Soul Asylum played their annual Holiday Show, usually held at First Avenue in Minneapolis, in modified form this year on December 26th, by taking up the livestream concert format, but with the well-considered twist of bringing as much attention to this historic venue as possible during a time when venues are struggling to stay afloat. For audiences, the event actually began with an informal tour of First Avenue, hosted by Dave Pirner in conversation with stage manager Conrad, and as they discussed the venue’s history, viewers got an insider view of the place from basement to backstage.
Since one of Conrad’s first shows at First Avenue had been a three-night run with Soul Asylum, this shared history was a big part of the tour. When bringing the camera crew through SA used to play the “small room” at the Seventh Street Entry room, a smaller stage also part of the First Avenue complex that used to be a bus depot, Pirner explained that Soul Asylum played there before graduating to the larger stage.
The original bus depot was first turned into a music venue as The Depo in 1970, and their first live show featured Joe Cocker, and alongside Prince’s motorcycle parked out back, Pirner told stories of sneaking into the club when he was too young via the basement door that was sometimes unlocked. Many storied setlists were on display backstage, tape from mixing boards, including “Purple Rain”, and Conrad recalled shenanigans with Pirner, including difficulties setting up a usable bathroom when Ray Charles was playing there. Something that was also particularly insider was Pirner bringing the cameras in to record a pre-show warm up between he and Ryan Smith, playing an acoustic rendition of “Devices” together.
After a brief set up period, the show went from a backstage tour to a live performance, shot both in color and alternating black and white, and the concert itself featured twenty songs on the rather beautiful stage at First Avenue, with Dave Pirner, Michael Bland, Ryan Smith, and Jeremy Tappero taking part. Fans might have caught their previous ticketed livestream show back in October, which was played live from a studio setting and was also about a ninety-minute set. While the October show was particularly dynamic and its enclosed setting felt like a small club show, the feel of this First Avenue performance was quite different. The scope and size of the stage and the venue brought out Soul Asylum’s history as a touring band and a regular at First Avenue itself and gave the band a chance to break out a wide variety of their music from across a number albums.
Rather than sticking with one particular stylistic groove from a specific era of their history, the audience got a big cross section, on the whole moving from earlier work to later work. For fans in the know, or for newer audiences, it offered a renewed look at how different styles have built their identity but are now equally part of who they are. And, of course, the band were as comfortable playing older songs as newer songs, though they threw in a few that have been played less frequently for variety. For those who followed Pirner and Smith’s Facebook performances earlier in 2020, resurrecting 100 songs from their repertoire to play acoustically, you might spot a similar pattern of taking stock of their past work and bringing out some songs that deserve a bit more attention.
During the first half of the show, songs from the ever-popular Let Your Dim Light Shine and Grave Dancers Union got plenty of attention, but also selections from Delayed Reacion, I Know What You Did Last Summer, And The Horse They Rode In On, Candy From a Stranger, and the new album, Hurry Up and Wait. That made for a pretty strong spread of themes and styles from throughout the band’s career so far. Songs included “Shut Down”, “Keep It Up”, “Take Manhattan”, “Losin’ It”, “Somebody To Shove”, “Misery”, “Easy Street”, “Silent Treatment”, “Close”, and “Here We Go”. Some standouts were “Take Manhattan”, which felt surprising in its directness about relationships as much as in its references to geography, which during lockdown feel so distant, and “Losin’ It”, which really built up to a mosh-worthy level of energy and also seemed pretty relevant with admissions like, “I am having a hard time.”
The second half of the show featured songs from albums Grave Dancers Union, The Silver Lining, Delayed Reaction, the Broken Promises EP, and The Horse They Rode In On, with Grave Dancers Union getting the most performance time, but The Silver Lining coming in a close second. There’s a lot to be said for making sure that fan-favorite songs get played, particularly when relying on livestream vs live format, but also kudos to making sure that audiences are reminded of songs that might have caught their attention before and could be their new favorite replay and the concert setlist showed a lot of wisdom and intention by combining both approaches.
Songs in the second half of the show included “Homesick”, “Crazy Mixed Up World”, “Leave This Town”, “Gone Forgotten”, “Black Gold”, “Runaway Train”, “Without a Trace”, “Bus Named Desire”, “Veil of Tears”, and “Slowly Rising”. Breaking into “Homesick” was, as Pirner commented, a little ironic given how much everyone would like to leave home right now, but is one the band don’t play much and also has some pretty haunting ideas. In fact, several songs during the show, but particularly in the second set, seemed directly relevant to the experience of 2020. But their “obscure” song “Gone Forgotten” seemed like an oblique or direct reference to venues that might shut down and locations lost to time and so really struck home by taking on that sense of loss or potential loss head-on. The camera cut away to show Prince’s star at First Avenue during the performance, suggesting the connection between the song and music venues more directly.
Concluding the show with “Veil of Tears”, which offered small glimmers of hope and reassurance, and the rather powerful “Slowly Rising” was also an interesting nod to some of the complex ideas that the world is facing right now, and especially in the USA in the wake of discord and elections as much as the pandemic. Lyrically, “Slowly Rising” walks through the different variations of ideologies that mostly harm if not reframed, questions leadership, and may even pose bigger questions about finding national identity in military-industrial obsessions. The song was also performed with emphasis and plenty of airtime, building to the biggest guitar and drum flourishes of the show. Interpretation is in the hands of the audience, but if playing this song as the finale was meant to pose some questions right now about where we’re all headed now, socially and politically, it was a gutsy move and also made for a memorable finale.