First Avenue is back, and they want you to dance

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Flip Phone XXL Pride
Flip Phone XXL Pride dance party (Courtesy of Darin Kamnetz)

After 16 months of near-darkness and uncertainty, the First Avenue Mainroom burst back to life in glittery, over-the-top, queer-AF fashion last Friday. The occasion? A sold-out, two-night Pride party hosted by Flip Phone Events, the premiere drag outfit of the Twin Cities.

It's fitting Flip Phone would bring the Mainroom roaring back to life — they were hosting Pride parties and drag-stravaganzas with First Avenue long before the pandemic. What's interesting now, as First Ave's venues continue reopening and life returns to "normal," is that all kinds of other new dance nights are popping up on the calendar as well.

On July 23, there's Stupid Horse, a hyperpop dance party for fans of SOPHIE, 100 gecs, and PC Music. Love Affair, from Ariesfirebomb, brings a gamut-running array of Black dance music — everything from Diana Ross to Megan Thee Stallion — to the Fine Line the following week. Keep scrolling, and you'll find more dance nights — an All That 90s Party hosted by DJ Dave Paul and DJ Marco, and Reventón, a night of reggaetón, dembow, and cumbia — filling out the Mainroom's calendar.

Think of the stars that line First Avenue's striking black facade. The Hold Steady. Green Day. Jenny Lewis. Bjork. OutKast. Prince, obviously. Babes in Toyland. Korn. The acts honored in silver paint span genres and decades, but are more or less representative of the indie, punk, and pop the venue has come to be known for in its 50-year history.

There are some dance artists and DJs on the wall: Skinny Puppy, Roy Freedom, Girl Talk, Skrillex, DJ ESP. Though they're far outnumbered by their rock and pop counterparts, it's a nod to the fact that this cherished Minneapolis venue has deep dance roots. Before it was First Avenue, the building was a disco club, part of a national chain called Uncle Sam's. The future First Avenue started hosting weekend dance nights known as Danceteria in the late '70s. (You can get a deep-dive on that clubby past here.)

"First Avenue has a super long history of dance nights and events related to dancing and DJ culture," marketing director Ashley Ryan tells The Current. (To this day, their tagline is "Your Downtown Danceteria Since 1970.") "It opened in the sort of height of the disco era, so it's always been a part of the First Avenue identity."

The dance nights were fun, but they also served a practical function: bringing in enough people and enough money to pay the bills. "In the '80s, when it was turning from Uncle Sam's to Sam's to First Avenue, there weren't enough bands touring back then to fill the Mainroom," says Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music writer and author of First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom.

Parties were a low-overhead way to fill the space: you needed fewer staff members, and didn't usually have to pay DJs as much as touring bands, or pay any of their guarantee up-front. "And back in the day ... that place economically was always on thin ice," Riemenschneider adds.

Even after the light-up Saturday Night Fever floor came out, First Avenue kept gettin' down. Kevin Cole DJed Club Degenerate on Tuesdays in the '80s, where people danced to the Smiths, New Order, Ministry, and Bauhaus. The Entry hosted Break It Up, a breakdance-inspired dance night. And of course, there was More Funk, a Thursday-night dance party that ran from 1985 to 1992 — a near eternity in dance-night years.

It's not that First Ave ever stopped hosting these kinds of events. A small upstairs space, known as the VIP Lounge and later the Record Room, held DJ nights until it closed in 2015. But as time went on, dance moved to the background as more touring acts took to the Mainroom.

These post-pandemic parties are a kind of return to form, both in the practical and fun-focused sense. On the practicality side: Until last weekend, First Avenue was closed, with no ticket or drink sales coming in, for 477 days. When staff got the news they could start booking again after 16 months of darkness, they were staring down a completely empty calendar.

Without a little ingenuity and a lot of local talent, that wasn't going to change for several months. Tours take months to plan; you can't just reopen and start hosting shows. In lots of cities, the big venues — many owned by Live Nation or AEG — have delayed their reopenings until the fall, when big-ticket tours are back in full swing and a stacked calendar is guaranteed.

Ryan points to the splashy Rolling Stone story earlier this month about the "mad pandemic bottleneck of indie bands," which was subheaded: "In the post-quarantine rush back to concerts and live music, venue calendars are filling up with superstars and baby bands are falling to the wayside."

"I almost wanted to share it and be like, 'Not in Minneapolis!'" Ryan says. Because that's just not the case for First Avenue, or for the venues they own, co-operate, or collaborate with. The Entry, the Turf Club, and the Mainroom are already hosting local artists and DJs; this weekend Nur-D will headline the Fine Line's first post-pandemic show.

"There's just a chance to do a lot more with what we have," Ryan says. "We're spoiled in the Twin Cities; we have such incredible talent here."

Ryan says nights like Stupid Horse and Reventón were in the works even before the pandemic. First Ave bookers were looking for new, unexpected entertainment — something unlike the typical indie or punk gigs. After vaccinations became widely available, rather than waiting for tours to come to them, First Avenue's chain of venues started reaching out to local bands and DJs who were raring to get back to the stage.

"I just think that not only are people getting more comfortable going out and doing things with their friends, but people want something fresh, and they want something new," says Ariesfirebomb, who will host Love Affair on July 30 at the Fine Line. "They want new DJs, new faces, different sounds."

While the past year has been difficult for musicians everywhere, the pandemic created an opportunity for some to get creative, with livestreams and virtual shows.

"It's been, I think, almost tougher for DJs," Ryan says. The web can work for dance and pop music — look at Jake Rudh, who's taken Transmission to Twitch, or Phantasii, the immersive VR venue-slash-digital art space from Placebo Records — but so much of that atmosphere is about being together, in community, running into people you know and bumping up against people you don't. That can be harder to achieve online.

Another wrinkle, following the sudden and unceremonious shutdown of Northeast gay bar LUSH last year and the closure of Honey at the beginning of the pandemic, is that fewer spaces host queer dance nights. "I think that there are limited queer spaces in the Twin Cities, and it's very rare to be able to have 1,600 people come together in a big room like that — to bring drag to a national stage in such an iconic venue," says Flip Phone owner and operator Chad Kampe.

Speaking of iconic: Flip Phone got a silver star of its own during last weekend's festivities. That's a big deal for a local dance night. They've already announced a Short Shorts 2000s party on Aug. 28. "It's great, I think the more dance nights we have in the Twin Cities — the more options and different types — the better," Kampe says.

Ryan would love to see more dance on the calendar in the future, even after touring schedules stabilize. She grew up going to the super-popular Saturday-night party Too Much Love in the Record Room. "When I think about what we have on our calendar now, it's like, oh, yeah, there's going to be a night that feels like that," she says.

"The dance nights really kept the lights on there for many, many years in the early '80s," says Riemenschneider. "So there's something poetic about dance nights turning the place back on now."


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