In the daytime, downtown St. Paul is a rush of suits and high heels, with coffee cups everywhere and fobs flapping in the breeze. The skyways fill up during lunchtime, as do street-level restaurants like Afro Deli and Black Dog. The professionals that populate St. Paul in the daytime have traditionally left the the city abandoned after 5pm. Now, the tide has begun to turn as St. Paul live music venues like Vieux Carré, Amsterdam Bar & Hall, and the (soon-to-reopen) Palace Theatre have music taking over the town.
Thanks to arts endeavors new and old, downtown St. Paul is shifting from a business center to cultural hub before our eyes. While the Ordway Theater regularly hosts performances by celebrated groups like the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Opera, the Xcel Energy Center draws younger crowds for superstars like Lady Gaga and Adele.
Vieux Carré, sister venue of Minneapolis’ Dakota Jazz Club, is a particularly hidden gem—down the stairs of St. Peter Street’s Hamm Building. It’s “just short of you need a password to get in,” marketing manager Dusty Hackworth jokes. The jazz club has only been in business for about a year, having taken over the old Artist’s Quarter space, but the space has held onto its history, according to booking manager—and Davina & the Vagabonds trumpeter—Dan Eikmeier. “A lot of jazz happened here,” he says, “and you can feel that in the room.” At a recent Southside Aces show, that past seemed to eclipse the present; dressed-up guests dined on New Orleans flavors and sipped stiff old fashioneds while watching pre-war jazz at candlelit tables in the subterranean setting.
Inside the Palace Theater during renovations // Photos by Aaron Davidson
Above ground and across the St. Peter Street mall, a renovation to the historic Palace Theatre is almost complete. A vaudeville theater-turned-cinema-turned-temporary venue of “Prairie Home Companion,” the Palace has been vacant since 1984. A few years ago, the City of Saint Paul, First Avenue, and JAM Productions decided to take a chance on the storied space. In October 2013, the groups assembled to announce the Palace’s future as a 3,000-person music venue.
The theater is in the midst of getting new bathrooms, bar counters, and balcony seats. The floor will be standing room-only, with tiered viewing. But the renovation is much less drastic than it could have been. According to Joe Spencer, Director of Arts & Culture for the City of Saint Paul, the process aimed to showcase, not cover up, the Palace’s history. Instead of new paint, the chipped walls will get a special finish to preserve a timeworn look that will be somewhere between Minneapolis’ State Theater and First Avenue. Concerts at the new version of the old venue could start rolling as early as spring 2017.
— Chris Coleman (@mayorcoleman) April 16, 2015
The frequency and vibrancy of available live music, the Palace redux, and the rest of St. Paul’s music development all sync up with Mayor Chris Coleman and the City of Saint Paul’s Year of Music campaign, which aims to “celebrate and amplify the city’s music scene,” according to the campaign’s website. The campaign kicked off in February at a Mary Bue show at the Turf Club.
Known and loved for its rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere and star-studded musical past, the Turf Club is probably St. Paul’s most iconic venue outside of downtown. First Avenue has promoted shows at the Turf for years, so when former Turf owner Tom Scanlon sought to sell his club in 2013, First Avenue jumped at the chance. Now, according to general manager Nate Kranz, “Our bread-and-butter shows over there are Americana.” He says, “That might also have to do with the age of the audience a little bit. Unlike our venues in Minneapolis, the Turf Club is a 21+ venue.”
St. Paul is also filled with venues that offer local musicians the chance to shine. Dizzy Fae, an alt-R&B musician who attended the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, just watched a concert by rap crew thestand4rd (St. Paul kids Bobby Raps, Allan Kingdom, Corbin Smidzik, and Psymun) at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall on Sixth Street. “That [show] was crazy-filled,” she proclaims. She wants to see more of that kind of energy in The Silver City. “St. Paul needs that light,” she says.
Bedlam Lowertown’s versatile space hosts avant-garde performances from artists in theatre, dance, music, and puppetry. In the Midway neighborhood, two cafes, Groundswell and Ginkgo Coffeehouse, regularly host live music. Since 2010, Groundswell has presented Grounds & Sounds, an annual neighborhood mini-fest.
When talking about St. Paul and music, the conversation often circles back to Mayor Chris Coleman. “He’s a huge music fan and a huge supporter,” says Kranz, “and it’s always nice when you can do these shows, look over, and see [a] mayor of the city that gets it.”
Jillian Rae and Eric Martin perform at the Landmark Center’s Music in the Cafe series // Photos by Aaron Davidson
For the past few decades St. Paul has been known as Minneapolis’s less-exciting older sibling. But lately, the capital has channeled its quiet composure into a musical movement. “I think it’s growing,” Kranz says. “I think it’s exciting, and it’s becoming a little bit more of a destination than, perhaps, it was in any time I can remember.”
Whether you’re at the contemporary Amsterdam Bar & Hall, the intimate Bedlam Lowertown space, or the treasured Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul has become the rich sapphire blue to Minneapolis’s fiery orange.
Editor’s note: This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and 89.3 The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.