In Minneapolis, First Avenue is the venue that every teenager, practicing in the basement, hopes to someday play. The room is big (two levels, 1,500 capacity), the sound is big, and the talent is big. It’s featured in Prince’s Purple Rain; it’s where the best nationally touring acts play; and if you’re 17, the staff is intimidating in the best possible way.
The black exterior walls are painted with silver stars, each one naming a musical act that’s played the First Ave stage: The Pixies, Public Enemy, Primus, The Violent Femmes, Tina Turner, Alice in Chains, Coldplay, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Dawes, on and on forever. My rap crew, Doomtree, is on the wall, and it takes a serious exercise of self-discipline not to pose and point and giggle like an idiot when I walk by our star.
But as a musician, and a show-goer myself, I’ve always had a particular attraction to small venues, too. A room that can hold 200 or 300 people has a special charm for me: You’re always seated close enough to see the performers’ facial expressions, their beers and set lists, and you can hear the unamplified sounds that the musicians are making—the cues they give one another over the music, the ribbing between songs. You can hear singers’ voices, even when they lean away from the mic for a high note or to volley with someone talking from the crowd.
The Icehouse is one of my favorite new venues in this weight class. It’s on Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis’ “Eat Street,” which is lined with restaurants of all pedigrees: Greek, German, Tibetan, Mexican, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern. Icehouse itself serves dinner, but I prefer the late shows: cheap cover, a stage washed out in red and blue lights, a standing bar at the back and a few cocktail tables.
The Icehouse drink menu is particularly clever: signature cocktails named after songs and musicians; the ones served in a pint glass are nine or 10 bucks, those served in an elegant lowball are $5. “Strangers in the Night”—vodka with a touch of salty caramel and an almond-stuffed green olive—is my standing favorite.
For a low-key, seated show—date-night stuff—I like the Aster Cafe. If I were the sort of person to use the phrase “romantic evening stroll,” I would deploy it in reference to our Saint Anthony Main neighborhood, probably our most picturesque. However, I am a rapper and still 20 years away from “promenades” or “constitutionals.” Suffice it to say that there are cobblestones, a tree-lined street, and the Aster is set right beside the river, with a nighttime view that encourages sentimentality of all sorts. The cafe itself has a cinematic, old-world cast to it with amber light, low tables, and infused cocktails.
For rock or hip-hop shows, the Triple Rock in the West Bank neighborhood is the rare punk venue with clean bathrooms. The scarcity of this pairing cannot be overstated. The room has quilted walls to allow the sound techs to turn it up, the bartenders are fast, the PBR is cold. Unusually good bar food is available late; warm tater tots pair well with anything after midnight.
Like every musician, I harbor megalomaniacal aspirations of world domination. Until then, I gotta say I really like playing a 300-capacity venue with a great drink menu, good sound, and at least one pretty light.