It’s a legitimate question. In fact, I suspect most of the people in the audience were thinking it. What was OK Go, a band that can sell out large rooms in cities across the country, doing in a Podunk Minnesota town?
I was confused when I saw the show listed.
I had been keeping tabs on OK Go–watching their tour schedule to see if they’d be near me–when I saw “Worthington, Minnesota” pop up. I don’t live in Minnesota, so I assumed it was a Twin Cities suburb. Considering they tend to sell out the Minneapolis area quickly, I didn’t put too much hope into making the date.
For shits and giggles, I looked up Worthington. Turns out, it’s a town of 13,000 on the Minnesota/Iowa border, which puzzled me. Why in the hell would OK Go be playing there? Sure, Worthington is home to a small technical college, but nothing near the scope of, say, the University of Wisconsin or the University of Iowa. Those two colleges can literally double the population of their respective cities. Any band playing those locations can count on a decent foundation of college students for ticket sales. But Worthington? Nothing suggested any band should make a trip there. What was I missing?
I made sure I was reading everything correctly. OK Go had the Worthington Memorial Auditorium listed on their website. Check. The Worthington Memorial Auditorium, in turn, had OK Go listed on their website. Check.
So… everything matched, but it still didn’t make sense. OK Go’s website showed they’d be playing The Fillmore, in San Francisco, in a few weeks. That made sense. The Worthington Memorial Auditorium–a 735-seat venue–did not.
But, that said, a trip to The Fillmore wasn’t going to happen for me. A trip to Minnesota? That’s just a several hour drive. I had to pull the trigger and do it. After enlisting Grandma as a babysitter for our kiddos, the Mrs. and I bought tickets and made plans to see the OK Go do their thing.
Driving into Worthington, everything looked exactly as I expected. Modest houses, many bars, and an old-time main street surrounded by an off-ramp area replete with gas stations. This town wasn’t a destination, it was a pit stop used as you drove across the country on Interstate 90. OK Go still had no reason to be here.
Pulling up at the venue, I saw a family walking across the parking lot. One mom, a counterpart dad, and two offspring somewhere around ages eight and ten, give or take. From that signpost, I suspected this was not going to be your typical rock audience.
Entering the facility, I smiled when I saw what kind of folks were milling about. My parking lot diagnosis was right; this wasn’t a rock audience. In fact, these people were not OK Go fans. Well, maybe a few were, but not the majority of them.
From kids as young as four to octogenarians on date night, this was the very definition of a community event. These were locals getting out of the house. Teenagers, middle-aged farmers in overalls, middle-schoolers… a big “Los Angeles” band was coming to their town, and they wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
It was one of the most diverse audiences I’ve been in. When you see any band, you generally know what you’re going to have surrounding you. Taylor Swift is going to draw mostly white, thirteen-to-twenty-year-old girls. U2 will pull middle-age white people and music fans. Beyoncé has a mixed audience, but one that leans African-American. Monsta X is supported by throngs of Asian girls; more than you could shake a stick at, in fact.
A community event draws the community. For this small, majority-white Midwestern town, the diversity was impressive, and not just in the age range already described. Ethnically, Latinos, Asians, and African-Americans were all represented.
When the show started, the excitement in the room was tangible. Everyone was enthusiastic, but also curious. So, when lead singer Damian Kulash asked—house lights up so he could see the folks doing the between-song applauding—“Any questions?” one woman asked what everyone was wondering: “Why Worthington?”
Damian’s first response drew laughter and applause: “Why not Worthington?”
His second response made more sense. He explained that someone representing the Worthington Memorial Auditorium saw the band was playing another Minnesota show the following night and asked, “Hey, could you add a show here, first?”
In fact, Damian went one further, asking back, “Why anywhere but Worthington?”
From there, everything got better. This wasn’t going to be, as Damian described it, “a rock show.” This was something “arty.” The band didn’t play a straightforward concert, OK Go played an interactive show full of Q&A, open discussions, humor, and app-fueled audience participation.
(To that end, there was an app that allowed you to use your phone as an instrument and play along with the band during “What to Do.” So as music emanated forth from the stage, so was it being returned to the band via the audience.)
Explaining that they, like most bands, had to lip-synch on their first TV performance, the band decided they wanted to try something different for this show. On stage was a large video screen, and OK Go played live along to each song’s accompanying music video. Sort of reverse-lip synching, if you will.
It’s a difficult trick, and lead singer Damian Kulash glanced over his shoulder on more than one occasion to make sure he was keeping pace with the video. A live performance is a living and breathing organism where time is fluid. The length of a video is set in stone. If you flub up your live part, the pre-recorded visuals are going to keep barreling forward, band be damned.
If Damian was the evening’s ringleader, guitarist Andy Ross acted as the band’s engineer. Not only did he slip away a couple times for mechanical issues, he reminded the band of changes they needed to make in order to maintain their stride with the videos playing behind them. “Two solos,” he told them before “I Won’t Let You Down,” and “No solo” as they began “Upside Down and Inside Out.”
(The explanation for the latter being there is no solo in the recorded version of that song, but when they play it live, they usually throw one in for fun. If they added a solo to this performance of “Upside Down,” then they’d be off synch with the video.)
For “A Million Ways,” they forwent instruments and performed the video’s choreographed dance along with actual video as it played; during “Needing/Getting,” they re-created the “instruments” used in its video, playing on glasses filled with water, a plastic barrel “bass guitar,” and banging on buckets to replicate drum sounds. “Shooting the Moon,” their offering to a Twilight soundtrack, was played entirely using handbells.
During an extended moment of technical difficulties, specifically the fuzz effect not working Damian’s guitar rig, he and bassist Tim Norwood acted (and sang) out a scene from Les Misérables.
(I’d like to see the boys in Bon Jovi pull that one off.)
At one point, the forever-at-ease lead singer asked a four-year-old child if he was doing a good job saying “trucking,” a wink to the adults who knew certain song lyrics actually contained a different, slightly harsher word.
A twelve-year-old girl asked just how much confetti the band had. Given the seemingly endless supply used by intermission alone, it was a decent question.
“Well, what we do is see how much money we’re going to make on a gig,” Damian explained. “And then we take that money and spend it on confetti, so we break even on the night.”
(He then went on to point out that the confetti was both recycled, and biodegradable. “And salty, actually,” he mentioned, tasting a piece.)
The concert was, in a word, fantastic, and I wasn’t alone in thinking so. There was an amazing transformation between the pre-show audience and the intermission-audience. Before the show, everyone was in the lobby milling about aimlessly. They were out of the house to do something, and tonight that happened to be a concert.
There was a decent size cluster at the merch table. Even better for OK Go, people were looking at the CD selection specifically. They were hearing the music, and responding to it.
Now, I realize that almost everything described can be replicated.
The songs, the asides… even the Les Misérables.
What cannot be replicated is the city, and the audience. OK Go has San Francisco on their calendar. They have Los Angeles. In those cities, they’ll sell thousands of tickets, all to their fans. Nowhere on their docket is another tiny Midwestern town. I find it doubtful their other shows will contain entire families, or handfuls of elderly farmers, or a gaggle of giggling fourteen-year-old girls. And that’s what was important about this particular concert. These people were discovering a band. The people in Los Angeles already know OK Go.
There are legendary shows a band plays. Sting says hundreds of people try to claim they were at the infamous 3-person Police concert from their first American tour. Thousands of people nowhere near Woodstock try to say they were at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in 1969. Pink Floyd only played four cities when touring behind The Wall in 1979, but that doesn’t stop people from pretending they saw one of the performances.
Seeing OK Go in a nowhere town in Southern Minnesota might not become as mythically famous as those concerts, but it will be to me. I’m going to put it on the shelf between my being the only male (much less heterosexual person) at a Melissa Etheridge show before she came out of the closet, and watching Slayer open for W.A.S.P. and seeing the entire audience leave after the dying notes of “Raining Blood.”
Every concert has the potential to be great, but OK Go in Worthington, Minnesota, was special.
Photo: Getty Images