Looking slick in suits and ties, the five-piece band filled the air with the sounds of traditional New Orleans jazz. As Dan Eikmeier rose from his chair again and again to take solos, clarinetist Tony Balluff cracked, “The work never ends for a trumpeter in a Louis Armstrong band.”
With Rick Carlson on piano, Josh Granowski on bass and Dave Michael on drums, the Southside Aces played a meaty set of tunes by Armstrong, Fats Waller and other music legends. Servers glided between tables, taking orders, bringing drinks and plates of food. People chatted happily and friends greeted friends.
No, we’re not plumbing the past for memories. This all happened Tuesday, three days ago, at a soft opening for the Dakota. We’d been getting their music calendars by email for months, each a Magic 8-Ball attempt at predicting the future in a pandemic, but except for a few Jazz Fest Live streaming events we were invited to observe, we hadn’t set foot in the club since March 2, 2020. (That was the Bill Frisell-Hank Roberts-Luke Bergman-Petra Haden date, a night of shimmering beauty for which we’ve been grateful ever since.)
When we checked in Tuesday by showing our vaccination cards, 554 days had passed since someone led us to a table and handed us a menu.
Club co-owner Lowell Pickett said from the stage, “It’s so surreal. We’re thrilled to have music back, music and food. When we originally closed, it was for two weeks.”
That was before most of the staff was furloughed; before the great Cuban pianist and club regular Nachito Herrera was hospitalized with COVID, so gravely ill he was put on an ECMO machine; and before Pickett started wondering if the Dakota, a nationally known venue that had weathered its share of ups and downs over 35 years, would survive.
Not only did it survive, it emerged even better, shiny and ready to reclaim its position as a top Minneapolis destination. Like many venues, the Dakota took advantage of the forced closure to make improvements and upgrades. The stage is bigger and more flexible; it can change size and shape, and if (when?) the Mingus Big Band returns, the saxophones won’t spill into the seating area.
The floors are new. The stage lights and backlights are new. The Meyer sound system is today’s model, not the 18-year-old version it replaced. The chairs are new, with cushions. The bathroom fixtures are new and touchless.
In the main dining room, the tables along the back wall are gone. In their place, a long raised banquette and a row of higher tables. We haven’t tried it yet, but we’re guessing that’s now a good place to sit when Davina plays the piano (she’ll be there tonight through Sunday, Sept. 10-12) or Nachito (Monday through Wednesday, Sept. 13-15).
A row of large semicircular booths once ran down the middle of the dining room, backed by a short wall. The wall has been removed and the booths have all been turned to the right for better views of the stage.
A 7-foot Steinway formerly played by Ramsey Lewis, Kenny Barron and Ethan Iverson (and was signed inside by all three) is being refinished. When that’s done, it will replace the well-used Yamaha as the Dakota’s piano. Over the years, the Yamaha has been signed by more than 100 visiting musicians. Pickett is making plans for that.
Big changes have taken place in the restaurant, where the all-new culinary team includes Remy Pettus (Bardo), executive chef; James Beard winner Tim McKee (La Belle Vie), creator of the culinary program; and Nathan Rostance (Bachelor Farmer), general manager. The menu on Wednesday was strongly Southern: shrimp & grits, chicken fried quail, Mississippi mud pie. (The French fries come with Cajun spice and crab boil bearnaise.)
The shrimp & grits were delicious. So was the sweet potato tortelli. Both arrived in handmade bowls from studio potter Kevin Caufield’s Clay Works in St. Paul, with designs hand-painted by Chef Pettus.
And the music calendar seems to have settled down a bit, with performances (a few) scheduled as far ahead as December. We’ll feel better when the new Bad Plus are booked for Christmas.
Ever since COVID-19 rolled in, closing doors and darkening stages, we’ve been waiting for the day when beloved venues would reopen. Slowly and carefully, it’s happening. It surely helps that more and more are requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result.
All of the 2021 McKnight Artist Fellows
Each year, the McKnight Foundation gives $25,000 awards to 44 midcareer artists in 14 categories: book artists, ceramic artists, choreographers, composers, community engaged practice artists, dancers, fiber artists, media artists, musicians, playwrights, printmakers, theater artists, visual artists and writers. The awards are administered by fellowship program partners — Northern Clay Center for the ceramic artists, the Cowles for choreographers and dancers, the Playwrights’ Center for playwrights and theater artists, the Loft for writers, and so on — and announced on a rolling basis.
If you want to know who all of the 2021 McKnight Artist Fellows are, go here. You’ll probably see names you know. Several have appeared in this column: Ananya Chatterjea, Alana Morris-Van Tassel, Darrius Strong, Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay, Mankwe Ndosi, Ashley DuBose, Ritika Ganguly, George Maurer, Chastity Brown, JuCoby Johnson, Trevor Bowen, T. Mychael Rambo, Dyani White Hawk.
McKnight Artist Fellowships are unrestricted, meaning artists are free to use their awards for whatever they feel is best. If you’ve ever thought of applying for a McKnight or know someone who should, go here FMI.
V is for virtual, L is for live and in person.
L Opens today (Friday, Sept. 10) at MSP Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre: “FAUCI.” In the 1980s, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci fought the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In the 2020s, he’s still fighting, this time both COVID-19 and science deniers. This National Geographic documentary is a professional and personal portrait of America’s leading public health official, longest-serving infectious disease expert and most unlikely cultural icon. FMI and tickets.
L Friday through Sunday, Sept. 10-12, 7:30 p.m. at Studio Z: Zeitgeist: Playing It Close to Home. The respected new music chamber ensemble’s annual celebration of Minnesotan musical creativity includes the winning songs from the 2021 Eric Stokes Song Contest and the world premiere of new music composed for Zeitgeist by Michelle Kinney. Zeitgeist is Heather Barringer, percussion; Patti Cudd, percussion; Pat O’Keefe, woodwinds; and Nicola Melville, piano. FMI and tickets ($15/$10 students and seniors).
L Saturday, Sept. 11, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on West Broadway Ave. from Penn Ave. N. to Lyndale Ave. N.: Open Streets Minneapolis: West Broadway 2021. After canceling all 2020 events, Open Streets Minneapolis will return to West Broadway with its signature blend of activities, vendors, artists, entertainment, information and community-building. The streets will be closed to motorized traffic. More than 80 businesses and vendors will be there, and COVID-19 vaccination sites will be available. Staff from the city’s Elections and Voter Services division will have a table at the corner of West Broadway and James Ave. N., with answers to your questions about election dates, ways to vote, voter registration and ranked choice voting. FMI. Free. Here’s a list of five things to check out if you go. Two more Open Streets are planned for this fall: Lyndale (Sunday, Oct. 10) and Minnehaha (Sunday, Oct. 24).
L Saturday, Sept. 11, 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. at the intersection of Selby and Milton in St. Paul: 20th Annual Selby Avenue JazzFest. Founder Mychael Wright promises “plenty to do for folks to make a full day of it,” including live music, food, family activities and artist demonstrations. Here’s the schedule of the day’s music events: 11 a.m.: The Selby Avenue Brass Band will take a traditional NOLA stroll through the festival site. 12:15-1 p.m.: Walker West Music Academy All Stars. 1:30-2:30 p.m.: Brio Brass (55 performers!). 3-3:30 p.m.: Intermission. 4-5 p.m.: Selby Avenue Jazz Band. 6-7:30 p.m.: Headliner Nachito Herrera and his Habana Jazz Social Club All-Stars. Fun fact: This is also Nachito’s 20th year in Minnesota. According to the Star Tribune, the 2019 Selby Avenue JazzFest, the last before a live audience, drew 15,000 people. Free.
L Sunday, Sept. 12, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Saint Paul Art Crawl: Celtic Junction Arts Center: Kick Off the Crawl. The Saint Paul Art Crawl is celebrating its 30 years with a season’s worth of live events in galleries and studios. It all starts Sunday at the Celtic Junction Arts Center, Minnesota’s Irish cultural center, with a day of local artists, food and drink, art demonstrations, interactive art activities, and dozens of artist and vendor booths. interactive art demonstrations. Here’s Sunday’s schedule. Here’s a look at where the Art Crawl will go in the next weeks and months.
L Tuesday, Sept. 14, 7 p.m. at the Fitzgerald Theater: Talking Volumes: Lauren Groff. The two-time National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author (“The Monsters of Templeton,” “Arcadia,” “Fates and Furies”) will talk with MPR’s Kerri Miller about her latest novel, “Matrix,” just out from Riverhead Books. Note: Because of the rise in COVID-19 cases, there won’t be any Talking Volumes book signings this fall. Doors at 6 p.m. FMI and tickets ($22.50-32.50).