As one of the Twin Cities’ most storied rock bands took the stage in St. Michael on Saturday night, posters hanging behind the stage for “Sonic the Hedgehog,” “Call of the Wild” and other winter movies told the story of the gig’s odd location — and the unusually long wait for it.
“It’s been five [bleeping] months since I stood on a stage!” Chan Poling yelled to a parking lot laced with 250 socially distanced fans in lawn chairs.
For Poling’s band, the Suburbs, and its audience outside the 15-screen St. Michael Cinema, live music was temporarily alive and well, and ... well, pretty darn weird.
Still shuttered after four months without films, the exurban movie house — 40 minutes northwest of Minneapolis off Interstate 94 — is the latest venue on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, with equal parts ingenuity, desperation and chutzpah, to start hosting concerts in the era of COVID-19.
Live music isn’t new to St. Michael Cinema. In 2015, the cineplex began hosting concerts inside a big, 200-plush-seat theater that it redubbed Le Musique Room, which sounds a tad cooler than Screen 15. (A note on the website rhetorically translates the fancier name to “the Music Room.”)
“It’s for older folks like me who want more comfort and high fidelity with their concerts,” Le Musique Room manager Tom Pickard explained between bands on Saturday.
After successfully selling music fans on a space more accustomed to buttered popcorn than amplified guitars — the Suburbs and many other veteran Twin Cities acts had already played inside — Pickard and his crew now have to convince audiences they could enjoy a concert safely outside in 2020.
They made a decent case for it Saturday.
The crowd that turned out for the 6:30 p.m. show was less than a quarter the size of a typical Suburbs audience at downtown Minneapolis’ First Avenue (where the band last performed on Valentine’s Day) or the Minnesota Zoo amphitheater (among the many summer gigs the band had to cancel).
Fans who bought tickets had to wade through a waiver online asking if they had any COVID-19 symptoms. They were also urged to bring lawn chairs to help ensure proper spacing.
Masks were not required, but most attendees wore them anyway, especially when they walked up to “Le Bar” — “the bar” — or entered the building to use the spacious restrooms.
To help create the mandated 6-foot spacing in front of the stage — housed under a covered atrium outside the front door — organizers handed out swimming pool noodles upon entry.
In the end, though, the noodles wound up being used more as dancing props than safety tools.
“It’s my foam dancing partner,” Mary Bridges of Anoka quipped after shaking her noodle during the Suburbs’ fifth song, “Music for Boys.”
(Later on, Poling missed a good opportunity in not substituting “noodles” for “bones” in the even more up-tempo fan favorite “Rattle My Bones.”)
Watching from lawn chairs near the back, St. Michael residents Mark and Julie Borowiak said they would consider attending one of the 15 other upcoming concerts outside their neighborhood theater, which include Chris Hawkey, GB Leighton, Mick Sterling, and tributes to Queen, Tom Petty and Led Zeppelin.
“People are being respectful and keeping their distance,” Mark Borowiak said. “It’s pretty easy to protect yourself.”
While the Borowiaks loved the location, at least a few attendees wondered why concerts like this always seem to be on the outskirts of the metro area. The other most prominent outdoor concert series to pop up post-quarantine are the ones outside Crooners Supper Club in Fridley and in a strip-mall parking lot in Burnsville (the Relief Sessions).
“It’s weird there aren’t other options in town,” said Kathy Bardwell of New Hope, “but I’m just happy to be at a rock ’n’ roll show, period.”
As for the musicians, they didn’t seem to mind the site, and they applauded the safety practices there.
“I was pretty nervous about it,” admitted Jay DeHut, drummer for opening band Kiss the Tiger, “but it’s outside on a breezy night, and everyone is social-distancing. It wound up being a lot of fun.”
It also wound up being quite emotional for Kiss the Tiger’s singer Meghan Kreidler, who broke into tears between songs while talking about the pandemic and the racial turmoil since George Floyd’s death.
“I am joyful to be here but also sad and angry at the world,” Kreidler said. “It’s an immense privilege to use music as a vehicle.”
Poling and his crew mostly let their music do the talking and healing, including a couple new tunes thrown into the mix from a new Suburbs album they’ve been working on during quarantine. The band also had to cancel many shows last summer and fall while the singer recovered from oral surgery.
“We were ready for it when this offer came up,” Poling said offstage. “It’s outdoors with lots of room, so we thought we’d try it as long as people in the audience feel comfortable and safe.
“It’s an experiment,” he conceded, “but I’m just glad to finally be playing again.”
The hard question remains, though, when and where the band will get to play again.
Le Musique Room’s outdoor concerts
July 23: Xpedition tribute to Journey, Kansas, Styx.
July 24: Crown Jewels tribute to Queen.
July 25: Born to Run: Mick Sterling tribute to Bruce Springsteen.
July 31: Zed Leppelin.
Aug. 1: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, by Ladies of the 80’s.
Aug. 7: Daisy Dillman tribute to CSNY.
Aug. 8: Tom Petty tribute band Free Fallin’.
Aug. 12-13: Fabulous Armadillos tribute to the Eagles.
Aug. 15: GB Leighton.
Aug. 22: Belfast Cowboys.
Aug. 27: Mick Sterling tribute to Billy Joel.
Aug. 28: Chris Hawkey Band.
Location: St. Michael Cinema, 4300 O’Day Av. off I-94.
Tickets and info: 612-314-9199 or goexit205.com.