photo Nate Ryan/MPR
Minnesota Music Coalition’s first show of the year brought together one of the most stellar (and Minnesotan) lineups I’ve seen in a while. From Holly Henry’s bluebird voice to Communist Daughter’s flannel-covered band members and John Mark Nelson’s forest folk, Friday night’s show was positively local in its sound and look. Even some of the crowd appeared in layers, as if it would snow inside the Varsity–and in some ways, the confetti drop at the end of Nelson’s set solidified those people’s predictions. As many of the acts said so gratefully, thank you to the Minnesota Music Coalition for putting this amazing lineup together.
Opening act Holly Henry brought her father up to play bass for her set, and if that doesn’t say anything about her, I don’t know what does. With her large flannel, breathy voice, and quiet presence, Henry reminded me of a bird flitting from tree to tree. Her sound is like a darker Ingrid Michaelson, all floating vocals and simple instrumentation, especially in chords of the song “Sink.” On stage, she took on her own persona–a humble, almost too-quiet beauty. The crowd swayed like trees in the wind as she played. Her song “The Ghost” was a standout song of the night in its eerie, empty echoes.
Communist Daughter came on next and played a perfectly balanced set. From lead singer Johnny Solomon’s humorous quips to an emotional rendition of my personal favorite, “Speed of Sound,” the set was so pure, so good. Communist Daughter played a song of theirs song called “Northern Lights” and in their hunting hats and sweaters, they resembled a personification of that natural phenomenon. Solomon and fellow lead singer Molly Moore’s voices floated together in every song, but the standout vocals really came in the new songs they tested out on the audience. There were a couple times I started tearing up during the set and there were many times I laughed along with everyone around me. When their set ended with green light fading over them, I knew I’d have to see these northern lights play again.
The long awaited final act John Mark Nelson came out on stage in a light grey shirt, blue jeans, and some awesome red New Balance shoes. As he started playing, it seemed as if the crowd leaned in adoration. If there was any word to describe people’s feelings towards Nelson’s music and live shows, it’s adoration. People are obsessed with the man and there is no reason not to love him.
Nelson started out the set with new song “Control,” a bouncy, sassier song than the solid folk Nelson is known for. His voice is so freaking gentle and when he told the crowd “good to see you,” I swore my friend next to me almost fainted. His music is well spoken and articulate in the way nature is, especially live. Fan favorites including the rambling “Home” and “Boy” made it seem as if the spring sun was shining in the venue. There were some sly guitar solos and lots of songs where the crowd sang along. Some new songs were a little rockier, with emphasis on the drum beats and bass lines, rather than a hilly guitar lick. By far my favorite song performed that night was Nelson’s tribute to Duluth “The Moon and the Stars.” If Duluth’s hills and Lake Superior were to be embodied in a guitar lick, this song is where it would take place.
Overall, all the acts brought so much Minnesota music pride to the stage Friday night. Shows and artists like these are what make me love our scene. The snow outside, the great music inside, and the community those two create, is something that can’t be found anywhere else.