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'Mad Max-meets-Beatles' concert series has bands play on the rooftop of a van

October 16, 2020

When the audience demanded an encore from Nur-D this past weekend, he didn’t ask anyone behind the stage if he had time for one more song, as is usually the case. He asked the guy steering the stage.

“This one goes out to that car over there,” the rapper said, dedicating his last song to a passing vehicle unknowingly participating in a new concert series that gives literal meaning to “rock ’n’ roll.”

Nur-D was the latest passenger for Bands on Vans, which is exactly that: a weekly series with musicians performing on the roof of a van — as if playing live gigs in the COVID era weren’t dangerous enough.

The van in question, a rugged 1992 GMC Vandura, has a steel stage built on top. Participating bands perform from on high while their host “venue” rolls along at a very low speed — 5 mph or less — making its way between two music-centric northeast Minneapolis watering holes, Grumpy’s and the 331 Club.

A generator is used to power the amplifiers. Zip ties and gaffer tape hold down the drums. Side railings keep the musicians from falling off. So far, anyway.

“The only thing between you and a tumble is a guardrail of aluminum plumbing pipe,” Turn Turn Turn singer-guitarist Adam Levy winced after his band’s Bands on Vans gig two weekends ago.

The series has turned into a bright light for pandemic-darkened Twin Cities music fans, who in this case stream out of bars to see the shows rather than cramming inside.

The concerts are produced and livestreamed via community TV station MCN6 and its new all-Minnesota-music channel on the Roku app. For the couple hundred neighbors who live along the half-mile between Grumpy’s and the 331, though, no computer or TV is required to enjoy the shows.

“Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect: Here is this random dude rolling through your street blasting hip-hop,” Nur-D, aka Matt Allen, said after his set Saturday.

“But it went so well. People came out of their homes and waved. We had people dancing on their lawns. It was such a positive vibe.”

The Turn Turn Turn’s show was also warmly received, but the band members admitted they had cold feet going into it.

“I imagined the van getting hit by a Nordeast barhopping knucklehead, and headlines about a rock ’n’ roll tragedy,” Levy said.

Once they got steadily rolling, though, he said, they relished the “Mad Max-meets-Beatles rooftop showiness.”

Twin Cities music scene veterans will not be surprised to learn the van and the brains behind the series belong to a member of Savage Aural Hotbed, a rhythmic and truly industrial punk band that has long made metallic welding, hammering and sawing part of its live performances.

SAH percussionist Stuart DeVaan, who recently took over as general manager at MCN6, actually dreamed up the Bands on Vans series last year, long before there was a pandemic.

“It just seemed like a fun thing to do,” said DeVaan, who previously took his rolling stage out for spins at the Twin Cities Pride and Minnesota ArtCar parades.

“COVID, for better or worse, gave it a little more purpose and momentum.”

To help make the series roll, DeVaan got both Grumpy’s and the 331 to pitch in as sponsors to pay the pandemic-stymied musicians. On the technical side, he added three cellphone routers and some guerrilla-style cameras to make the livestreaming work.

During the test-run gig with indie-rocker Monica LaPlante, though, one of those cameras was knocked off by a low-hanging tree branch.

“Being the guinea pigs, we knew we’d run into a few obstacles, but no one expected to literally,” LaPlante joked.

For the 331 Club’s co-owner Jarret Oulman, who’s used to hosting live music year-round, Bands on Vans has become “a way to dip our toes in the water a bit when it comes to music performance [again] without going overboard on complicated logistics.”

“The van platform is high enough and far enough away for comfortable distancing,” Oulman said.

The participating musicians also praised it as a cautious way of performing.

“We’d been striking out left and right trying to make a show safely work during the pandemic,” LaPlante said, “so we were excited to finally find some like-minded creatives also thinking outside the box.”

LaPlante and the other musicians enjoyed it so much, in fact, that they said they would love to do it again, pandemic or no pandemic. There are three more installments planned for each Saturday remaining in October.

“This is 100 percent a cool concept for live music, pandemic or not,” Nur-D said. “Honestly, it will go down as one of my most interesting experiences doing music.”

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