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"Bootlegs" CD a kick for First Avenue fans

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Guided by Voices at First Avenue. GBV is one of 16 acts featured on "The Bootlegs Volume 1: Celebrating 35 years of First Avenue." (Image courtesy of Guided by Voices and Tony Nelson)
First Avenue in Minneapolis has long been viewed as the epicenter of the Twin Cities music scene and a nationally known music destination. To celebrate its 35th anniversary the nightclub has released a compilation of bootleg recordings.

St. Paul, Minn. — The people at First Avenue want "The Bootlegs Volume 1" to become a collector's item.

The CD contains an assortment of First Avenue performances either surreptitiously recorded by patrons or captured by the artists themselves.

It's geared toward the die-hard fan, the "musichead" who suffered heart palpitations last year when the club filed for bankruptcy and temporarily closed. The woman who was instrumental in assembling the CD counts herself as part of that crowd.

"Well, I always tell everyone if First Avenue went away I would leave," she says.

Karrie Vrabel is in charge of music licensing for SRO Productions, the Minneapolis company that helped produce "Bootlegs." Vrabel's been a fixture at First Avenue ever since she moved here.

"So when it did close for a few weeks, I was going 'Okay, where am I going to move to?'" she says. "Because it's an institution. I feel completely at home when I'm there. And I've been going there for 13-years and I used to go four and five times a week."

Vrabel first proposed a bootlegs compilation five years ago when First Avenue turned 30, but her suggestion generated little interest. When the club's 35th birthday rolled around this year, the new owner, Byron Frank, quickly latched onto the idea.

Vrabel wanted the CD to illustrate why music fans and musicians hold it in such high regard.

"I've had bands tell me it's the best place in the world to play, that have travelled internationally," she says. "And it's because of the sound, and it's because the people that work there and the fans that go more than any other city."

Vrabel says gathering the bootlegs and getting permission from the musicians to use them was a somewhat tedious and occasionally frustrating process. Few of the bands themselves had any material on hand. But when word got out locally what First Avenue was doing, the bootlegs started to surface, several of them supplied by people who worked for prominent local bands.

Some of the recordings are exquisite. Others are quite dirty. But, says Vrabel, that's First Avenue.

"It's starts off with the Jayhawks," she says. "And the Jayhawks, I've never seen a bad show. I mean, the sound is always, you know, incredible."

"Bootlegs Volume 1" sounds like you're attending an extended concert at First Ave, only the bands change from song to song. There are 16-tracks, featuring regionally and internationally known artists. They include Joe Jackson, Patti Smith, Husker Du, Richard Thompson, Trip Shakespeare, and Mark Mallman.

Vrabel has a few regrets about the CD. She says a wonderful recording turned up of Nirvana performing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 1991 when the band was on the cusp of superstardom. She couldn't get permission to use it.

To no one's surprise, Prince doesn't appear. There were also the Iggy Pop bootlegs which somehow fell through the cracks. Vrabel was also disappointed she couldn't use many bootlegs from the smaller venue inside First Avenue, The 7th Street Entry. She says most were virtually inaudible.

"Unless you're bringing in equipment to do a live album in the Entry, it's really hard to get a good bootleg," she says. "But at least we have one on there. The Replacements."

"I never saw the Replacements," Vrabel says. "They were broken up before I moved here. But it's just, it's muddled, it's dirty, it's loud, and you can just picture the smoke and the dark and the crowd and the smelliness of it, and it's great. And the first time I heard it I was just like goosebumped, like man I wish I was at that show."

The man who many credit with putting First Avenue on the map, with helping acts like Prince, Husker Du and the Replacements get discovered, is former manager Steve McClellan. McClellan wrote the liner notes for the cd. Which is kind of strange considering how McClellan feels about live recordings.

"I always like the Frank Zappa quote, 'Once you record it you've sold out,'" he says. "Because the whole experience of music is that moment."

Proceeds from the CD go to DEMO, or Diverse Emerging Music Organization, a group McClellan helped found. DEMO's goal is to link emerging artists with independent venues in town and help them find new audiences.

McClellan says the cutting edge of music right now is in the Twin Cities growing immigrant communities, but not enough people have the courage or interest to check them out. He says maybe the "Bootlegs" CD will remind people of the adventurous spirit they had when they came to First Avenue.

"It's just a token of the past for people to remember how exciting it was then and it still is now but they have to open their eyes, take their blinders off to see it," he says.

The "Bootlegs" CD has won the approval of St. Paul Pioneer Press music critic Ross Raihala, who says it captures what he calls the Twin Cities unique music aesthetic. But Raihala has one small reservation.

"The majority of the performances here were taken from like '98 to 2004," he says. "So it's called 35-years but it mostly concentrates on the last seven or eight years."

If interest in the initial release is high enough, there will be more First Avenue bootleg CDs,' possibly one a year. Ross Raihala wonders what volume four might sound like.

"I think fans will start coming out of the woodwork with, you know, 'Hey, I have this thing I taped and I never told anyone about, you know, do you want to use one of these songs?'" he says. "I think the range of choices will just grow as this is better known among fans."

First Avenue will hold a mammoth 35th birthday party a week from tonight on December 14th, to herald the release of "The Bootlegs Volume 1." Special guests include such First Avenue stalwarts as The Hold Steady, members of Golden Smog, Rifle Sport, The Jayhawks, Mike Watt, and former First Ave DJ Kevin Cole.

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