As recently as this winter, the sky was falling.
Amid a swell of controversy, Mankato’s longest-running dedicated(ish) music venue, The What’s Up Lounge, closed its doors in January. The Free Press, suddenly concerned with local culture, wrote an obituary of sorts–complete with the token Kato antecdote about how great things were back in the ’90s–and essentially went on to speculate on the death of the city’s music scene. (Nevermind the fact that , after the closing, original acts continued to play regularly at the Wine Cafe, Midtown Tavern, Busters, NaKato, and other establishments, while the paper’s “Currents” page preferred to publish features on Christian rock acts gigging in church basements.)
Meanwhile, scene veterans mourned the spot where they saw some of their favorite shows and / or muscled their own band into something stage-worthy. And this blog right here–written by some jackass with the audacity to spend previous portions of his life in slightly-larger cities with more robust music scenes–bid adieu to a venue that had obviously devolved into a pocket-change generator stapled atop the dive bar entrenched downstairs.
Six months later, the sky has been restored…well, the Mankato music venue positioned closest to the stratosphere has, anyway.
Yes, the Oleander Saloon and What’s Up Lounge are under new ownership, and the What’s Up has its grand reopening event scheduled for this Saturday. In preparation, this new team has put forth some positive changes, such as concluding shows by midnight (which makes sense on about every conceivable level) and employing an extra security staffer during shows, rather than leaving the doorperson and bartender to fend themselves.
[Self-Editor’s Note: I don’t want to make it seem like the What’s Up needed additional security due to safety issues. Yes, there were well-publicized incidents, but nothing that couldn’t have–or hasn’t–happened in the revenue-generating ENTERTAINMENT DISTRICT that the city so treasures. The difference between those downtown establishments and the previous incarnation of this Old Town stalwart is that the former are adequately staffed. The What’s Up didn’t need security that eclipsed the norm, it just needed an ownership group that cared enough to step up to the industry standard.]
These are positive changes that will hopefully make the venue feel less like a glorified basement and more like something approaching a professional establishment. They’re certainly presenting themselves as such…
…because I’ll be damned if that ain’t a sharp flyer. And snagging a sponsorship from the local Five Finger Death Punch station isn’t a bad coup, either.
More importantly, though: That is a killer lineup right there, featuring three of the most engaging, riff-worshipping acts in Minnesota. I’ve waxed rhetorical about ’em on these pages previously, so we’ll keep this preview brief and packed with Bandcamp embeds.
WarRooster‘s full-blast, un-stoned stoner rock is part Goatsnake, part Clutch, and part Scandinavian-style desert rock (which is actually a thing, I swear). They’re hungry, wily, and tight as hell.
Let It Breathe will be coming off a Friday show with Lungs and freaking ZEBULON PIKE at the Triple Rock, revealing their status as the hardest-hitting Sabbath worshippers in the state to a new audience. Their River Wizard EP from late 2014 made some serious waves in slow n’ low / doom n’ gloom circles, and their first full-length should surface on STB Records…soon-ish.
And Crash Cuddle‘s off-kilter post-rock unpredictability will keep everyone on their toes. Rather than fall into the lull / crescendo heartstring trap that bands like Pelican, Mono, and Explosions in the Sky made so popular a decade ago, Crash Cuddle keeps you on your toes, sucking you into a false sense of security before hitting you with Beehoover-esque bombs.
If you’re keeping score, this basically means that the What’s Up is once again the place to be this Saturday. Yeah, Blues on Belgrade is going down, Hank and Rita are playing the first of two “final”, nearly sold-out shows at Studio Six, and the Purple and Gold will be perched upon the hill, waiting to charge you $42 for parking and the opportunity to buy overpriced merchandise. But if you want to get dirty and feel some soul, get your ass to Old Town this weekend.
Ah, summertime in Minnesota. That wondrous time where we attempt to cram an entire year’s worth of weekend activities into a three-month window because the rest of the year, the air hurts and makes you want to die. (I feel like I’ve expressed this exact sentiment before–on these pages or others–but whatever. I’m only ripping myself off because it’s true.)
Now, if you’re the type that enjoys live music and would like to experience some electrifying concerts this summer…well, you should move to Minneapolis. Or at least think about driving up there a lot.
Stubbornly, Mankato doesn’t want to be left in 169’s dust. There are plenty of outdoor concert events scheduled this summer that cater to Mankatoan tastes. In fact, yesterday, The Last Revel blue your grass for the 2015th time in 2015. And this weekend, the three-day Solstice Outdoor Music Festival will satiate our unquenchable thirst for cut-rate country acts and bar-caliber cover bands. (For those brave enough to battle through the weekend’s numbing okayness, riff-wielding post-rock mini-heroes Crash Cuddle will be playing a crucial set on Saturday afternoon…sandwiched by a children’s talent show.)
After that? Well, the Vetter Stone Amphitheater is where the big outdoor events are happening. When it comes to small city attractions, “big” is a relative term, and throughout this SUMMER CONCERT PREVIEW, feel free to apply it appropriately.
Here’s what’s shaking at the bandshell this season.
Red, Hot, and Boom [July 4th, 6pm, Free]
[Editor’s Note: That lack of an Oxford comma is their bullshit, not mine.] This family-oriented Fourth of July event features local legends City Mouse alongside the Mankato Symphony Orchestra, playing separate sets but also collaborating.
If you don’t have actual friends to spend time with on our nation’s birthday and you find yourself buying $5 cans of Goosetown along the river, here’s hoping the end result is better than the Reload cuts from S&M. (Woof, dude. WOOF)
Ben Folds [July 17th, 7pm, Tickets from $25]
Full disclosure: I hold a bit of a grudge against Ben Folds, but it’s not his fault.
Here’s the story. Roughly ten years ago, I lived in the Mankato-esque hamlet of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a college town rife with college-type things. Now, keep in mind, ten years ago, being a music fan still meant carrying around toddler-sized flipbook of compact discs and listening to late-night radio. Much like “music television,” however, radio was one of those things that sucked total ass, yet you still habitually consumed because that was the thing that you were bred to do.
Eventually, someone in EC commandeered an FM radio frequency and dubbed it WOLF 105: REBEL ROCK RADIO. The gimmick of REBEL ROCK RADIO was that they were totally independent and free of ClearChannel playlist meddling, bestowing DJs with the liberty to spin anything they pleased.
Given this platform for expression, a couple of daring disc jockeys unleashed some tame metal and punk during peak hours, like Soilwork and the Ramones. Not the most abrasive or challenging stuff, assuredly, but at least it was in line with the spirit of what makes real rock great: rebellion. It was in the station’s name, you know? They were at least trying to keep up appearances.
However, most of the DJs had the constitution of lukewarm ramen, and ended up spinning a shitload of Ben Folds Five. Don’t get me wrong; Ben Folds makes pleasant music. But REBEL ROCK it was not, at least to the naive 22-year-old kid that kept calling the station to request 9-minute Vital Remains songs to no avail.
So that’s the story of how Ben Folds became this former hesher’s enemy, but even that deep-seated resentment can’t suppress enthusiasm for his anticipated classipop collaboration with yMusic. (Listen here at NPR.)
What can suppress enthusiasm is an artist that’s willing to charge seventy-five bucks for premium seating in a non-premium city, but hey, we’ve already established that this ain’t anti-establishment stuff. This is, however, quite easily the most culturally-relevant show to land on the Minnesota River in 2015.
RibFest [August 6-9, set times TBA, prices TBA]
One surefire way to draw Midwesterners from their homes is to tantalize them with animal meat slathered in sugar. Rib Fests are definitely a thing in the heartland’s mid-sized towns; a quickish Bing search yields an array of poorly-designed websites boasting LOTS OF MEAT and entertainment provided by musical acts that range from local strugglers to casino-circuit veterans.
In comparison, Mankato’s edition is positively steroidal. Four days of festivities, kicking off with…
Clay Walker (Thursday)
No, this isn’t the lamest sideshow attraction ever conceived. (Come one, come all, and witness the danger and daredevilry of…THE MAN WHO WALKS ON CLAY!) This person is actually named Clay Walker.
In the early to mid-90s, he rode a vanilla-crested wave of mainstream country success, manufacturing a handful of standard-issue #1 and #2 singles (some of which he even co-wrote), as well as a platinum record titled–unironically–If I Could Make A Living. He’s also noted for penning the Houston Texans’ fight song, looking good in a gigantic hat, and probably being a very nice person.
Headliner TBA w/ The Suburbs (Friday)
Don’t be too scared off by this; the “TBA” definitely means “to be announced,” not “we have no goddamn idea what we’re doing.” I have it on good authority that the headlining act is going to be hilariously awesome, and ever-so-slightly above RibFest caliber.
Meanwhile, The Suburbs, besides being more Googleable than you’d expect, were a pretty decent-sized deal back in the golden years of punk/new wave. A Minneapolis scene fixture, they were one of those bands that was too damn good to not be noticed by major-label suits, but also too damn good to be noticed by pop music consumers. It was one of those art-meets-commerce-and-everybody-loses-and-the-band-breaks-up kind of things.
For evidence of this peculiar but all-too-common-back-in-the-day phenomenon, scope their 17-track sophomore LP Credit in Heaven, which, despite being funky and swaggeriffic, managed to bury its hooks fifteen feet underground.
It’s pretty great, actually.
Smash Mouth w/ Fastball (Saturday)
While waiting for his upcoming cookbook collaboration with Guy Fieri and Sammy Hagar to drop directly into Barnes and Noble discount bins nationwide, the dude from Smash Mouth recently TOTALLY LOST HIS SHIT at another food-related concert event because a piece of bread landed in his vicinity, gravely disappointing the parents of pint-sized Shrek fans in the process.
Mankato, if you don’t punch this asshole directly in the mouth with a full rack of ribs, I’m disowning you and moving to Le Sueur.
Just kidding. I’d never move to Le Sueur.
And I have no idea what Fastball sounded like in the 90s, but they probably sucked.
Chris Hawkey Band (Sunday)
The dude from the KFAN morning show has been gigging for awhile, but this was only common knowledge because he used to constantly gush about the time his band got to open for Collective Soul.
Anyway, here’s his acclaimed duet with Paul Allen:
Garrison Keillor: A Prairie Home Companion [August 19th, 8 p.m., ticket prices TBA]
Friends know me to be a bit of a homer; I like things that are Minnesotan, often irrationally. For instance, in MMA circles, I’m a noted Brock Lesnar apologist. (Yes, I know he was born in South Dakota. It doesn’t matter.) I cheerlead for Zebulon Pike even though they seem determined to mire themselves in obscurity. And I maintain that Mr. Perfect is the greatest professional wrestler of ALL TIME.
But there’s one thing my inherent bias cannot overcome: A Prairie Home Companion. Ol’ GK’s voice is basically the sonic embodiment of a Lutheran church basement, and his attempts to bridge his ideal of Minnesotan quaintness with vapid pop culture references have all the nuance of getting hit in the scranus with a six-pack of Grain Belt and a bucket of lutefisk.
But, hey, if you’re 80 years old / hate live music with percussionists / are the average Mankatoan, you’ll love this.
The Charlie Daniels Band [August 21st, 7 p.m., ticket prices TBA]
Charlie Daniels is an ultra-paranoid, pro-war, right-wing nutjob that’s constantly defending himself against accusations of racism while simultaneously accusing Barack Obama of being a “secular socialist.” (If he was either of those things, dude, I’d have voted for him.)
He also had a single hit in 1979 called “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which is basically just a fiddle solo broken up by some shitty spoken word bits.
The regulars at Benderz are gonna have a blast with this one. WOOOOOOOO JAGER SJOATS!1111
See you this summer, Mankato.
…at the Triple Rock.
Let’s be real: February sucks.
Even the hardiest Minnesotans grow weary of winter. After three-ish months of steely resolve, defenses break down, and a -37 degree wind chill crosses the threshold from “well, this is kinda bullshit” into “I’d rather dine on hot garbage with Dinesh D’Souza than step outside for thirteen goddamn seconds because I feel like my skin is going to die.”
You’re sick. You’re tired. You’re cold.
Fear not. This weekend, Mankato is burning.
Friday will generate its fair share of late-winter warmth, as the 410 Project hosts its Annual Juried Exhibition at 7 p.m, featuring music from Des Moines’ Noremac McCarthy.
Meanwhile, less-cerebral legions will be partying across the river, where an earlybird 21+ show is going down at Benderz, AKA The Only Bar on the Planet That Still Thinks Hosting A “Ladies Night” With The Tagline “ALL YOU CAN HANDLE!” Isn’t Totally Sexist And/Or Predatory.
Thankfully, the bands have gifted the venue with the Futurama-themed flyer we’ve all been screaming for:
These might seem like conflicting events at first blush, but it’s wholly possible to hit both, even if you might miss out on Bring The Sun‘s shimmering nu-isms and the acoustic-driven, post-grunge dirge of Angry Waters. The most magnetic draw at Benderzzzz is the headlining act, WarRooster.
Recently, the band pushed fresh wares upon the greater public, releasing a new LP, Bilderberg Workshop, on the 45th anniversary of Black Sabbath‘s genre-spawning debut.
Anyway, once you shake off your hangover (and the sideways glances from the Benderz regulars), gear up for Saturday night, where Buster’s takes a break from REO Speedwagon cover bands and amateur “boxing” to host the STACKED-est lineup we’ve had in months:
But Fury Things, people. Fury Things is the business. Especially if you throw down on fuzzy, dreamy garage rock that swings hooks like hammers:
They recently opened for freaking Bob Mould at First Avenue, so when you’re presented with the opportunity to see them in a strip-mall sports bar, the best course of action is to capitalize.
See, it works like this: Cool bands come to Mankato. We go see the cool bands. And the cool bands come back. That’s how you build something…and have fun doing it.
See you this weekend, Mankato.
In the wake of the What’s Up’s closing, February’s events have been viewed as crucial for the Mankato music scene’s short-term survival. The month’s most vital shows, Hardcore Crayons / Fury Things / Crash Cuddle and PHE 8, have found new homes at Busters and the Mankato Event Center, respectively. With these events in safe standing–and, arguably, in situations more conducive to robust attendance than they were originally–the RJKT scope settled upon Lower North, where a pair of all-ages shows at Benderz commanded unusual attention.
Two weekends. Two shows. Two stories.
The first show was previewed on these pages, and by most accounts, it was a rousing success. Even when presented with a vibrant, enthusiastic crowd, Benderz seemed to have a decent system worked out, with the bar’s architecture making it much easier for the staff to work the door. Essentially, the building is a wide-angled “v”, with the entry at the vertex. Show-goers were diverted to the back room on the right, which was solely dedicated to music, while bar patrons could avoid a punk rock assault by taking a sharp left upon entry.
The place was near capacity that evening, for a few reasons: On one side, Old Towne Ghosts are one of the town’s biggest draws. On the other, the bar was airing UFC 183. (Following the death of the downtown Buffalo Wild Wings, Benderz is the only establishment in Mankato tuning into UFC events. And with the diluted, top-heavy cards Zuffa has been cranking out, even hardcores are opting to watch PPVs for the price of a few PBRs.)
But the biggest reason? The all-ages crowd came out in force. By the time Minneapolis’ Remo Drive triggered one of the most kinetic, spontaneous kid-pits I’d ever witnessed, it was clear that reports of the Mankato music scene’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
All told, it was a great night, one that was enabled by a largely hospitable and accessible venue. Even if one didn’t feel like watching an entire band’s set, drifting over to the bar side was smooth, and the waitstaff seemed to genuinely appreciate our business. It was a welcoming atmosphere.
At the following week’s show, however, blemishes began to surface. And we’re not talking zits. Straight-up leprosy.
Comparatively, attendance was sparse, possibly due to the illness-related cancellation of headliners Arms for Elephants. As we walked in, a group of kids were pounding out a scraggly brand of post-grunge, so I dragged my lawyer, Adam, to the bar side to throw back some Jagermeister like distinguished adults.
We quickly realized that our presence was less than welcome.
Our status as interlopers wasn’t immediately apparent. But, scanning the scene, we stuck out from the crowd, and not by virtue of our own weirdness. In a contrast to the previous week, the bar’s population had been reduced to regulars: Shitfaced-at-eight-o-clock, physical-activity-averse, camo-and-fossil-fuel-worshiping rednecks.
We took a pair of open seats at the bar. A few minutes into our conversation about the potential Legend of Zelda Netflix series, a grumble emerged from the woman seated to my right. The first part of her sentence was unintelligible, but it finished with “…stay the fuck on the other side.” As the phrase snagged my ear, I looked over to see her furiously scraping away at a stack of lottery tickets with a three-inch folding knife.
(Call me “liberal” like it’s actually a pejorative if you must, but even if someone spent their very last scratching quarters at the Kwik Trip Casino, I’m not sure that flinging around an open blade is acceptable behavior in an establishment that specializes in serving alcohol, regardless of said establishment’s affinity for blaze orange and motorsports.)
Soon after, we stepped outside for a smoke. Almost immediately, she threw her purse on my seat. We took the hint. So we hit the sidewalk.
Clearly, our semi-sober presence wasn’t welcome; in stark contrast, of course, to the sweaty, walking heart attack the bartender managed to overserve before 9 o’clock. We later saw this same mouthbreather behind the wheel of a vehicle in the parking lot of PJ’s Liquor. (And we’re 100% sure it was the same dude, too, because he actually got out of his car to greet us with some kind of primal, jubilant grunt of familiarity, even though we hadn’t even spoken a goddamn word to each other previously.)
Needless to say, this experience didn’t get generate a whole lot of excitement for a return visit.
Admittedly, this two-weekend sample size is small. But it’s pretty safe to conclude that, failing a special draw such as a notable punk rock show and/or Anderson Silva’s (steroid-aided) return from a horrific leg injury, Benderz has a problem: Their clientele. If their obvious indifference to regulation continues, their long-term viability as a venue is in significant jeopardy.
Music isn’t the issue. People are.