Music Critic Roundtable: What’s the State of Concert Reviewing in the Twin Cities?
Let's ask six local reviewers!
8:17 AM CDT on September 13, 2023
So, how was the show?
Since the advent of live music, concert attendees and curious fans have wanted to know. And based on detailed number-crunching from the Racket Analytics Department (aka the pageview data Google spews at us), the appetite for thoughtful music criticism remains high, though, like all things journalism circa 2023, the resources to produce it have diminished across the board.
Thankfully, the Twin Cities still boasts a robust concert recap scene—from Carbon Sound deploying fresh voices, to 89.3 the Current diligently capturing shows big and small, to the prodigious documentarian work of UnderCurrentMPLS. And of course we’ve got two daily newspapers that staff a total of three professional pop critics, as well as assorted alt-weekly veterans getting work wherever they can.
Over the summer two mobs of online fans—one defending Zep revivalists Greta Van Fleet, the other backing pop-punk stars Paramore—descended with nastiness into the feeds of Pioneer Press critic Ross Raihala and Racket’s Keith Harris, respectively. Critics being swarmed by so-called stan armies has become so ubiquitous that, in 2020, the starched collars at Columbia Journalism Review analyzed the phenomenon. (Raihala seems to kinda enjoy the sparring, which he’ll cop to below.)
That got us wondering: What’s it really like to be a music critic today?
For answers, we decided to assemble a roundtable of their peers to share details about a job that, at its core, hasn’t changed much since the days of Chuck Berry, but online culture has dramatically altered how readers interface with the work and the folks who produce it.
We recruited a legend. We found a newbie. We even managed to land Keith! Enjoy these state-of-the-industry email interviews with six locals who write about music for a living.
How many shows do you estimate you've reviewed?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: Too many to count. Please consult our Analytics Department.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: I don't keep track, but it's easily more than 1,000 at this point. I should note that the vast majority of the shows I review are big ones at arenas and stadiums.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: If only I could look this up! A lot of my clips have been nuked off the internet. I’d guess over 1,000?
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: I only did it regularly a few years on and off as a freelancer, so probably a couple hundred at most. (That's not counting shows I went to and wrote about as part of an artist profile or some other feature.) Back before daily blogging, alt-weeklies like City Pages didn't generally run concert reviews—we left that to the dailies. But I reviewed one or two shows a week for the Pioneer Press as a freelancer from 2001-2002, and for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 2004-2006, and then regularly for City Pages from 2013 to 2020.
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: I’ve reviewed around 30 shows. (I consider myself a beginner!)
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: Maybe around 1,500 (50-60/year x 27 years). So maybe 1/15th of the number Bream has covered.
Do you remember the first show?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: Yes. Todd Rundgren in 1974 at St. Paul Civic Center Theatre was my first professional review. I sat in the front row, on the aisle. I’ve sat in the front row at only four concerts out of 9,000-plus in 49 years.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: Yeah, it was Depeche Mode, summer of 1990. I had just graduated high school and I had a friend who was working at a small-town newspaper in Ohio, which published my DM review. I spent a week with him and we also saw Bowie. Many years later while talking about concerts with my partner Patric, we realized we were both at that DM concert, in a town and state neither of us lived in.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: I do! It was a recap of an Ike Reilly show at the Hexagon Bar in 2005, which I wrote on spec for David de Young’s old site howwastheshow.com. The review isn’t online anymore and I have no idea what I wrote, but the experience of being published on a site that people actually read gave me a big boost and encouraged me to pursue music journalism more seriously.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: Buddy, I can barely remember the last show I reviewed.
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: My first show review was U.S. Girls at Turf Club for Radio K.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: I remember one of my first was Selena at the start of my summer internship for the Dallas Morning News in 1994. She was the first Latinx performer to fill the Six Flags amusement park amphitheater there, which was kind of a big deal; but of course not a big enough deal to have anyone besides the intern cover it. Her murder was the following spring.
Do you have a guiding principle or strategy for how you approach reviews?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: Do your homework/prep, try to understand what the artist is aiming to do, and know when to assert your personal opinion vs. your professional opinion—or a combo of both.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: It changes depending on the show. I try to keep in mind that I'm writing for a general interest audience, but for certain acts with specific audiences, I will go deeper. Really, my guiding principle is to write a review that's accurate (in terms of song titles, that sort of thing), reflects what happened on stage (and in some cases in the audience) and is entertaining for the reader.
My reviews aren't for the people who were there, they're for the people who weren't. A lot of readers (newspaper readers, anyway) read reviews in the same way they read the travel section. They're never going to go to, say, Ireland, but they love reading about it anyway. That, plus there's a large audience of readers who just want to feel like they're up on what's going on.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: My main goal is to help people who weren’t at the show feel like they were there, and to give people who were there a document to help them reflect back on the experience later.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: For me as a critic, a live show is where I can put someone's music in context. Especially when it's a big show by a big star, I can see how their music and their star power works in public, when fans are listening and responding. I'm less interested in the thumbs up/thumbs down nature of a review—after all, the show's over, so who's that evaluation going to help?
I want to use the performance as a jumping off point to talk about the artist, their music, their fans, their place in music and the world. Oh, and also, I want it to be something worth reading. You'd think that would be obvious, but then you read what some people write!
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: I always try to become comfortable with an artist’s catalog and typical setlist beforehand. During the show, I look away from the stage and note the crowd’s energy. Trying to balance my thoughts with the reactions of the audience, who I think of as participants, helps me create a more comprehensive viewpoint. Readers can find reviews of artists’ music anywhere, so I try to specify details of stage presence and live sound and, if possible, relate the performance to broader cultural happenings.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: I truly try not to have a preconceived opinion or bias. No, really. If it's an act whose music I've never really appreciated, I still leave open the chance that this show will be the one that will turn me onto them. It never happened with Rush, but dammit, I swear I tried. And even when I don't wind up appreciating the music, I still recognize if it's a good "performance," i.e. they did what they do well and connected well with the crowd.
Conversely, I've given plenty of bands I personally love a not-so-positive review. Sorry, Wilco bros, I did not think those Orpheum shows in support of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were up to par with the many other times I'd seen them up to that point going back to before A.M. came out, but you can go ahead and keep bringing it up every time they're in town like I'm a late bandwagon jumper.
Which of your reviews inspired the most positive feedback from readers?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: Taylor Swift, Bruce Springsteen, and the Rolling Stones.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: I get positive feedback both for glowing reviews of huge tours (usually by female performers, or Springsteen) and for negative reviews that people deem to be clever, as opposed to just bitchy. Over the past two years, I've noticed an uptick of random people messaging me or stopping me at shows to tell me they appreciate what I do, which is always great. Once concerts started going again after lockdown, I think people were really happy to see things getting back to some sort of normalcy, and I think for some people, I'm some small part of that.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: The saddest ones. I remember writing about the tribute concert that was put together for Eyedea at First Avenue just a few weeks after he died. They didn’t allow any photographers or press access of any kind. I bought a ticket and wrote down exactly what happened and how it all felt, and it was the first time one of my posts on the City Pages site had all positive comments and zero trolls. Similarly, my “review” (that word seems ridiculous for these kinds of pieces) of the Revolution’s first tribute concert after Prince died was a cathartic one for me to write and elicited a strong, supportive response from his fans.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: My review of the Pavement show at the Palace last year had a good response—that was 30 years of pent-up thinking about a band finally spilling out into something that was as much an essay as a straight-up review, so I'm glad people liked that. But nothing has gotten as warm a response as the not-exactly-a-review of Taylor Swift's Eras tour that I interviewed my 17-year-old niece Julia for this summer.
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: Multiple people complimented the 1975 review at the Armory last year, saying I accurately described what they witnessed and put their thoughts into words.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: Obviously, the ones where you lavish praise on the bands are also the ones the readers agree with most. Case in point of that recently were the Pretenders in the Entry and Pearl Jam at the X, each I think universally agreed upon as next-level kinds of shows.
How about the most negative feedback?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: Backstreet Boys.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: My negative feedback comes from two groups. Stans are the loudest. Even if it's a nominally positive review, there are certain fans who feel they need to organize and attack, like a swarm of hornets. They also usually treat me like this was the first review I've ever written and they need to educate me about music or that I'm old and need to retire.
Then comes the personal attacks. Some of the nastiest stans have been fans of Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, Bon Jovi, and all the other hair-metal acts. Oh, and Justin Timberlake. For whatever reason there are tons of straight guys who will take a bullet for JT. Then there's the rest of the negative feedback, which largely comes from lone gunmen. A lot of it is male boomers who want to tell me they were at Led Zeppelin at the Guthrie in 1969 (or whatever) and that I'm an idiot and that all modern music is garbage.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: I wrote a concert review that talked about cultural appropriation in relation to Caroline Smith’s rebrand as a soul artist and it pissed a lot of people off.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: Well, my recent, largely favorable review of a Paramore show riled up the stans' nest for some reason. Lots of Spongebob memes and speculation on the size of my genitals there. The wildest attacks I ever got though were from Demi Lovato stans when I gave one of her albums a lukewarm review in Rolling Stone. They were faking tweets, making it look like I'd said I wanted her to kill herself and mocked her weight. The upside of that was that I learned how to make fake tweets.
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: I don't have a significant Twitter/X presence or following, and no one has hit me up via Instagram or Gmail, so I haven’t heard negative feedback. I enjoy feeling like a fly on the wall, but maybe hearing direct feedback from stans would give me a closer look at their perspectives.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: The Greta Van Fleet one was a recent surprise on this front, because: a) I made fun of them a bit, yes, but I actually gave them a semi-positive review; b) I really did not understand how passionately and just plain nutty a lot of young people are for them. I think in the case of both that review and my Yung Gravy review a week earlier (which was definitely negative!), a lot of the young readers just genuinely have not read many concert reviews and did not understand that yes, in fact, us reviewers are supposed to give our opinions.
In what ways has feedback from readers changed over the years?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: Fewer people say “you weren’t at the same concert I was at.” Seriously, though, more readers/commenters are anonymous whereas years ago they might have used their real names via letters, phone messages, or emails when responding to reviews. Also, it seems more and more commenters are people who did NOT attend the concert. Every (anonymous) reader feels compelled to comment for some reason.
More recently, random political comments have been turning up in the comments section, usually things that have nothing to do with the concert. Try that in a big-city newspaper.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: Feedback hasn't really changed, it's just the method in which it's provided. The whole Greta Van Fleet response brought me back to when I reviewed *NSYNC at the Fargodome in 1999. At the time, stans somehow learned my personal AOL email address and flooded my inbox. With GVF, it was the exact same approach, just largely through Twitter. That said, the overall volume of feedback has increased during the social media era, as it's much easier to just bang out a quick response.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: I’m not sure if this is indicative of a larger trend, but as (some) people try to spend less time on social media, I get a lot more emails from readers/podcast listeners now and they are almost always positive. The haters are not tagging me on Twitter as often, either, and just talk amongst themselves about how much I suck. Thanks, haters!
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: Well, you used to have to write a letter, or call on the phone. Not a lot of people have the determination and follow through to vent about a concert review and then actually put it in an envelope and mail it, and even fewer of them are going to pick up the phone and call you. (Though apparently once in the 1970s Nina Simone called Robert Christgau after he reviewed her latest album and she threatened to kill him.)
And also, your writing in print was not only reaching fewer people, but you were writing for a select audience. There's a difference between someone picking up City Pages, or subscribing to one of the dailies, and someone running across a review online. Even writing online used to be tamer before social media—comments sections on a lot of websites were very often pretty quiet places.
Obviously, social media changed all that: Wherever you publish now, you're potentially writing for everyone everywhere who has internet access. In some ways, this has been good—you reach people you never did before, you encounter perspectives you wouldn't have, you don't shoot off your mouth without making sure you've got your facts straight. But context collapse is a real thing, and that makes room for a lot of misinterpretation, in good faith or bad.
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: I haven’t been involved with music journalism long enough to observe drastic changes in feedback, but looking to the future, I hope to see fans give more concrete reasons why they disagree with writers, instead of typing insults. When I see negative comments about others’ show reviews, it seems like readers take criticism as malicious intent or a desire to prove fans wrong. I wonder what comments looked like decades ago. I’m not aware of how readers even responded to articles without access to digital space.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: A lot of it now comes up in the comments section on our website, where everything is political. I swear if I wrote a review of Julie Andrews singing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," one commenter would turn it into a sign of my liberal wokeness because Julie doesn't support Trump, while another would accuse me of being racist because I didn't recognize that the song was first recorded on what used to be Tribal land. And so on.
Or when a review happens to touch on a political topic or sentiment—as was the case with the recent Jason Aldean review I wrote—there's just no room for nuance and no way of being seen as anything but biased. I pointed out how strongly people reacted to The Song at the Aldean show, and that it clearly struck a chord with people and helped him sell out the amphitheater. Positive stuff, and I didn't critique the song otherwise. What I critiqued was that the concert was otherwise really quite boring and uninspired, and people were leaving early in droves.
But since I write for the supposedly liberal news media, no way was my viewpoint valid in many readers' eyes. That said, though, I got a lot of positive feedback on that, including from some folks who seemed pretty middle-of-the-road politically.
How about from the artists themselves? (Andrea, I'm vaguely remembering CeeLo attacking you in a misguidedly offensive fashion?)
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: I have heard directly from artists. Some are appreciative and say “thank you.”
Some let their ire be known. Lorrie Morgan, the country singer who’d appeared at the State Fair, left a voicemail and asked me to never review her shows again. k.d. lang once called me out during a phone interview; I explained that she was somehow confusing me with another critic. Several days later, she gave me a closed-circuit message from a Minneapolis concert stage that I was right, and she was wrong; it was the writer in Milwaukee, she said.
A few artists have had their publicists reach out to me to complain about my concert reviews; one even sent me positive reviews from other cities. I always tell them, like I tell disgruntled readers, there is no right or wrong opinion; everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
Back in the day, Robert Plant onstage quoted from my inauspicious review of Night 1 when Zeppelin played the second of consecutive nights in the Twin Cities.
And then there’s Prince. His displeasure with some of my assessments of his work has been previously documented, including him having me kicked out of his Minneapolis club, Glam Slam, in the early ’90s (even when I bought a ticket; they gave me a refund), and him burning my review of his symbol album on The Arsenio Hall Show (and not knowing that I was in the studio audience that night).
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: I have heard from a few artists over the years, but the big one would be Pete Wentz, in response to this line from my 2016 Fall Out Boy review:
In the early days, vocalist Patrick Stump let loudmouth bassist Wentz steal all the attention. Now, though, the 39-year-old Stump has blossomed into a true band leader not afraid to shout and smile and ham it up for the cameras. He probably learned a thing or two from pop legend Elton John, who added vocals to the band's "Save Rock and Roll." (Stump sang both parts, and pulled off a decent EJ impression, in concert.) Wentz still found time to ramble semi-coherently to the crowd about his feelings (or whatever), but he spent much of the show sporting the distant gaze of a guy struggling with the notion his band has sold out. Then again, maybe he was just bored. This is a guy who called his two kids Bronx Mowgli and Saint Laszlo, so who knows what he's thinking.
He tweeted and deleted this:
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: Yes, one of my weirdest professional milestones—I’m a tab under the “controversies” section of CeeLo’s Wikipedia page. He got so much pushback for his homophobic response to my review that he deactivated his Twitter account. This was before the Notes app apology became the go-to way celebs deal with online shitstorms.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: I've heard back from local people, usually positively. I don't think I've ever gotten a response for a big concert review, except maybe a retweet from an artist account, which, who knows who's running that? Shania Twain's manager did send me an email saying I'd gratuitously mocked her, about a review I thought engaged with her camp value in good humor. Honestly, there's no one whose response I value less than an artist's. They did their job. Now it's my turn to do mine.
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: No.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: I believe I was one of the first critics blocked by Ryan Adams on Twitter.
More seriously, though, most of the times I've taken angry calls or emails from artists were not over reviews or any kind of opinion piece, but from factual reporting that they did not like. This has happened a lot whenever there are two ex-band members who do not get along; which has been true of a lot of well-known Twin Cities bands.
And I heard from a lot of unhappy musicians during our outbreak of sexual harassment and abuse stories within the Twin Cities music scene in recent years, when we were criticized from all sides for what we covered or did not cover, but we were so careful and certain of what we did report that I'm satisfied we did it right.
How much has so-called "stan" culture impacted your job?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: Stan culture—and social media—has definitely helped expand readership beyond the usual Star Tribune readers. I don’t respond to comments on social media or at the end of reviews unless it involves a factual issue. I’ve stated my opinion, and I let others state theirs. There’s no need to have the last word.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: If I'm in the mood, it's kind of fun to engage with stans. I try not to fight back, but to make it clear that whatever shit they're spewing at me just makes me laugh. But in terms of impacting my job? Not much. There are people out there who think if enough stans yell I'll get fired or whatever. But I can say in my 28 years of full-time employment in newspapers, I've never had a single editor tell me what I should write in a concert review or criticize what I wrote after it was published.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: In the past few years my work has revolved around Prince, and I’ve definitely encountered the “stan” subsections of his fanbase. Prince himself was wary of the way fans made assumptions about him and his work. Even the word “fan,” short for “fanatic,” freaked him out. As far as how it’s impacted me, though, I’ve mostly learned to tune it out and stay focused on my work.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: Oh, they're just out there waiting. Nothing less than unqualified adoration is acceptable. As with all internet pile-ons, no one involved thinks of themselves as a bully: They probably think they're having fun. And I'm sure they are. But it's corrosive. It doesn't slow me down in my everyday job, but it has affected the outside work I look for. As a freelancer, when you can guess that a couple hundred words are gonna lead to a day of people harassing you on Twitter, you've got to ask yourself, is that kind of headache worth $50?
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: Although I haven’t experienced negative feedback, I sense an underlying hesitancy to write ultra critically. I’m not intimidated by the possibility of stan backlash, but when I see others having an amazing time at a show, I wonder, “How much does my take matter if the fans are happy?”
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: "Stan" culture has always been around, long before the term itself, and it's something I've always looked upon as charming. (See more below in the "tickled by" answer.)
Have you ever been genuinely hurt by a comment or tweet?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: No. If you dish it out, you should be able to take it. I have thick skin.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: As I often say (and tweet), I don't take any of this personally. Most feedback I get is from people who have never read me before and are basing their comments solely on a single review. That said, I do occasionally get thoughtful, well-reasoned responses from people who do read my stuff, and I always appreciate that when it happens.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: Of course! I’m human. The ones that really bum me out are the ones that get personal.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: As long as I haven't fucked something up—a flubbed fact or even a typo can send me into a shame spiral for days—I don't get hurt personally. But I do hate the effects that trolling and stan culture and other forms of insincere or blinkered communication have had on online (sorry to use this word but) discourse.
As someone who loves words, both for their own sake and as a way for people to negotiate their differences, I get uncharacteristically earnest and upset about this sort of thing. Everything you write these days gets smothered in noise and we talk about things in the dumbest ways possible. A side effect is that it makes it harder to hear genuinely useful feedback. I don't want to be desensitized to other people's responses!
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: I haven’t experienced negative comments, but I predict I would feel embarrassed if it came from a person whose work I admire, or from someone who took the time to write a detailed critique of the holes in my analysis. I’d like to think I’d be indifferent if comments came from an anonymous person.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: The "old, fat and balding man" comments don't hurt even if there's truth in some of it, but being called "a faggot" always makes me wince because it's such a hurtful and stupid word and viewpoint; a little extra stupid in my case [as a straight guy], but that's beside the point.
Oh, and I did get hurt from twice being accused of being antisemitic. Both stemmed from my last name obviously being very Germanic and from me having the audacity to write a bad concert review on Neil Diamond, an unequivocal music genius but one of the most canned/staged/hammy live performers I've ever seen.
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: Once a caller threatened to slash my tires because of my concert review of Elvis Presley.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: Occasionally, but it's nothing I take even remotely seriously. And, I mean, the most extreme threat I've ever received is likely par for the course for any female or BIPOC critic.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: Is this where I talk about the fact that at least two of my reply guys on Twitter have become increasingly agitated by my lack of interaction (both are complete strangers to me) to the point that they threatened to come to my workplace and kill me? All simply because I had the audacity to be a woman writing about music online. It’s one of the reasons I’m not as active on social media these days and am careful about how much I share about my real life.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: Not in any serious way. And a lot of that has to do with being a white man, I suspect.
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: No.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: By some folks within the music business, yes; one instance of which resulted in formal action from my employer. But otherwise just vague threats, like the Jason Aldean fan with a Twitter handle along the lines of "MAGAmommy" who posted photos of me and told other fans, "That's him!" It definitely gets weird and even scary sometimes, which is why I don't give out my home address to anyone and never publicly post photos of my family.
Tickled by the sheer outrageousness?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: Back in the mid-1970s, I was gobsmacked when a woman waited in the lobby of the Star Tribune to see me. She didn’t have an appointment and I wasn’t able to meet her until I was off deadline with my story. She had driven up to Minneapolis from Iowa and waited for a couple hours in the lobby just to tell me that I didn’t understand the appeal of Elvis Presley (whose concert I’d dissed) essentially because I wasn’t a woman of a certain age. She wasn’t angry. She just wanted me to know how much Elvis meant to her.
In the late ’70s, I was at a party in Minneapolis and a woman, whom I casually knew as a housemate of a KQ DJ, pulled out a clipping of my 1974 Joni Mitchell concert review in the Minnesota Daily and wanted to take issue with one line I wrote. Oddly enough, last week the woman DMed me on Twitter/X saying she’s back in town after decades-absence and enjoying reading my reviews.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: Years ago, some gay Katy Perry fan tweeted at me something along the lines of "you can suck my dick." My response: "How big is it?" I think that caught him by surprise and he, at least for a moment, remembered we're both just human beings here. His response was something like "small, but tasty :)" I thought it was hilarious.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: I’m sure there are examples, I’m just not thinking of any!
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: I wish they were funnier! One depressing thing about stan culture is that it's gotten so lazy.
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: No, but that sounds a bit fun.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: Almost always I'm amused by it, because when it happens enough you see the patterns and anticipate people making the same lame comments: "Were we at the same show?!," "Couldn't get a real job in journalism?," etc. So that part of the entertainment of it all. But also I genuinely love hearing from readers—especially younger readers—who feel so passionately about an artist's music that they stick up for them. Even if that artist's music sucks, it's good to know people still strongly about music on the whole.
Why do concert reviews matter?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: Fans are passionate about music. I love covering a subject about which readers are passionate. I love hearing from fans. If they send an email signed with their real name or leave a phone message with their real name, I’m glad to engage in a dialogue—even if we just agree to disagree.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: As I said earlier, I think there is a large audience of readers out there who want to feel like they're in the loop with what's happening. Arts criticism in general has been in decline for years, but I do think there will always be value in reading the opinions of people who are well versed in what they are talking about.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: Far more than telling people whether a show was “good” or “bad,” I think they create important documents of these moments in time that are otherwise fleeting. When a concert is going well and all the stars align, it turns into something transformative for both the artist and the performer; my favorite reviews are the ones that describe that exchange just as artfully as the music that was performed on stage. It’s also significant that you can go back and see how an artist has changed over time by reading these pieces—I appreciate that all the more now that my work has become more research-based and historical in nature.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: As a baseline, they have a documentary purpose, like any other reporting. But more more broadly, they matter in the way that any criticism matters. The idea is that you send someone who knows their shit to an event and they express some critical insight in engaging prose. As outlets for album reviews and other forms of music criticism dwindle, they matter more because it's one of the last chances to get an independent critical voice out there.
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: Concert reviews may seem less relevant these days because you can find videos of the show, at least with a well-known artist, on all social media platforms. But I think reviews matter because writers can offer background and cultural context; they can pull out the small details of lyricism/stage banter/sound quality and extrapolate them into larger concepts. A TikTok live stream can't do the same.
I appreciate what NPR Music’s Ann Powers had to say about the state of music journalism on The Culture Journalist podcast. The critic, who predicts she’s reviewed thousands of shows, wishes more publications still reported on live shows. “Maybe the function of criticism isn’t to simply describe, but rather, to interpret, even enhance our notion of an experience,” she says. “And also, to record it for history. As someone who does a lot of archival work, I find the fact that there are not as many live concert reviews anymore to be tragic.” I enjoy Powers’ words, and it’s cool to see Twin Cities publications continue to include reviews in their A&E sections.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: They're consistently some of the biggest and most high-profile events in anyone's town, and especially in the music-centric Twin Cities. And in this day and age with the music industry being much less centralized—with artists emerging on so many different online platforms but also still sometimes from good old-fashion gigging or radio play—people really are a bit lost and want help keeping up on what's worth spending their ever-dwindling time and money on.
How would you assess the overall state of concert reviewing circa 2023?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: Everybody is a critic. There are countless reviews on social media and the internet if you want to hear from fanboys and fangirls. As a professional critic, I try to take the readers to the concert and give them a glimpse of what happened and provide context and perspective about that performance. Readers tell the Star Tribune that concert reviews matter to them, especially since fans get left out because of supply and dynamic pricing.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: At least in newspapers, concert reviewing is on the decline as staffs shrink and priorities change. When I'm preparing for a show, I read previous reviews from the tour and, increasingly, I'm seeing more and more blandly written positive reviews that feel like the writer doesn't want to rock the boat. But I'm glad my paper supports me and we're all lucky to have Bream and his vast institutional knowledge.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: Well, there are fewer outlets publishing this kind of reporting, so it’s become threatened in the way that all arts writing feels threatened. There are really only a few full-time critics left, and with all the live music happening every week in the Twin Cities, I think it’s a missed opportunity that they often end up covering the same shows! I would love to see more concert reviews focused on the local music community, and not just the big names who roll through the arenas.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: Endangered, like all music criticism—like all mainstream arts criticism generally. It's easy to accept how the tide has turned and just become an enthusiast, or go the other way and turn into a crank who just likes to get a rise out of people. (That's what a lot of people think critics are anyway.)
Thinking critically about music isn't something even a lot of big music fans enjoy... which, well, no one says they have to. But I swear it's deepened my appreciation of music, just like film criticism and book criticism have. Thinking is good! It's fun!
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: Once, I was digging through the Star Tribune archives and came across concert reviews from the ’70s and ’80s. I was surprised about the articles’ bluntness and how writers seemed unabashed to publish hot-takes and firm conclusions. Of course, it’s highly dependent on the publication, but these days, reviews seem to be generally milder and avoid too much controversy.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: I actually believe concert reviews are as popular as ever, and our high traffic numbers at the Strib fully support that assessment. Since the pandemic eased up, I think there's been a FOMO aspect to reading reviews where people really want to stay in touch with big public events like a concert. And the social media component adds to it, too, where our reviews just become the anchor for a whole other discussion on Twitter, Facebook, or wherever.
What’s the most memorable show you’ve covered?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: I forgot.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: I've found outdoor shows make for the most memorable ones, particularly if there's bad weather, which really brings the crowd together. The big example I use is R.E.M. playing in the rain at Midway Stadium in August 1999. Everyone who was there still talks about it to this day. There were lightning strikes near TCF Bank Stadium the first time Beyoncé headlined there in May 2016. They had to evacuate the stadium, but Beyoncé went on to perform what, for me at the time, was the most spectacular (and memorable) concert I'd ever seen.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: It’s hard to top having my review of Prince’s final show at Paisley Park tweeted out by the man himself—with my first and last name in all caps, no less.That show was already going to be imprinted on my brain forever, given how unusual and poignant it was to see him perform alone at the piano and actually talk about his life between songs, but knowing that he wanted to share what I wrote meant a lot.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: So many are memorable for so many reasons—the Destiny's Child show at Target Center where somebody stole the Pioneer Press laptop I was borrowing, the Sleater-Kinney show in Philly that was so hot I could literally feel my fingers pruning as the show went on, the Blink-182 show at Midway Stadium where it looked like every kid who was there had lined up to call their parents on the payphone afterwards. In a lot of cases it's the anecdotes that stick with me more than the music.
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: My most memorable show may be Hippo Campus at the Armory, only because of an interpersonal interaction: I sat next to Jake Luppen’s mom in the VIP seats above the floor. She asked, “Are you one of the boys’ friends?” I said something like, “No, I’m reviewing for the Current. It must be cool to see your son play at the sold-out Armory.” She responded with something like, “I’ve seen him play hundreds of times.” When Luppen smashed his guitar, I unintentionally gasped and clasped my hand over my mouth—in shock of the overt immaturity. I wonder if his mom saw my reaction.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: The Replacements at Midway Stadium in 2014, just because it was such a definitive Minnesota moment culturally speaking, and I think/hope my review reflected that.
Or having to cover Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnics for the Austin newspaper was always very memorable in a tour-of-duty war-stories kind of way, because it was always like a 19-hour show in 145-degree heat with no available water (just Lone Star Beer), and bodies strewn everywhere, and at the end of the day I'd have to find someone with a name like "Hermit" Joe Jim Bob from Abbott, Texas, to hook me up with a phone landline somewhere near Willie's bus backstage to file my copy.
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: The cliché question. So I’ll give you the clichéd answer: It’s like asking me to choose my favorite child. Wait? I have only one child. So the stock answer I give is the Vote for Change Concert in 2004 at the X featuring Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, John Fogerty, R.E.M., and Bright Eyes. That said, this question deserves a more nuanced answer about the best concert performers I’ve seen. That’s a longer essay, however.
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: Tough question. I have tons of personal bests (buy me a drink and I'll drone on endlessly on the topic), but my longtime answer for this was Beyoncé in 2016. Now, I'd say Taylor Swift's Eras Tour is the greatest pop concert of the century, if not the history of pop music. More than three hours without a single dull moment and nothing but great vibes from the crowd. I've never seen anything else like it.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: I feel like I need a separate thread just for all the Prince shows I’ve seen, because they exist on a different plane in my mind. Best Prince show: his second night at the Dakota Jazz Club in January 2013 with the dozen-plus members of the NPG spilling off the club’s stage. Best non-Prince show: Beyoncé’s Formation Tour in 2016. Best non-Prince, non-pop superstar show: Babes in Toyland’s first reunion show outside Joshua Tree.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: Most of my all-time favorite shows haven't been ones I've reviewed. Not because reviewing makes live music less fun for me—in a lot of cases it sharpens the experience. But I didn't start reviewing concerts till I was 30, so a lot of my formative concert-going years were already behind me. And the nature of the game is I don't review a lot of shows at smaller places like the Entry, where you're gonna catch somebody great on their way up.
But there were plenty of once-in-a-lifetimers I got to review. Stevie Wonder performing Songs in the Key of Life at the Xcel in 2015. Prince's "Piano and a Microphone" show in January, just months before he died. And smaller shows too—I can remember a great, underattended show in Philly by the Algerian rock star Rachid Taha.
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: There was something so hauntingly beautiful about the genre-transcendent duo Jockstrap at 7th St. Entry last fall.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: Honestly, anytime I've seen an act go from the Entry or the Turf Club to the Mainroom or Palace and on up to The Armory or Xcel Center, that's always the best reviewing experience imo. And that's happened a lot. Never mind if they've gotten so big so fast they stand me up when I fly out to Coachella just to interview them after giving them a lot of their earliest press (I still love ya, though, Lizzo!).
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: That’s like choosing my least favorite nephew. And I do have several nephews. If I need to name one concert, I’ll explain it with a backstory. When my wife and I first started dating, she went to many shows with me whether she liked the artist or not. Her nadir was Rush at Met Center. Nowadays she chooses not to attend many concerts; so when I don’t like a show, she’ll ask: Was it worse than Rush?
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: I've got two recent ones. Bon Jovi at the X in April 2022. I was shocked at how poorly Jon was singing, like I was embarrassed for him. The other one is Kevin Costner at the Grandstand in 2021. There were, like, only 3,500 people there but Costner acted like the place was sold out. He was shamelessly flirtatious and manipulative with the audience, which was largely boomer women who clearly adored him. And he absolutely could not sing. Again, it was shocking. It's like, clearly, there is no one in Costner's life who says no to him. I can't stand it when a vocalist with a blown voice tries to just rely on charisma or nostalgia or whatever.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: I’ve seen some doozies, but it’s harder to remember them. Why waste the headspace? I do remember roasting MGMT in the Entry pretty good, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at the 400 Bar, and a few other buzzy blog bands whose hype was far greater than their musicality.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: I don't know if it was the absolute worst, but a Roger Waters show at Target Center 20-some years ago had such piss-poor production values it was just plain sad. When he played "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" there was this silver plate thing that ascended along a pole that looked like something out of a high school musical.
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: I experienced second-hand embarrassment when Stephen Sanchez visited the Fine Line to sing about women’s eyes over and over last winter. The crowd was packed with teenagers (and children), who Sanchez grinned at as he licked his lips.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: Ryan Adams at First Ave in mid-December around 2002, which ended with him drunk and rambling about Paul Westerberg (who'd just famously said "he needs a good kick in the teeth" about Ryan in an interview), and at the end of the night he was crying and saying, "All I want to do is go home for Christmas." I'm sure I saw worse, but I single this one out because Ryan also could be great in concert.
Anything at all you'd like to add?
Jon Bream, Star Tribune pop music critic/reporter: This would have been more fun and entertaining as a live Zoom session. But then Jay, you’d have to do much more work to transcribe. Ha. [Editor’s note: He’s right! But I’m a busy man.]
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press pop music critic: Throughout my career, I've always been happy to hear from readers, whatever they have to say. I truly appreciate it when something I've written elicits a response from someone. It can feel sometimes like your writing just goes out into a black hole, so it's great to be reminded that's not the case. That, and for readers, if there's a critic you enjoy, do consider subscribing, whether it's the Pioneer Press or Racket or whatever.
Andrea Swensson, author, freelance writer, and veteran of City Pages and 89.3 the Current: Nah, I’ve already said too much.
Keith Harris, Racket music critic: This would have worked better as a Zoom. [Editor’s note: Why I oughta…]
Macie Rasmussen, freelance music critic for 89.3 the Current: I’d like to read more reviews from people who aren’t middle-aged/older white men. I highly respect the experienced and talented music writers in the Twin Cities, but it would be insightful to also hear the perspectives of people who are intimately immersed in the cultural and musical conversation in younger, diverse communities. Maybe someone can’t name one Bob Dylan song, but they can produce an engaging analysis of how Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red is a landmark in rap history. I want to hear from them.
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune music columnist/reporter: I love Racket. And huskies, too. [Editor’s note: Flattering our website and my dogs? We’ll leave it there!]
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