First Avenue at 45

A look at the club’s path to greatness and dedication to history

Walk-The-Moon-2015-Photo-By-Justin-Sengly

Walk the Moon performs in the First Avenue mainroom // Photo by Justin Sengly

First Avenue is one of the most recognizable buildings in Minneapolis, if not the state. It frequently appears in tourism ads, citywide shots from Target Field, and press coverage of their 1,000-plus shows each year. Celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, it seems that the club famous for Prince’s “Purple Rain” in 1984 could rest on the laurels of its past and ongoing success. Instead, First Avenue is expanding beyond its one-time bus depot walls, booking shows across town and renovating historic venues like the Palace Theatre in St. Paul.

While the history behind First Avenue is storied, it’s the present that’s important, says the club’s general manager Nate Kranz. “We like to honor the past by making it not an oldies thing,” Kranz explains. “We want it to be cool now, too.” Kranz has been First Avenue’s GM for the past five years, but has worked at the club since the late 1990s. Before coming to the club, he gained experience within the music scene at Cheapo Records.

First Avenue Booking Manager Sonia Grover followed a similar path as Kranz. Together, they work with the father-daughter ownership team Byron and Dayna Frank to keep the historic club modern and relevant. The foursome recognizes that history and character is important—evidenced both in recent First Avenue renovations and the changes at the Turf Club, which they also own—and Kranz has made sure he makes his mark in his booking and improvement decisions, not in trying to change the landmark. When appointed to the job, he says, “my main motivation was to make sure I’m not the person to fuck up First Avenue.”

Turf Club by Daniel Corrigan

First Avenue recently purchased St. Paul’s Turf Club // Photo by Dan Corrigan

Kranz is calmer now behind the wheel and focuses much of his efforts on opportunities, which has led to booking more shows at Fine Line Music Cafe, Turf Club, the soon-to-be Palace Theatre, and other venues about town.

He’s also led First Avenue’s foray into outdoor events, helping coordinate such projects as the rousing Alabama Shakes show in May at Hall’s Island, the upcoming Festival Palomino at Canterbury Park in September, and a rumored-for-years First Avenue Festival. As the club extends its reach, Kranz says he’s careful not to go too far. “We think of First Avenue as the crown jewel of all our businesses,” he says. “Anytime we’re doing something different we want to make sure it’s not upsetting the business at our core because that’s the center of our whole company.”

Because of its storied past and impact on the music community, First Avenue is well connected and respected. While its namesake festival two years ago didn’t pan out—the main band canceled—it did indirectly led to this year’s Alabama Shakes show. Kranz is interested in putting together more outdoor shows and says he’s seeking out a new spot for next year. That doesn’t mean he’s forgotten about the festival idea, though.

“I’ve moved my festival energy over to Festival Palomino,” he says of the event that Trampled by Turtles curates, First Avenue coordinates, and Rose Presents produces. “In a lot of ways that was what we wanted to do,” he explains, noting the festival’s Americana/roots/indie music focus and the post-State Fair timing. For now, Palomino will have to fulfill Kranz’s festival dreams; there’s no First Avenue Festival on the horizon. However, “not now” doesn’t mean never. “I stay in touch with the Park Board and our Council members for a reason,” Kranz says, leaving the door open a crack.

Next page: Favorite memories from longtime stage manager

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