The Sound of the Twin Cities; My Sonic Highway


Paul Patane

Foo Fighter Dave Grohl headbanging and strumming his guitar while performing for 15,000 fans.

Paul Patane, Sports Editor

15,000 concertgoers were packed into the Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul on Saturday, August 22. I stood between the pit and the stage, in the barrier with security and other photojournalists, snapping images of a shaggy and headbanging Dave Grohl as he sat in his oversized and ridiculously awesome throne, allowing the Foo Fighters frontman to sing and play his electric guitar through his band’s 20th anniversary tour after having broken his leg in Sweden earlier in the summer. It was a stimulating and exciting experience to say the least; a Washington, D.C. native and grunge rock fan standing only several feet away from another D.C. native and grunge rock icon. So close that if I would have reached out, I could have touched Grohl as he played his way through our Twin Cities sonic highway, rocking the songs he wrote and recorded after being inspired by the sonic highways of other American cities.

That’s where this story ends. The beginning wasn’t so clean, simple or glamorous. It was a long journey, filled with interviews, mounds of research to sift through, reaching out to industry contacts, over 500 photographs taken and lots and lots of writing. Determined to do it right or not do it at all, I carefully made my plans, got my tickets, filled out waivers and agreements for photo passes and hit as many shows and venues as I possibly could with an already packed schedule.

It started with me standing in the Mainroom, waiting for Gerard Way to take the stage at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis on Friday, May 15. The spring term was coming to an end and I began to wonder what I wanted to do with my summer. Not wanting to take any big foreign or out-of-state trips, I pondered what I could do in the Twin Cities. Immediately, my mind was drawn to the local arts, literary and music scenes. When Gerard Way came on stage and began to sing his Brit-pop inspired song “The Bureau” from his solo debut album, things immediately clicked.

Often identifying myself as a fan of hard, grunge, post-grunge and alternative rock produced by groups hailing from the desert or on the west coast in particular, I wondered how my personal aesthetic plugs into the Twin Cities and what qualifies as popular or good music in the upper Midwest. It dawned on me that unlike several other large cities and regions, the Twin Cities is more complicated as its local talent is as diverse as its venue selection. Perhaps while listening to and observing different setlists played by a range of rock groups that are for the most part well-known and successful acts from all over the country and in some cases the world, I could also get a feel for the local scene—from the Minneapolis and St. Paul venues to the people that buy a ticket and stand in the pit dancing and drinking a beer.

After enjoying Gerard Way stretch his solo muscles on his mini tour, everything came together and was put in motion. My self-proclaimed summer tour through the Twin Cities music scene would consist of visits to Varsity Theater, The Cabooze, two trips to Xcel Energy Center and eventually, a return trip to First Avenue to conclude my summer. After working out the logistics, the acts would include: Yes You Are, Alex Winston, Neon Trees, Dave Matthews Band, Colony House, Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors, Switchfoot, NEEDTOBREATHE, Royal Blood, Foo Fighters and to officially wrap things up on Thursday, September 10, a bit of a pop twist in the shape of Brandon Flowers as he takes a timeout from his indie rock group, The Killers. An exhaustive and diverse selection of rock ‘n roll in live music form to say the least.

On Thursday, June 25, Varsity Theater in Dinkytown on the University of Minnesota campus hosted Neon Trees and their supporting acts, Yes You Are and Alex Winston. Having already seen Neon Trees play live on multiple occasions, I needed a spark to emotionally invest me in seeing them live for a third time in three consecutive years. The spark came when the band’s frontman Tyler Glenn told me in an interview, “…the idea came that we do a more intimate run over the summer, choosing venues where we can actually see the fans and meet the fans after. And maybe play some old material and make it a really fan-centric show.” Before my interview with Glenn, I had enjoyed the band’s alternative rock songs infused with pop and new wave sound, but I always wondered what the group would perform like in a stripped down format, without the giant venue, large stage and visually loud aesthetic involving lots of color and over-the-top set and costume designs.

Ultimately, Glenn did not lie or disappoint with his promised intimacy. Varsity Theater as the host venue fit the band’s selected format like a glove as the theater has an old-time feel with a balcony overlooking the stage floor and pit area with an assortment of chandeliers dangling from the ceiling to add a unique element to a fun environment. The audience was packed primarily with college-age concertgoers down on the main floor, and more affluent adults on the balcony areas, enjoying less cramped conditions with their higher priced tickets and better view with a private bar to suck down alcohol.

As unique and intimate as Varsity Theater was, Xcel Energy Center was not. I was there the first time for Dave Matthews Band on Wednesday, July 1. While the venue was its traditional dark, roomy, cool and acoustically well designed self, the audience didn’t come to life until Dave Matthews came onstage to open for himself. Playing a couple of songs acoustically before bandmates came out to add their contributions, Matthews engaged the audience in typical southeastern form, polite and with his thick Charlottesville, Virginia accent, details that played well with the Minnesota crowd.

Playing two sets, one acoustic and one electric, Dave Matthews Band completely took charge of the Xcel Energy Center to the point that concertgoers from all over the arena began to light up cigarettes and pot. It seemed so widespread that it got to the point where the venue staff didn’t bother interrupting the festivities to take charge of the situation. Matthews and his bandmates didn’t do anything to discourage things either, especially with violinist Boyd Tinsley routinely lighting up in the corner of the stage. Perhaps partially due to the frequent substance abuse, the audience was very friendly throughout the three hour show that was literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience as the band never plays the same concert twice. Traditionally, Dave Matthews Band always deviates from their setlist and they build variations and solos into just about every song, making it never sound like anything you would hear from one of their studio albums or even another live concert.

Both an outdoor venue and old school in design, The Cabooze offered the most unique experience of all the shows I attended. Just off the light rail blue line and minutes from the University of Minnesota, The Cabooze literally felt like an outdoor block party hosting a music festival in the middle of the street on Friday, July 24. While there wasn’t much parking at the concert facility itself, ample free street parking was available nearby, which was a nice touch for people on a budget.

The festival-like experience was titled Tour de Compadres and was headlined by emerging southern Christian rock band NEEDTOBREATHE. Rounding out the concert were San Diego-based rock group Switchfoot, alternative rockers Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors and indie rock trio Colony House. I had never seen any of the Tour de Compadres acts live before, or been to The Cabooze for that matter, so the show appealed to me as I was trying to find something completely new to me. In an interview I conducted with Switchfoot guitarist Drew Shirley, he said, “This tour is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time. The NEEDTOBREATHE guys have been friends of ours for a long time, but we’ve never had the right timing to tour together.” Knowing that this friendship was being exposed at a unique outdoor venue, I seized the chance to go and see what Shirley was talking about. Shirley’s words were spot on as all the musicians were clearly into the show and wanted to be there.

Based on what I observed, it seemed like there were as many people in attendance wanting to see Switchfoot as there were fans for NEEDTOBREATHE. To add a unique touch to the show and the tour, the encore at the end of the night featured all four of the groups on stage together at the same time, somehow not creating madness with their combined group collaboration. To further give an affectionate nightcap to their fans, Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman led an aftershow “by the scooter place on the corner” as he tweeted right after the official concert ended.

My second trip to the Xcel Energy Center in late August was quite different from my initial visit seeing Dave Matthews Band. Same boring, clean design with good acoustics, but the headache-giving pot smell was gone and while the crowd this time was easygoing again, there was that hard rock edge and grit that came with many of the concertgoers. Instead of being in the general admission pit, I was also in the barrier between the general admission area and the stage itself.

Celebrating 20 years of Foo Fighters were Royal Blood hard rockers Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher. Kerr played his bass guitar riffs elegantly as Thatcher drummed nearby, harmoniously syncing hard rock and blues as a tandem. The two of them together made a sound as complete as any respectable four or five piece band, something that shouldn’t go understated since they didn’t even feature an electric guitar. Unlike most opening acts at arena shows, the vast majority of the audience was already in the pit or seated, seemingly as interested in seeing Royal Blood as they were the headlining Foo Fighters.

Once Royal Blood completed their top notch supporting set, my spot in front of the general admission pit had me standing so close that I could see all the cables and wiring operating Grohl’s throne once the Foo Fighters took stage, allowing him to journey up the stage and not remain as stationary as one would think. As the band played through new songs off their “Sonic Highways” album and mixed in some classics and the occasional cover during their two hours and 45 minutes on stage, I could feel the band’s passion after having watched their HBO companion documentary series to their eighth studio album, also titled “Sonic Highways.” To see Grohl on stage, broken leg and all, reunited with former Nirvana bandmate and guitarist Pat Smear was a dream come true. To witness firsthand what grew out of the Kurt Cobain suicide tragedy when Nirvana dominated the grunge rock scene in the early 1990s, as music and its audience evolved into something new, something still taking shape and to doing it while experiencing different places and people, is not something to be taken lightly.

Last December, Grohl told journalist Jason Newman from Rolling Stone in an interview after wrapping the “Sonic Highways” series, “It begins with this spark of inspiration that snowballs into a passion and life direction.” The quote stuck out as I felt something similar on a smaller scale. I wasn’t flying across the nation and recording songs in legendary studios while interviewing industry icons like Dolly Parton and Duff McKagan, but I was better able to identify with the Twin Cities and the music that inhabits our upper Midwest urban stomping grounds. After going to all of these shows and having interviewed musicians like Tyler Glenn and Drew Shirley, I knew the sound of the Twin Cities was bigger than Atmosphere, Owl City, Step Rockets and even Prince. It’s also the out-of-town acts, the individual stories, the fans and the venues themselves that create the larger narrative, our sonic highway.