Icehouse is an inviting place. Regardless of how familiar one is with the performers, the mind is set at ease upon laying eyes on the intimate Minneapolis stage bathed in warm light.
On Saturday, local singer-songwriter Mary Bue was there with her friends, Molly Maher and Alan Sparhawk, to celebrate being awarded the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation artist in residency stint. Before heading to New Mexico for quiet introspection, though, Bue had to rock and roll.
Molly Maher opened the show with her brand of arid, dreamy blues. She remained sitting throughout the set, and kept it loose. There was a dreaminess to the music that seemed to almost pay homage to the American Southwest landscape that her friend, Mary, will be inhabiting for the next few months.
Fittingly, the lighting changed from reds and oranges to cooler blues and purples for Alan Sparhawk’s set. Never one to spoon-feed his audience, he played as quiet and steady as a looming weather front.
Occasionally utilizing a vocal effect that can only be described as “broken robot," Sparhawk's voice hid in the guitar lines. Mostly, though, his voice was unadorned, and it cut straight through the cold scrape of his guitar. The traditionally stark Low frontman was deceptively groovy, even shimmy-able. Sparhawk gonna Sparhawk.
As Mary Bue and her whip-crack band tuned up, it became clear that for all the smiles and laughs, they weren’t there to mess around. When 2007’s “No Turning Back” kicked the crowd in the gut, the tone became clear: This was no bullshit; it was a winter howl, a big riff riding tight rock 'n' roll rhythms.
Focusing largely on her acclaimed 2015 release, Holy Bones, Bue played as though she had something to prove. “Shit I Left in Duluth," from the upcoming The Majesty of Beasts EP, was spiky, poppy, punky, and scratched all the right itches.
“It turned out kind of prophetic,” Bue quipped about the new track.
Near the end of 2015’s bouncy “Cheribum," a dancer appeared on the floor toward the front of the stage. Intriguing. Bue noticed.
“We were just waking you up, and now we are going to go nocturnal for a couple songs," she said. "We’ll wake you up again, though, before we send you on your way.”
While at the piano, Bue welcomed Julia Floberg for three quiet numbers. They weren’t dance songs, sadly for our dancing friend, but “Gorgeous," “Petunias," and “Apple in the Ocean” were beautiful, quiet moments like snow falling on a junkyard at 2 a.m.
Floberg remained on stage as the band returned, and the dancer reemerged as well. “Haunt” scared up a few more dancers, eventually spurring a full-on party for the growing handful of revelers in the front, no easy task with Minnesota audiences.
When a band like Mary Bue & Co. coax such a warm, welcoming sound out of some pretty ferocious material, it's easy to understand the connection between performer and audience. Under the umbrella of their rock 'n' roll, friends were made, bonds created and made stronger.
Bue guided her group through a fiery conclusion of another handful of Holy Bones songs, and hot damn if “Holy Bones," “Put Up,” and (particularly) “Candy” didn’t rock a few asses.
“I have been thanking everyone, but I forgot to thank you,” Bue gestured to the Icehouse crowd, blowing a kiss.
Bue promised some ukulele songs, time permitting, and sure enough time was made. Alone on stage with a tiny stringed instrument, singing, Bue summoned a perfect denouement to the show, an ideal way to send off an artist to the splendid isolation of the desert.
The rest of us got to walk out into the early-morning chill, probably happier than when we entered.
Critic’s bias: Is there a more beautiful venue than Icehouse?
The crowd: Beards, some cowboy hats. What? People dressed to drink.
Overheard at the bar: Hey, there’s a dance floor up front!
Random notebook dump: This was a perfect mid-January-in-Minneapolis show. It was warm overall, but there were enough chilly notes to make it real. Introspective whether it was quiet or loud as hell, it is no small feat. Unassuming, but self-assured.