I love Minnesota Music


As a transplant to Minnesota from Wisconsin, I’ve now spent over half my life here. I’m a cheesehead through and through, but if there is one thing that Minnesota has that Wisconsin has never had, it’s the music. The first album I ever bought was Prince’s Purple Rain and my first ever trip to Minnesota I actually met Prince, which is another story for a different time. A few years later I was living here and I won tickets on Rev105 to a local music showcase at First Avenue. There I was introduced to Zuzu’s Petals and the headliner, a band called Pleasure, which would later be known as Semisonic.

In the last few weeks I’ve been treated to both the stars of the current local scene and the past. First up, was Minnesota Music on a Stick at the State Fair Grandstand hosted by The Current. Featuring country favorites The Cactus Blossoms, the indescribable Har Mar Superstar, Cloud Cult, punk legend Bob Mould, hip hop collective Doomtree, and the rapper Brother Ali, only The Current could bring together such a diverse group for one show.

I brought Zoe to the show for her first rock concert. She was surprised how loud it was, but we got up close and personal for Har Mar Superstar’s set and Doomtree. She’s more into pop music, but she listened to all of the artists before we came and Doomtree was her favorite. It being her first concert, we had to buy her a concert t-shirt.

If I had to pick one, I was there for Bob Mould first, with Har Mar Superstar and Doomtree being close behind him, not to mention Cloud Cult. We sat in the bleachers for Cloud Cult and Bob Mould, which was probably the right call considering how loud Bob Mould can get. Twenty songs in 60 minutes? No problem for Mr. Mould and his rockstar band. It’s the second time I’ve seen him in the last couple of years, and he’s not one for a lot of chatter during his show, which is just fine as he played a great selection of songs from Hüsker Dü, Sugar and his solo material. Sitting in the bleachers, the program director for The Current, Jim McGuinn, was in the row across from us, and as we left the bleachers to down to see Doomtree, I had to thank him for how much I value The Current. (I would see him again at The Replacements, but I don’t want him to think I’m some kind of crazy stalker).

Har Mar Superstar’s stage presence is amazing and he brought rising star Lizzo along for the entire set. I’m pretty tempted to get tickets to his upcoming show at First Avenue. Volunteering at The Current almost ten years ago for an afternoon, they gave me a few CDs to go home with, one of which was Har Mar Superstar, and I’ve been a fan since. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but most of the people there only seemed to know of his last album, the soul music throwback Bye Bye 17. When Almond Joy and Tall Boy should have had the crowd moving, it seemed as if only 30% of the crowd knew of his classic dance songs.

We went down into the crowd for Doomtree and tried to find a spot where Zoe could see over all the adults. I’ve been a fan of P.O.S. for ten years and Dessa for the last few years, so it was quite a treat to see them all together. I was pleasantly surprised how almost all of them each also did a song from their solo repertoire, with the highlight easily being Dessa’s Warsaw for me personally.

And this past Saturday was The Replacements. I don’t know what I can say that hasn’t already been said, but it was just amazing. As a teenager, the Say Anything soundtrack introduced me to so many bands, and The Replacements were one of them. Within Your Reach may be one of their slowest songs and it was quite the pleasant surprise to buy one of their albums at age 16 and find out they were a punk band. I quickly fell in love. Out of the all concerts I’ve been to in my life, it has to be in my top ten. They played almost everything they could in their first homecoming in 23 years. Seeing The Hold Steady open for them was just a bonus, but Saturday night was all about The Replacements. A sold out show to 14,000 or so fans, a few years from now I think 50,000 people will claim they were there that night.

Achievement Unlocked: Geek Dad Cred

I took the kids to Captain America: The Winter Soldier this past Sunday. You know it’s going to be a blockbuster when the theater is 75% filled at a 9:30 a.m. showing on a Sunday morning. I usually like to take the kids to the early showing as the theater is almost empty on Sunday mornings.

Warning: Minor Spoiler

Two thirds of the way through the movie, Natasha Romanova (Black Widow), played by Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Rogers (Captain America), played by Chris Evans, enter an abandoned military base with an ancient mainframe computer system. Natasha Romanova turns to Captain America, and asks in a monotone, “Would you like to play a game?” Right out of the 1983 movie WarGames. Zoe turns to me in the theater, her face all lit up, as she gets the in-joke, mostly in there for my generation.

We had just watched Wargames a couple months ago on Netflix, right before it was set to expire. (Alas, it’s still expired and not available for streaming.)

That was definitely a warm fuzzy knowing I’ve contributed to my kids geek credibility. Achievement Unlocked.

Why Dungeons & Dragons Matters


40 years of using your imagination.

Ethan Gilsdorf has a fantastic essay up on Boing Boing: At 40 Years Old, Dungeons & Dragons Still Matters. As the original Dungeons & Dragons turns 40 this year, I’m guessing we’ll see many great tributes to the grandaddy of all role playing games, and Mr. Gilsdorf’s essay really resonated with me.

Along the way, D&Ders like me learned about stuff. We discussed hit dice and saving throws, ballistas and halberds. We studied, without encouragement from our parents or teachers, arcane subjects such as architecture, history, languages, and statistics. I learned how to draw and map. I learned battle tactics, how to bargain, how to empathize and negotiate with those not like me—be it undead kings or jocks. And a lot of introverted, socially-inept kids found friends and fellowship. I got socialized, and I learned how to be a leader. Bored and dissatisfied with my real life, I created a more exciting one, again and again, where I got to save the day and have agency.

The tools of D&D gave me permission to imagine a better me, and a better story for myself. They gave me the courage to imagine a different future. And taught me how to change myself. Not happy with lowly Level 1 Ethan, I worked hard to level up to my better, stronger, faster level 17 version today.

This is the key to role playing and I learned similar things playing D&D in the ’80s. I introduced my two youngest children to role-playing with rpgKids a couple years ago and this year we’re transitioning to Pathfinder. I’m hopeful they will learn the same things using their imagination to role play, and it helps to unplug them from their screens as well as challenge them mentally while encouraging them physically with the athletics they are involved with. Balance is good.

D&D is still my springboard into dreaming. Me and four other guys, all in our forties, embark upon these imaginary adventures on Sunday nights. How can I give this up? I leave my computer behind and dip into an amorphous, enigmatic current of magical thinking that humans rarely swim in: something epic and unknown.

I had the chance recently to re-connect with a friend from high school whom I haven’t talked to (or anyone from that period of my life) in over 20 years. He still plays D&D regularly with other friends from high school, including the one who introduced me to D&D. I find that I’m jealous of that; both the camaraderie of friends staying connected like that and the discipline of having a weekly gaming group with the chance, as Mr. Gilsdorf says, “[to] leave my computer behind and dip into an amorphous, enigmatic current of magical thinking that humans rarely swim in…” My oldest son regularly plays Pathfinder (and Magic: The Gathering) with his group of high school buddies and I like to think I had something to do with that. I’ll continue to play with the two younger ones and I hope they learn the same things Mr. Gilsdorf and I learned from Dungeons & Dragons.

Photo by Davi Silva under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

City Pages’ Oral History of 89.3 The Current

A few weeks ago I was out watching football with some buddies. I was talking about my new car and how I was disappointed it didn’t have Radio Data System built in, which shows you the song name and title when listening to the radio. “Who still listens to the radio?!” he said. I replied, “I listen to The Current! We have one of the best public radio stations in the country!” A week or so later, he forwarded me the Arbitron ratings locally to debunk my statement.

As The Current celebrates its ninth birthday, City Pages has published an Oral History of The Current. Featuring former and current employees of Minnesota Public Radio and the station, they talk about the founding of the station; the highs of getting it off the ground; the lows of the rating crash a few years later and bringing in a consultant; and the success they’ve had with both the station, supporting new artists and especially their support of the local music scene. It’s a fantastic read and gives you a rare behind the scenes look at running a radio station.

And to my friend who wanted to argue with me about having one of the best radio stations in the country, the opening paragraphs back me up:

This week, 89.3 the Current celebrates the start of its 10th year, having become the model for cutting-edge radio throughout the country. Not bad for a station built from the ground up in six weeks.

Before the Current hit the airwaves in January 2005, local FM radio was a dead zone, and 89.3 was home to string orchestras. Flash forward to today, and the Current has revitalized the local music scene and been named the country’s best non-commercial radio station by industry peers for four years running.

Happy 9th birthday, 89.3!

Favorite Albums of 2013

With 2013 now in the books, I’d like to share some of my favorite albums of 2013. After Polica dropped their debut album digitally on December 20th, 2011, I’ve learned to wait until the year is over to share my favorite albums – don’t want to miss one!

These might not be the critic’s choices, but these are albums I like, and almost all of them I’ve bought on vinyl this year. In no particular order:

Frank TurnerTape Deck Heart89.3 The Current started spinning the second track from this album, The Way I Tend to Be, just a few months ago, and I fell in love. Giving the album a listen on Rdio, and then his back catalog, I realized how many of his songs I knew, without even knowing who the artist was. This is a fantastic album with catchy hooks and amazing lyrics. The only downside is the vinyl album didn’t come with an MP3 download card.

Free Energy Love Signs – As a child and fan of everything 80s (well, maybe except the fashion), I love the 80s style power pop of this album. It started the year out with a bang and this albums knows exactly what it is – unapologetic pure fun.

The NationalTrouble Will Find Me – I’ve always liked The National – and this album, along with their previous effort, really solidified for me how good they really are.

ChvrchesThe Bones of What You Believe In – This is arguably my favorite album of the year. I’m just kicking myself for not going to see them at First Avenue earlier this year. Chvrches brings back that 80s power synth sound and merges it with today’s indie movement. Fantastic debut album.

DessaParts of Speech – Local singer / songwriter / poet and member of the Doomtree collective. Good songwriting combined with her and Aby Wolf’s vocals made this a great album. The lead single, Warsaw, was nothing like she’s done as a solo artist and hit me like a hammer the first time I heard it. The Current did a special with her live at the Fitzgerald Theater, Dessa Deconstructed, which combined a live interview with Dessa mixed with a live performance. It’s available on YouTube and my favorite part was where she broke down the making of Warsaw.

Mikal CroninMCII – I took a gamble on this album as I’m a fan of most artists on the Merge label, and it quickly became a favorite of mine. I was quite happy to see this make a bunch of “Best of 2013” lists as it didn’t seem to have much buzz or airplay.

SuperchunkI Hate Music – When I started running again early this summer, this was my go to album. If you’re a Superchunk fan, there’s not a lot new here, but it’s a short album at 40 minutes, and fast paced with a good beat. I’ve always liked Superchunk and this album doesn’t disappoint.

Neko CaseThe Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You – Neko Case’s last album, Middle Cyclone, was the first vinyl album I bought when I got back into vinyl a few years ago, on clear vinyl on the second Record Store Day, no less. I’m a huge fan of the New Pornographers, of whom she is a member, and I’ve always enjoyed her solo work. It’s much more personal and raw, and this album is especially so as Ms. Case has talked about her struggles leading up to this album as she was depressed and grieving the loss of her grandmother.

Volcano ChoirRepave – Is there anything Justin Vernon of Bon Iver does that doesn’t turn into gold? The second album he was a part of in 2013 (the first being the blues rock Shouting Matches), Repave is the second release by Volcano Choir and one in which he didn’t write any of the songs, but still retains a very Bon Iver feel. There’s not a lot I can say about this that Barb Abney of 89.3 The Current hasn’t already said.

Har Mar SuperstarBye Bye 17 – Six or seven years ago I was volunteering at MPR and they handed me a few CDs for helping out for an afternoon. One of them was of Har Mar Superstar, whom I hadn’t heard of at the time, but quickly learned to love. With the lead single, Lady, You Shot Me, Sean Tillman aka Har Mar Superstar takes us back to the old soul sound and it works.

Caroline SmithHalf About Being a Woman – Another local Minnesota artist, Ms. Smith ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for her latest album of which I participated in. When the vinyl reward ran late ran late, she sent all of her vinyl backers a copy of the CD, which was a great touch as we had already received access to the MP3 download. Like Har Mar Superstar above, her album is a tribute to the classic Motown soul sound and after a few listens, you will forget that it came out in 2013.

Janelle MonaeThe Electric Lady – this soulful, funky concept album has received rave reviews and not enough airplay. This is unlike most music out there and if you haven’t listened to it yet, go do it now.  It will make you dance.