Opener Tessa Orton '09, also known as Nego Fortune, played to a crowd of friends, loyal supporters and Rocky Horror enthusiasts in fishnets. Orton's sound is the musical equivalent of outsider art: She blended modernized vocals reminiscent of old African American spirituals with a great deal of piano proficiency.
Headlining the show was Minot, North Dakota's Fist Full of Knuckles, a group that has garnered accolades from several hometown outlets. Sonically, but not philosophically, the quartet couldn't have been more different from Nego Fortune. While they got off to a rough start (there were some feedback issues at first and the bass was barely audible for the first two or three songs), the band gained strength and excitement as their set progressed.
Fist Full started out sounding kind of like a mediocre, bluesy Soundgarden, but they quickly found their footing as a folk-punk band reminiscent of Flogging Molly. Anthony Jastrzembski, vocalist, guitarist and washboard player, assured me that the similarity was mostly coincidental due to their unique blend of influences, which Jastrzembski said included Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill and the Minutemen.
The influence of Guthrie, Hill and the Minutemen is readily apparent in the lyrical content of the band's songs. Some of the songs dealt with growing up in North Dakota and paid tribute to the simplicity of youth. Other material focused on racial inequity, economic disparities and other topics that would make Guthrie proud.
Musically, the band was exciting. This was one of the first shows with their current line-up, but they didn't sound awkward or like they were struggling to find their footing. At times, Fist Full was straight-up, screaming punk rock. Still, the boys weren't afraid to take it down a notch and play some driving but gentler folk rock.
Of the 300-something bands I've seen, this is the first one with a washboard player. I, admittedly, don't make it to many folk shows (and even fewer on the more country-oriented side of the spectrum), so seeing someone on stage rocking out, dancing and head banging with a washboard was one of the most unique concert moments I've ever experienced.
Lead singer Billy Lutezen admitted on stage that the band wasn't really used to playing non-basement venues to (largely) sober crowds. Unfortunately, both for the band and for St. Olaf students, the concert only drew about 15 attendees.
The band treated what few audience members there were to raucous but tasteful audience participation. At times, upturned recycling bins were set out among the audience to act as makeshift Bongo drums for those wanting to play, and attendees were invited to sing and clap along with the more rhythmic choruses. Never did the band overtly ask their newly converted fans to boost their egos by parroting words back at them; rather, they provided opportunities to play, clap or sing as they pleased.
Band members weren't exempt from having fun with their audience; they got right out and danced (or flailed) with us. Their rowdy conduct created the atmosphere of being in a small, private venue (read: someone's basement), as opposed to the Lair, a venue which can seem somewhat sterile and forbidding to those used to a more colloquial scene.