If you don’t know who Northern State is, and you very well might not, here’s the lowdown. Northern State is an indie hip-hop group with an unusual composition. They’re three white college-educated women from Long Island (their name is after the Northern State Parkway, a Long Island highway) who’ve made three ridiculously fun records. Think of the Go-Go’s crossed with the Beastie Boys. Their handles are Hesta Prynn, Sprout, and Spero. They write rhymes like this: “My name is Sprout, née / Now call me Tasia Mae / And don’t miss the buffet at my birthday soiree / I’m a workaday gourmet / I sauté and flambé and purée / from Broadway through Norway and the UK / If you like my wordplay then enjoy my essay / And forget the thruway cos we rep the parkway / And I’ve got cachet and a blue beret / And I’ll wear it while I ballet in your chalet.”
I came across them in 2003, pretty much by accident, and have become a big fan. This is sort of an odd thing. I’m basically a rock and roll guy — rap really never interested me much at all (MC Frontalot’s “It Is Pitch Dark” being an IF-geeky exception.) Somehow, though, Northern State captivated me from the first time I heard them — the fuller story is here. Anyway, living in Colorado as I do, I had to wait until November of 2007 to see them live, when they came to Boulder opening for Tegan and Sara. It was worth the wait, though — I had a marvelous time at the show, and vowed to see them anytime they came here. Just this month, that opportunity came again as they swung through on a headlining tour. That night was even better than the first, so much so that I want to be sure to capture some of those memories in writing. It’s really one of those journal entries that’s more for me than anybody else, but somebody might enjoy it.
A bit of warning: I can get rather gushy when I write about concerts, and in this case in particular I find it hard to make my prose warm enough to convey the emotion without slopping into a sentimentality overdose. In fact, because there was so much warm and friendly contact between us, it can sound so enthusiastic in places that it almost seems as if I’m mocking them or they’re mocking me. This is not the case. So if you read any of this and wonder how much sincerity was really present, the answer is: a lot.
The first time I saw them, the crowd was clearly there for Tegan and Sara, who were the headliners after all. T&S’s audience is predominantly young lesbians, so I was pretty out-of-place in that room. (Enh, I’m used to it — I’ve been attending Melissa Etheridge and Indigo Girls concerts since the late Eighties.) It was a general admission show at The Boulder Theater, and there wasn’t a huge press of people to see the opening act, so I was able to get fairly close to the stage when NS came on. I was hoping they’d be as fun on stage as they are on their records, but they exceeded my expectations by being even MORE fun live. Striding to their marks accompanied by the opening chords from “Eye Of The Tiger”, they immediately broke into “Mic Tester” and then rattled off a great string of songs from their last two albums, accompanied by drummer Seth Johnson and guitarist Katie Cassidy. They had the dance routines, the stage presence, the audience interaction, the banter… man, it was great. The only slight disappointment was that they didn’t perform anything from their first album, which is still a favorite of mine. Well, somebody did shout out “Trinity” and they played about a minute of it before giving up. Better than nothing, but still a touch unsatisfying.
I was dancing away to NS’s highly danceable songs, and knew those songs better than most of the people around me. Consequently, I caught the eye of all three of them at different times, and in fact at one point they singled me out from the stage. They were telling a story about one of their songs being featured on their fave TV show, Grey’s Anatomy, when Spero said, “You guys, there’s somebody in the audience who looks just like McDreamy! Check it out!” She points at me. I should note at this point that according to me, I look nothing at all like Patrick Dempsey, aside from the fact that I am male and unshaven. It was a flattering comparison, though! After the set was over, I headed to their merch booth, and got to meet Sprout, who was hanging out there selling t-shirts, CDs, and so on. We had a lovely conversation where I told her that I’d written two fan letters in my life, one of which was to them. (The other was to Garry Trudeau. Unlike Trudeau, Sprout wrote back.) I also saw Spero a little while later; she said “McDreamy!” and gave me a big hug. I demurred at the comparison, to which she said, “Hey, you look like McDreamy. It’s okay.” (Once again: I do not resemble Patrick Dempsey.)
I didn’t really care much about Tegan & Sara, so I headed up to the balcony for their set. I walked past the NS booth a few more times on the way to the bar or the bathroom, and always got a friendly wave. I didn’t really interact with Hesta that much, though Sprout introduced me to her just as I was on my way out the door. It was a great night, whose moral was: if you want to have personal contact with a band, adopt an indie up-and-comer and be the person who knows their songs when they’re opening for someone else.
Of course I subscribe to the band’s newsletter, and so was hip to the news that they’d be going on a headlining tour in Spring, including a stop in Denver. The venue was a place I’d never been before, a hilarious bowling alley/bar/restaurant/club called The Falcon. The show started at 9:30, and there were two opening acts, so I was able to give Dante a bath, put him to bed, find my way to the venue, park, and still only miss about half of the first opening act, a local band called Girl Named Kyle. They were actually pretty good, exceeding my (fairly low) expectations. Something amusing about the show was that I just wandered in — nobody was taking tickets, or selling tickets, or anything, near as I could tell. Maybe because I was “early”? Anyway, I’d paid on the web, so I wasn’t worried much about it.
After GNK’s set, I headed to the bar to order both a drink and some food. On the way, I recognized Hesta walking through. I gave her a wave and said, “Have a good show!” She seemed pleased (and a bit surprised.) I saw Spero a bit later, but she was walking so purposefully I didn’t try to catch her attention. I also saw Sprout at the bar buying a drink — if I’d been thinking a bit quicker on my feet I’d’ve offered to buy it for her, but alas, I was not. (Hey, it was a $12 show — well below what I generally spend on a concert — so I was feeling flush.) I finally saw the ticket-taker guy and got a bracelet so that I could order a drink. The food there was surprisingly good — I had a spinach salad with grilled veggies that was a long way from “bowling alley food.” I ate it during the next opening act, a fairly unexciting band called DRI (not, I should note, D.R.I.) whose lead singer sounded a lot like Patti Smith on heavy tranquilizers.
After DRI finished, I made my way to the stage, stopping at the merch booth to see Sprout, who gave me a big hug and said, “I’m so glad you’re here!” (So weird to be writing that about somebody who, in my world, is a rock star.) We talked for a couple of minutes, and then she started getting ready for the show. I found a good spot in front of the stage and watched the instruments get set up. One of the many things I loved seeing at this show was that the band was right there helping the crew set stuff up. I generally go to shows where you don’t see the band at all until the first notes are played. Finally, the show started, once again opening with “Mic Tester.” From there, my memories turn into a bunch of spiky highlights:
- At one point, Spero asked if anybody in the crowd had a tissue she could use, and when somebody passed one up, Hesta said, “You have just earned the right to ask Northern State a personal question!” The girl (wearing a “WHERE THE HELL IS LONGMONT?” t-shirt) couldn’t really think of a question to ask, and then the band just opened up the floor for questions, mentioning that they’d heard Dolly Parton does this. (Sprout also joked that they were going to paste rhinestones all over their instruments a la Parton.) Hesta cautioned, “Don’t ask which ones of us are gay, though, because we don’t answer that question.” Sadly, the questions were lame, as they often are in Q&A sessions: “How many albums do you have?” (Three, and a 4-song demo EP.) “Are you going to play Sucka Mofo?” (Yes.) “Do you like my hair?” (Uh, sure.) I raised my hand and Hesta said, “This gentleman who has been dancing all night can ask us anything he likes!” I asked whether they were going to play something from Dying In Stereo, their first album. The answer: yes! Hooray! Sure enough, later in the set they played “At The Party”. Yay!
- The set leans very heavily towards their most recent album, Can I Keep This Pen? — they played 10 songs out of its 14.
- At one point, Sprout indicates the people in the front row to my left, all women, and says, “I just want to say, this Ladies Night vibe we’ve got going on in the front here is very cool.” (Spero & Hesta play and sing a few notes of “Ladies Night” by Kool & The Gang.) “And of course all respect to you, sir.” (Gesturing to me and smiling.)
- They did “Girl For All Seasons”, a body-image & empowerment anthem that I really love. After the next song:
SPERO: I just want to mention that it’s easy to get up here and be thinking about hitting your cue and playing the right notes, but Sprout, I was just finding your lyrics in ‘Girl For All Seasons’ really touching tonight.
SPROUT: Aw, thanks!
HESTA: Yeah, it’s one thing to make a song in the studio and put it on an album, but we’ve been touring the country playing it live, and there’s always some dude in the audience shouting out “I’ll be your girl for all seasons!” along with us. [All three of them gesture to me.] It’s really inspiring — it’s the kind of thing that puts me back in touch with my feminist politics.
SPROUT: And you know the sad thing? Even though I wrote those lyrics, I find them really hard to live up to. Especially when you’re touring, it’s really hard to eat healthy and get enough rest, and I just start to feel so ugly. I remember looking at pictures from a recent gig and deciding that I was going to issue a lifetime ban to a particular pair of pants, when I just thought, “Man, I’m such a hypocrite to get up night after night and sing Girl For All Seasons and then sit around feeling horrible about my appearance.” [This is followed by scattered shouts from the crowd of “You’re beautiful!”]
- The show itself was SO MUCH FUN. Their albums make me just unreasonably happy, and seeing them live even more so.
- At the end of the show, they announced that they’d all be hanging out at their merch table, and encouraged everybody to come over and meet them. (There were maybe 60-75 people in the audience.) I kind of hung out across from the table to keep out of the press of people. I watched as NS signed stuff, chatted it up, took pictures, etc. with everybody. At one point, Spero broke away from the meet & greet, came over to me and gave me a big hug. “I was so happy to see your face!” she said. Gosh, I can’t tell you how happy this made me. I have so much affection for all three of them, and it was wonderful to feel like they had some affection for me as well. I told her how much I loved their records, and she said, “I really appreciate that, because we work so hard on them. We’re really committed to never putting out crap. I mean, people might have their favorites, but don’t want anybody to ever say, ‘Wow, that record SUCKED compared to their other ones.'” After a few minutes, she went back to the rest of the fans.
- As that crowd action died down, Hesta came over to talk to me. She asked me my name, I told her, and she said, “I’m Julie. That’s my Christian name. Or rather, my Jewish name.” Woo, real name basis! She thanked me for being so enthusiastic, and said it means a lot to them. “We had a really hard day today — it was a long and stressful drive, and we’re here at the bowling alley, and it was just so great to see people like you having so much fun at the show.” I told her that if I made her happy, that’s great, because their albums give me so much pleasure that I’m thrilled if I can channel some positive energy back to them.
- After the crowd thinned out, I walked over to the merch table. Sprout asked if perhaps I needed a t-shirt. Honestly, the t-shirts they’re selling on this tour are just not anything I could ever see myself wearing (though I did buy the extremely fun button pack — 4 pins, one of each of their faces and another reading “Can I Keep This Pin?”) Anyway, in the early days they used to have this great black shirt with just a “Northern State” logo on the front. (Here’s one.) I’ve always regretted not buying one when they were available, so I decided to ask if they had any left. Sprout said, “We have some, but the only size left is XXL. It’d be ridiculously huge on you.” I assured her that XXL is exactly what I’d want anyway — I wear t-shirts for years and years, and smaller ones shrink too much too soon. So Hesta gave me her email and told me to set it up with her that way. I also asked if Sprout & Hesta would sign a poster for me (Spero was over on stage, taking down the equipment). They did, very nicely, and I got out my wallet to pay. Then Hesta stopped me:
HESTA: Paul, Paul, no. You don’t have to pay.
ME: But– what? No! I want to support you guys!
HESTA: You do support us. Seriously, don’t pay.
Have I mentioned that I love them? Hesta gave me a Sharpie and told me to go over and have Spero sign too.
- So I approached Spero, and she signed the poster. Then she noticed that I was wearing a Stevie Nicks shirt (from her 1998 Enchanted Tour) “Oh no you didn’t!” she said. “I love Stevie Nicks!” Well there’s something we have in common! So we had a great conversation about Stevie. Spero had never seen her live, so I got to tell her a little bit about what kinds of events those concerts are. I even reminded her that she’d name-checked Stevie in “Signal Flow,” a track from their first album: “Can I get a little sympathy, like Stevie Nicks / Six-three-one to the five-one-six / Grew up misunderstood in the hills of Dix”
- I don’t think my feet were touching the ground when I left. What a fantastic night.