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Review: Best New Bands of 2018 spotlights noisy women

Laura Larson of Scrunchies at First Avenue's Best New Bands show on Jan. 4, 2019. All photos by Emmet Kowler for MPR.
Laura Larson of Scrunchies at First Avenue's Best New Bands show on Jan. 4, 2019. All photos by Emmet Kowler for MPR.

by Cecilia Johnson

January 07, 2019

I have a certain admiration for angry people. As a citizen and scholar of the United States, I’ve read about the provocative suffragettes; the can’t-be-tamed flag-wavers; the defiant revolutionaries. I’ve imagined myself joining their fights. But when I think about the issues threaded through present-day America, I feel numb and/or scared more often than roused.

One thing that reinvigorates me is live music. On Friday night, I wandered down to First Avenue, where a sizeable crowd paid 12 dollars each to see seven worthy acts: First Avenue’s Best New Bands of 2018. The roster featured all manner of genres, sans rap: radio-friendly pop (Yam Haus), queer funk (Static Panic), ‘60s rock (the Carnegies), blues (Annie Mack), and more. But what united several bands was the preponderance of exasperated women.

The Carnegies kicked off the show with 32 minutes of ‘60s-inspired retro rock. “Let’s start this off the way rock ‘n’ roll starts,” Royce Mars said before cranking out the first chords of “Johnny B. Goode.” He and his bassist brother Roman gushed about Keith Richards, Van Morrison, and Donovan throughout their set, although they hardly needed to – the music (including a “Baby Please Don’t Go” cover) spoke for them. We’re too close to last year’s Greta Van Fleet hubbub for me to unequivocally endorse these new old-timers, and they clearly encountered some nerves, but I had a nice time with the cymbals and guitar licks.

Annie Mack was up next, a sharp contrast with the Carnegies; the latter may have been the throwback band, but Mack’s assured stage presence and wise lyrics made her seem like the real old soul. Her voice is a lovely instrument well-suited to the blues, and guitarist Jon Herchert peppered the music with a couple of beautiful solos and pedal choices (the Cry Baby wah-wah hit the spot during “Tell It Like It Is”). Mack will perform alongside Cloud Cult, J.S. Ondara, and Porcupine at The Current’s 14th birthday party later this month.

Faith Boblett and her Telecasters brought a lite rock to the evening, her dad Paul Boblett on bass and two other players (guitarist Nick Costa and drummer Alex Young) rounding out the band. Clichés riddle her lyrics (“Bang bang pull the trigger”; “It’s impossible to breathe”), but she carried herself with ease on an intimidating stage, and her song “Clay” stood out as a shimmering, brutal track “about what it feels like to be a woman.”

Scrunchies celebrated the one-year anniversary of their very first show, plus their number-two slot in City Pages’ 2018 Picked to Click poll (after fellow Best New Band Gully Boys), at First Avenue as a trio. Since the departure of guitarist Stephanie Murck, Scrunchies’ line-up has shrunk to Laura Larson up front on guitar/vocals; Bree Meyer on bass; and Danielle Cusack on drums. All three are experienced Minneapolis musicians, especially Larson, who has played bass in Kitten Forever since 2006. They pushed forward with tons of vocal torque and guitar firepower. Like Annie Mack, Scrunchies will perform at The Current’s birthday in just a couple of weeks.

Static Panic leapt into their set, dripping in gold and gutsy dance moves. They’ve grown since I last saw them in the Entry, especially in terms of strut – and the addition of a bassist really helps support their music live – but they’re still lacking the vocal control they’ll need if they’re to become a real draw. They performed Chrome cuts “The Crazy Thing,” “Anthem Of The Lost,” and “Fluid Funky Butter Sweet,” plus unreleased songs including set-starter “Macho Cabaret.”

On such a long night of music, I felt tempted to tire of Gully Boys, the truly scrappy rockers who recorded their album Not So Brave at hallowed Nirvana site Pachyderm Studios. But my fellow audience members pushed me back into the yell-about-it headspace I’d enjoyed throughout Scrunchies, and I particularly liked “Big Bad Luvr” and a new song with the working title “New Song #2.” Frontperson Kaytee Callahan’s vocals melted into peals via the First Ave sound system, but even the words weren’t the point. Instead, the band exists for Callahan, Natalie Klemond, and Nadirah McGill to express themselves.

And finally: Yam Haus, the band who described themselves to GO 96’s Jordan Alamat as “Maroon 5 if Maroon 5 was still good.” Okay, I too wish “What Lovers Do” was another “Sunday Morning,” so I tuned in for a pop set that turned out to be mostly clean-cut synth and “oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” refrains. They reminded me more of Walk the Moon than Adam Levine and crew, but hey, it’s been a while since I considered myself a pop radio expert, and their many fans seemed to be having fun.

So, here’s a fun project I tackled this weekend: firing up the search engine and reading recaps of every Best New Bands show held at First Ave since January 2011. I’d never heard of a few performers, who’ve vanished from the scene in the last eight years – Wiping Out Thousands? The Goondas? But several acts (GRRRL PRTY; Bomba de Luz; and more) have been my companions through the years. Reading these reviews felt like flipping through a family photo album, squinting at that uncle you never really knew but delighting in your cousins’ baby pictures.

Assuming people flick back to this review in the future, here’s what I want you to know: In 2018, women were angry, and we showed it. Not all of us, and not all the time. Not usually as freely as we wanted. But it’s no wonder rockers like Mitski, Bully, and Courtney Barnett (and dozens more women) surfed the zeitgeist. Locally, I’m thankful we had Scrunchies, Gully Boys, and more to scream for us.

So while Yam Haus may have sold the most tickets, and Annie Mack gave my favorite performance, my story of this year’s Best New Bands revolves around the collective of women who cranked up the volume and let it all out. That said, each one of the seven represents a special part of Minnesota music. With any luck, you’ll catch one or several soon.

The Carnegies

Two members of the Carnegies singing into mics + playing guitars
Roman Mars of The Carnegies plays bass

Annie Mack

Annie Mack sings into a mic backlit by a spotlight
Jon Herchert playing guitar
Annie Mac singing into the mic, eyes closed

Faith Boblett

Headshot of Faith Boblett singing into the mic
Faith Boblett at First Avenue's Best New Bands show on Jan. 4, 2019. Photo by Emmet Kowler for MPR.
Faith Boblett at First Avenue's Best New Bands show on Jan. 4, 2019. Photo by Emmet Kowler for MPR.


Two members of The Scrunches standing next to each other
Laura Larson on guitar turned away from the mic
B&W full body pic of Scrunchies bassist, hair over face

Static Panic

Ro Lorenzen sings into the mic, eyes closed
Keston Wright plays guitar and sings into mic
Ro Lorenzen of Static Panic squats on stage singing into mic

Gully Boys

Kaytee Callahan singing into the mic and playing guitar
Natalie Klemond of the Gully Boys plays bass

Yam Haus

Two members of Yam Haus playing guitars + singing into mics
Member of Yam Haus singing into the mic
Dwynell Roland joins Yam Haus onstage at First Avenue
Best New Bands alum Dwynell Roland joins Yam Haus at First Avenue's Best New Bands of 2018 (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.