by Chris Riemenschneider
Minnesota Historical Society Press
By far the most famous Minnesota concert venue, First Avenue has hosted thousands of performances in a wide variety of genres, including the early visits of many artists who would later become iconic (i.e., U-2, Björk, Nirvana, Metallica, REM.) This book is a history of the building, the acts that performed there as well as the people behind the scenes. I had a personal history with the place as well, having attended some of the shows that were mentioned in the book so, naturally, I was interested in how the story of the venue played out on the page.
The biggest act to break from First Ave was, of course, Prince. His Purple Rain movie featured performances shot there, as was the live recording of the title song. It is impossible to overstate how important First Ave was to music in Minnesota. Until Purple Rain broke there was almost no airplay of local artists on pop music radio, and certainly none whatsoever for a mixed race or black group. The 1980s outbreak of Minnesota punk and post-punk (The Replacements, Husker Dü, The Suburbs) was nurtured on the venue’s small stage—The 7th Street Entry.
Riemenschneider’s book also covers the venue’s earlier incarnations as The Depot and Uncle Sam’s. The Depot started life with a bang in 1970 with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen (featured in the film of the same title) followed by Poco, The Kinks, Jethro Tull, Alice Cooper, Al Jarreau, Frank Zappa and the Mothers (opening act was The Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons!), The Small Faces (with Rod Stewart), The James Gang (with Joe Walsh), Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and even Ike and Tina Turner.
By 1972, however, the club was in financial straits and was purchased by American Events which turned it into a dance club—several years before disco became big. There were local bands playing once a week, but its layout (featuring an elevated lighted dance floor in the center of the room) made it hard to hold regular concerts. By the end of the decade, disco was out of fashion and a “new wave” of music, kicked off with a concert by The Ramones, began to be featured in the venue. There were also new DJs, including a young Kevin Cole, who played a hipper and more varied fare.
The 80s were arguably the heyday of Twin Cites music. That story, including the rise of Prince and his cohorts, has been told numerous times. First Ave has gone through reorganization a couple of times (and the collapse of the ceiling in 2015), but is now part of a well-run multiple-venue organization that, barring a downturn in live music attendance, should keep it running for years to come.
This an extremely well-done book, The Minnesota Historical Society Press has long been one of the preeminent specialty publishers in the world; the layout and photographs are excellent and Riemenschneider’s un-fussy writing style is also an asset.
Overall, the saga of First Avenue left me with a sense of sadness, some of the brightest stars in it burned out too soon while many of the smaller players were left with little or nothing after the numerous failures of management left them in the lurch. I personally worked with some of the bands that played there (most notably Steve Kramer and The Wallets) but by the mid-eighties my days in the Minneapolis music scene were coming to an end. I wasn’t enamored of the new music and was just about bankrupt from my rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of the previous ten years. I did attend a few shows at The Ave, but the grungy nature of the space and the hassle of being in downtown Minneapolis made it my least favorite of the large clubs.
The Wallets, First Avenue, circa 1984