Review by: Michael Loeffler
It was an extremely frigid night in early March, even by typical Minnesota standards, but that didn’t deter the crowd that was eagerly waiting in line to enter the newly remodeled Palace Theatre on Saturday night. The excitement was palpable, and the reason was twofold: not only were they going to be witnessing the opening weekend to a historic venue that had fallen into disrepair for over three decades, only to be granted new life as a music venue with the help of Mayor Chris Coleman on the eve of demolition, but they were also going to be gifted with a performance from a beloved band dating back to 1985 that helped define the Twin Cities music scene and influenced countless others: The Jayhawks.
The venue itself was a sight to behold. As the line of fans slowly snaked their way forward below the bright theater marquee and through the entryway doors, strains of atmospheric music from one of the opening bands, The Cloak Ox, could be heard. The interior was unique. It seemed only partially renovated. They purposely left many of the buildings original blemishes intact. Many of the walls were cracked and unpainted. Chunks of stucco were missing amid exposed steel beams. Even the ornate hand carved molding looked neglected. But, strangely enough, the look, which was a hybrid between the past and present, oddly worked. It gave everything a rustic edge.
By the time I got down to the general admission flooring, The Cactus Blossoms were just taking stage. The headlining brothers, Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, started their set off with a haunting song about a lost love called Mississippi. The arrangement is sparse, with minimal percussion and bare bones acoustic guitar, but it works well because it causes the listener to focus in on the lyrics and vocals being sung in a strangely intimate way. The vocals resonate with a sorrowful croon that can clearly site such early pioneers as Roy Orbison and The Everly Brothers as influences.
Another highlight of the set was a rootsy country song called Change Your Ways or Die that was immensely pleasing. It brought to mind images of a lost era. With the quirky rhythm of the steel guitar and the prodding and thoughtful lyrics about bad choices that have serious consequence, you couldn’t help but be taken back to the classic rootsy days of Americana when the lyrics still had substance and grit, before country music was tainted and hijacked by pop. “You’ve got to change your ways or die,” Jack Torrey passionately sang to the swaying crowd, who were eating it up in spades. “If you listen now, I’ll tell you why. ” Fans of Johnny Cash would undoubtedly love this song with a passion.
Later in their set they played the song that they are probably most known for due to regular rotation on The Current, Stoplight Kisses, which sounded just as folksy and fun live as it does in the studio. The audience sang along and it brought the couples closer together.
They ended their set with a track called Powder Blue, which was an immensely therapeutic lullabye that brings to mind thoughts of sitting on the edge of a beach, lost in a tropical paradise, as the setting sun bleeds around you. It was very pretty and very haunting, and a wonderful set closer for a band, if their debut album is any indication, shows incredible potential.
After a brief intermission in which a lot of terribly overpriced beer was undoubtedly bought and recycled, Mayor Chris Coleman came out to introduce the band everyone was waiting for. He made a joke about how while the previous night’s act, Atmosphere, was the soundtrack to his son’s misspent youth, The Jayhawks were the band to soundtrack his own wasted days and wasted nights. He also payed tribute to how cherished the band is by mentioning the presence of a guy who came all the way out from New Prague. And, without further ado, The Jayhawks took the stage to thunderous applause.
They started the night off with an awesome song called I’m Gonna Make You Love Me. With hints of Beatle-esque harmony, and a heavy dose of another hometown hero, Bob Dylan, it was an instant crowd pleaser. They followed it up with a somber piano ballad called You Look So Young, and then kicked back to a more jubilant track that the crowd enjoyed called Leaving the Monsters Behind. You could tell that lead singer Gary Louris was in his element and thriving. Whether doing sad melodic ballads such as the touching Take Me With You When You Go, or kicking ass with alternative classics like the incredible Comeback Kids or the Tom Petty-influenced Waiting for the Sun (with Saint Paul’s Mayor and potential future Governor Chris Coleman joining on electric guitar, no less), The Jayhawks commanded the stage with a powerful set that spanned their entire career, including nearly 30 songs from their catalog. It’s a testament to the band that their earliest offerings sounded just as fresh and inspired as their newer tunes. Whether listening to an older classic like Blue, which amped up the audience participation sing along to the max, or hearing a fresh track, such as the wonderful Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces off their latest album, Paging Mr. Proust, (which was produced by none other than Peter Buck from REM,) their music has a wonderful sense of timelessness that only powerful songs can provide
The Jayhawks played a solid block of music that lasted over 2 hours, finishing with the endearing Tailspin and I’d Run Away before leaving the stage and coming back for an encore. In a normal concert, fans would have been checking their watches and thinking about getting home so they don’t piss off the babysitter, (it was closing in on midnight, after all,) but The Jayhawks were so compelling that you would’ve pulled a Paisley Park all-nighter if given the opportunity. The encore included several of their classic tracks, but, surprisingly, it was a cover of a Grand Funk Railroad tune, Bad Time, that stood out most. It showcased the band at its finest live, with a chorus of guitars creating a wall of harmonic sound, as the band members harmonized with a lush interplay of masculine and feminine vocals that seemed like the musical offspring of Fleetwood Mac.
All in all, the second night of the opening weekend at Palace Theatre was a wonderful success. Much as the venue itself reflects a strange dynamic involving connecting the past to the present and transforming it into something timeless and classic, The Jayhawks and Cactus Blossoms were the perfect musical counterpoint. They were nothing less than sheer musical magic, and the fans who waited in line in frigid anticipation were left with wonderful memories that you can’t put a price on.