Hearing music of the city Minneapolis: Even on the coldest nights, crowds of people pack the nightclubs to hear the up-and-coming local bands.

March 09, 1997|By Lou Carlozo | Lou Carlozo,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Those who live in Minneapolis-St. Paul boast a cold-weather spunk worth saluting with humility. Or a song.

Case in point: On a recent January weekend, wind chills dipped to near 60 degrees below zero for three straight nights. But that hardly stopped Twin Cities denizens from donning their party hats (along with multiple layers of scarves, jackets and thermal undies) and packing the local nightclubs.

Why brave such subarctic climes? Whether at Bunker's, the Cabooze, Lee's Liquor Bar or the famed First Avenue, crowds came out to hear music, though not the sort that might entice the natives elsewhere. To wit: Not a karaoke booth, slick cover band or achy-breaky jukebox stood within earshot.

On those most frigid of nights, area musicians playing mostly original music provided the heat, and they didn't need help from the squiggly symbol once known as Prince (though at Bunker's, Prince drummer Michael Bland ran the lights while Ken Chastain, recently on tour with Paul Westerberg, baby-sat the sound board -- both were last-minute volunteers to help the headliner, a local guy on the rise named Willie Wisely).

Minneapolis never fails to send a flurry of fine bands to other cities. Chicago club regulars already know about Wisely, Tina & the B-Side Movement, the Honeydogs and Tim Mahoney.

If Minneapolis' best acts regularly head south, then why head north -- and why, for the love of heat, during a season better suited to polar bears and penguins than people?

As any Minnesota music fan will answer, it's not enough to see a Minneapolis band elsewhere to grasp the vigor and diversity of this music mecca. Long after the halcyon days of the Replacements and Soul Asylum, and the ascent of "the Purple One" and the Time, Minneapolis still cranks out more than its share of major-label acts and contenders. One travel guide refers to it as "The Land of 10,000 Bands."

For the person who loves to catch artists on the rise, especially in the rock, funk and college-flavored vein, a trip to Minneapolis will prove an enthralling experience. Why not see and hear it in winter? Think of it this way: The musicians have to work extra hard to get frozen fans out of their seats. And they do.

Friendly to arts

The Twin Cities have a strong reputation for artistic philanthropy, and that arts-friendly environment extends to rock and pop music. While some locals complain Minneapolis-St. Paul radio doesn't support bands enough, area stations run at least four local music programs. One TV station even features a regular band segment on its news broadcast.

"The town is so open to original music," said Steven Greenberg, president of the Minneapolis-based October Records. "You can see a lot of bands and bars in one night, and it's all neatly laid out."

That's not to say exploring Minneapolis music is without its obstacles. The cold snaps can kill ailing car batteries; cabs are not plentiful; the street system, especially between Minneapolis and St. Paul, can confuse even longtime natives. (Note: In Minneapolis, uptown means south of downtown, not north.)

But there's nothing approaching the sprawl, parking rates and traffic snarls of most big cities, either. As a result, club-hopping in the Minnesota cold can be a downright pleasure -- and easily done on foot, if confined to a concentrated section of town.

Wherever the night starts or ends, it helps to have an open mind. "There are at least seven prime original music venues, and each one is pretty eclectic," said Jim Meyer, a music columnist with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Only the cover-band rooms, where rock acts parrot the tunes of famous artists, seem to be taking a nose dive. In suburban Crystal, the Iron Horse closed its doors last month after 20 years (it was home to outfits with names such as Pavlov's Dogs and Kickhead).

Warehouse District

That same weekend in the Warehouse District, not far from downtown Minneapolis, Bunker's Music Bar & Grill held a full house, who came to groove on a trio of pop-oriented bands -- Spy Mob, Rex Daisy and Willie Wisely.

Bunker's epitomizes the color and character behind Minneapolis music. As layout goes, it's not quite as large as the Double Door. Nothing distinguishes its stage or interior from any other typical bar. But what it lacks in flash, Bunker's more than makes up for in reputation and musical style.

A&M Records artist Jonny Lang, who just turned 16 in January, wows audiences here with his bluesy guitar and vocals (between shows, Lang practices with his band upstairs). Jonny was but a tot when Dr. Mambo's Combo began their legendary Monday night residency at Bunker's, now in its 10th year.

Prince has sat in with the soul-funk Combo numerous times, and it's not unusual to see his players at Bunker's on their nights off. Without much flash or pretense, they come to blend in and hang out with the crowd.

By comparison, the bartender acts like more of a ham; he bellows last call with a wireless mike and dishes wisecracks to the stragglers.

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