The best new local-music series…may be in a mall

Rogue Valley

Rogue Valley

City Center, the downtown Minneapolis mall, has always managed to feel empty even in the bustle of the workday. After dark, even more so. So it was strange to stroll in at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, through a hall of shuttered storefronts, for a sold-out concert by folk-rockers Rogue Valley. It felt like squatting, though it couldn’t have been more sanctioned.

The New Century Sessions, as this new series of local bands is known, are held in the New Century Theatre, opened last year by Hennepin Theatre Trust, the same folks behind the State, Orpheum, and Pantages theatres. (Their offices are also in City Center.) Most of the time, the New Century is home to long-running light comedies like A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol, which makes it an unlikely host for the hippest new concert series in town.

Rogue Valley removed all doubt. The conceit of the series is a running dialogue with the audience, so the musicians have an informal meet-and-greet before the show and between songs they answer questions submitted beforehand and pulled from the kind of basket, as Rogue Valley frontman Chris Koza wryly noted, that you might get with smoked meats and cheeses around Christmas. Afterwards, you’re welcome to follow them to a bar where the audience gets two-for-one drinks.

Sure, the crowd can be odd. A row of middle-aged hecklers in front of us seemed like escapees from Park Nicollet’s accounting department: “Justin Bieber, One Direction!” they yelled in response to a question about Rogue Valley’s influences. (Park Nicollet sponsors the series.) But most of the audience was rapt, as anyone would be when the seats are comfy, the acoustics excellent, and no one is more than 10 or 12 rows from the stage. You even get a program about the band.

Jeremy Messersmith kicked off the series in September, and it suited his wise-acre persona—he always seems like he’s got a secret, exactly the kind of person you want to submit to questioning. Chris Koza, too, seemed to thrive in the upfront setting, letting his comedic side show with running jokes about the band’s new songs, described as the Beach Boys if they weren’t so happy, reveling in a prickly, gravel beach. (Indeed, he’s added a second drummer to lend some tom-tom thump, the whammy-bar quotient has been upped, and there’s even some Misirlou-style guitar licks). Linnea Mohn, who has moved up from bass to keyboards, playfully jumped in with witticisms, and the whole thing felt less like a performance than a taping of Inside the Actor’s Studio.

The next New Century Sessions are slated for spring. Get some new slacks at Marshall’s, grab some tacos at Rosa Mexicano, and sidle up to the band.