered up by any of the nine acts.

The lengthy evening was well-paced, with shows happening continuously in each room to keep music fans engaged and intrigued. But ultimately, there was a definite problem when the best band of the night (the Cloak Ox) performed at midnight to a mostly empty club after much of the crowd had already gone home.

See Also: Slideshow: Are You Local? 2014 at First Avenue 

Photo By Mark Kartarik

The night started early in the Entry, as Jillian Rae brought her violin-laden alt-country to a very receptive crowd. With no music going on in the Mainroom, early arrivals packed into the Entry, and Rae and her talented four-piece backing band certainly rose to the occasion, delivering a 25-minute set packed with the spirited "Chains" as well as a fiddle-driven cover of Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean" that got the crowd singing and stomping along.

In the Mainroom, Haley Bonar led Gramma's Boyfriend through a wildly divergent, sprawling set featuring a series of songs from their forthcoming album, which Bonar said they are releasing on Graveface Records sometime in the next few months. Guitarists Jeremy Ylvisaker and Jake Hanson deftly switched from Blondie-styled art pop to a raw, untamed punk sound, as the band seemed more than capable of tackling any genre they wanted.

Photo By Mark Kartarik

Bonar was enthusiastically bouncing around the stage throughout, with her contorted dance moves only adding to the spirit of the songs. Everyone in the band was clearly taking their music a bit more seriously than they did in their slapstick early days. And when their new record does come out, it surely will make plenty of creative waves in the local scene.

The night wasn't filled with all hits, as the guitar-fueled earnestness of Teammates failed to resonate. The group tried to bring a gritty edge to early U2's arena-rock ready sound. But in the end, their material sounded unfocused. That didn't stop the packed Entry from seemingly enjoying themselves. Another miss was Step Rockets, who also seem intent on playing rooms far bigger than the Entry, though at the moment they don't have the songs that match those ambitions. Their grove-laden, hook-fueled material didn't coalesce enough to hold my interest.

Photo By Mark Kartarik
Photo By Mark Kartarik
Step Rockets

The Entry reached capacity by the time Black Diet took to the tiny stage, and the soulful six-piece band (who would go on to win the Are You Local? competition, and a trip to SXSW) absolutely owned the moment. Their vibrant, Stax-heavy sound soared in the packed club, with frontman Jonathan Tolliver working the crowd expertly with his impassioned vocals and boundless charisma.

Photos by Mark Kartarik

After starting their set with a hushed, Gospel-like singalong, Tolliver boldly announced, "Let's do what we do!" and the set kicked into high gear with "Slow it Down" a smoothed-out and sultry take on "You Did it to Yourself," and a Otis Redding meets the Strokes run through of "Unbroke." They even threw in a heartfelt cover of Echo & the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon" that added a surprising but vibrant twist on their lively, exuberant set.

John Mark Nelson brought a retooled backing band and a fresh batch of brand new songs with him for his winsome set in the Mainroom. Keyboardist Kara Laudon provided dulcet backing vocals to Nelson's material, giving the tracks a stately elegance and stylish charm. Nelson sang lyrics that everyone in the crowd could identify with, if the endless chatter would have quieted down enough for most of the room to hear it: "It seems like winter has lasted so long/Still I know the spring will bring us to thaw."

Photo By Mark Kartarik

It was a definite challenge for Nelson (and Dave Simonett after him) to play more restrained, delicate material at what had essentially turned into a small house party at this point, but he and his talented band rose to the occasion, as a jaunty version of "The Moon and the Stars" rang true, as did a slightly reworked "Reminisce" that sounded vivid and rich. After a trip down to Austin for SXSW, Nelson told me that he hopes to release his new album by late May or early June, and based on the songs on offer during his distinguished set, we are all in for a treat.

Photo By Mark Kartarik

Botzy's brief Entry set was over in a flash, with neon-drenched, psychedelic lighting infusing his madcap raps. He had just filled both the Entry and the Mainroom with his final offering of the Best Love Is Free musical extravaganza, but since he was the only hip-hop act on the bill, he deserved a longer set to keep his party going. He did his thing, and got out quick, leaving most of the crowd wanting more.

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