When the weather gets warm, Twin Citians emerge from hibernation in shorts and sandals and take to the streets to see and be seen, drink brewskis and hear live music. Block parties are an enduring tradition of summer in the Cities, inviting all to bask in the sunshine with their neighbors.
The Basilica Block Party (July 7-8) debuted in 1995 out of necessity. Minneapolis’ historic Basilica of St. Mary was in dire need of funds to repair its dome. Borrowing from Chicago’s Old St. Pat’s, which boasts the World’s Largest Block Party, the Basilica decided to host an outdoor gathering. At the time, it was “a really wild idea,” says Meghan Gustafson, the BBP event manager. “Now there’s a block party every weekend but back then, it was a pretty groundbreaking thing. They took a chance and it worked and it helped save the dome of the Basilica.”
Since then, the Basilica has grown to three stages and 20 bands over two days, with an average attendance between 27,000 and 30,000. A committee of 75 oversees the event and 1,600 volunteers make it possible every year.
Ben Lubeck of local folk-rock band Farewell Milwaukee says performing at last year’s BBP was “one of my favorite shows of my life. Everything was clickin’, it was absolutely packed, the weather was perfect, and Ryan Adams was playing right after us, so we walked over to see his set. It was complete magic. I was flying high for a week or two after that.”
Block parties can expose bands to audiences that might not have discovered their music otherwise. “We’ve had lots of feedback from people saying, ‘We heard you at the Basilica. We were just walking by and liked what we heard,’ ” Lubeck says. “It just feels good to be outside when there’s music playing. There’s something special about that.”
Many successful block parties these days are organized around a popular neighborhood restaurant or bar. The Kim Bartmann restaurant group, for example, oversees its properties’ Bastille Day Block Party (July 16) and Red Stag Block Party (Aug. 6). The former has a 15-year history at Bartmann’s French bistro Barbette, and the latter is into its 11th year.
The Red Stag Supperclub recently re-imagined its block party in collaboration with local craft brewers. The “In Cahoots” series pairs up breweries to create new beers, available exclusively at the Red Stag event. Attendees use ranked-choice voting to name a Best Brew. “That one has become really popular,” says Anne Saxton, director of marketing and events at the Bartmann restaurant group. “The breweries love it.”
Other details that make the Bartmann block parties stand out: zero waste, no admission fee and lots of participation from nonprofits. “We have always made a point to keep our events free so everyone is able to attend,” says Saxton, whose personal block-party highlight was securing Babes in Toyland to headline Bastille Day last year.
Pizza Lucé hosted its first block party at its Uptown location in 2003 to celebrate the pizza chain’s 10th anniversary. The draw that year was around 3,000. The restaurant hired a band booker, but later formed a committee of Lucé employees to sift through band submissions. In 2011, when powerhouse rapper P.O.S. headlined, the crowd blossomed to around 10,000. That’s when marketing manager Corey Sax knew the party would have to relocate. “We moved it to the downtown location, which gave us more space to work with, but the dynamics of downtown are a little bit different,” said Sax. “It was challenging to maintain that community feel. Whereas the Uptown people would show up and party the whole day, the downtown people seemed to be definitely more interested in coming for a band, then taking off.”
Last year’s Pizza Lucé Block Party headliner was Lizzo, the hip-hop artist then newly signed to Atlantic Records. It was a memorable performance for Sax. “I feel like what we’re doing is curating local music,” he says. “We try to balance having some established people and then also try to showcase who we think are up-and-coming artists. We’re always trying to find ways to give back and support music. Even though we sell pizza, it’s still an important value of ours.”