Soul Asylum has an important place in the history of Minnesota music.
The legendary pop/rock band were perhaps the only local act to conquer mainstream rock radio. “Runaway Train,” “Black Gold,” and “Misery” were everywhere in the mid-’90s.
They did this after building a reputation both locally and nationally with a handful of critically acclaimed albums.
Due to their popularity and status locally, I feel like a majority of Minnesota songwriters who grew up in the ‘90s have a Soul Asylum story or two. Here’s mine.
My musical education began in my oldest brother’s white 70s Mustang. The variety was pretty impressive: there was Tone Loc, Metallica, Roxette, Sir-Mix-A-Lot, and always a ton of Guns n’ Roses. All on cassette, of course.
A handful of tapes we listened to had a major impact on me. In that car I first heard Nirvana’s Nevermind, Weezer’s Blue Album, and Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancers Union.
Each of them influenced me in different ways. Nevermind showed me that rock music could be big and contemporary without losing its soul. Blue Album gave me a lifelong appreciation for melodies and hooks.
Grave Dancers Union gave me a love of pure songwriting, a love that still reveals itself every time I pick up a guitar.
I was a kid when I first heard these albums (I wasn’t even 10), so I wasn’t thinking about it nearly this much. I just loved the songs.
And that’s still what’s best about music: the thrill of listening to something you love without caring about anything else in the world, without thinking about it.
It’s impossible for me to re-live the thrill of first hearing “Drain You,” “Only in Dreams,” and “New World.” But it is possible to listen to them – and for anyone to listen to any music that means a lot to them – with childlike wonder, as though you are listening to them for the first time.
This feeling is especially meaningful when you’re hearing the actual band play the songs live. A sold-out First Avenue did this for Soul Asylum, singing along with every song, re-entering the joy of hearing them for the first time.
And that’s kind of a holy thing.
It was a 90s kind of night, as the two openers drove home.
As it says on their website, Porcupine – who opened the night – “organically forges its singular brand of Rock’n’Roll reminiscent of the late-90s alternative without compromise.”
The local all-star band of sorts, which features members of Space Bike and Husker Du (in addition to million-band-man Ian Prince on drums) played a short, ferocious set.
The trajectory of Local H, who followed, was something like Soul Asylum’s. They built their reputation in Illinois before hitting it big with perennial alt-rock hit “Bound for the Floor.”
The guitar/drum duo played with the same fury that they were known for in the 90s. As Music in Minnesota writer and photographer Smouse noted (FYI, he provided the lovely pictures for this article), they really should have smashed their instruments after the set-ending insanity of “High-Fiving MF.”
Soul Asylum began their set as they should have: with a tribute to legendary Minnesota songwriter and producer Ed Ackerson, who died earlier this year of cancer.
Their faithful take on Ackerson’s “Transformation” was a loving tribute to a man who meant so much to the Twin Cities music scene.
From there, the band rolled energetically through many hits (“Runaway Train,” “Black Gold,” “Somebody to Shove,” “Misery,” “Just like Anyone”) and well-chosen album tracks (“99%,” set-ending “April Fool”).
They also threw in a few new tunes. Their latest single, “Dead Letter,” sounds just like “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which I initially thought they were playing.
One of my favorite moments of the night came during the singalong portion of “Misery.” Instead of simply pointing to the crowd to encourage then to sing, Soul Asylum lead singer David Pirner did one of these:
As they say, a good Hulk Hogan reference can always turn a good evening into a great one.
When I first discovered Soul Asylum, in a white 70s mustang in another world, I was too young and innocent to do anything but enjoy it on the simplest, most basic level: for the music itself.
The sold-out crowd at First Avenue for Soul Asylum felt that all over again.