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Duluth's Al Church leads 'First Avenue Goes to the Fair'

When Al Church was growing up, his parents found the Minnesota State Fair "too expensive, too crowded, too hot." Now, he leads the band at one of the fair's most exciting musical events.

Three people stand performing onstage, with a drummer visible in the background: a white man with long curly hair and a guitar; a Black man with a microphone wearing overalls and blocky orange glasses; and an Asian woman standing at a microphone stand at far right.
Al Church, at left with guitar, performs with Nur-D, center, and Diane, far right, at "First Avenue Goes to the Fair" in 2021.
Contributed / Mike Madison a.k.a. Bump Opera
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DULUTH — "Duluthians don't want to drive two and a half hours to be in a crowd of people," said Al Church, whose parents never brought his family to the fair when he was growing up in the Zenith City. "Too expensive, too crowded, too hot."

The musician is now based in Minneapolis, and he's become a State Fair fan. In fact, he's integral to one of the fair's coolest shows: the "First Avenue Goes to the Fair" events at the Schell's Stage.

Residents will vie for ribbons in the wine, pie and embroidery categories.

"I'm representing, baby!" he told his hometown paper. "I'll hold the torch for Duluth."

Church leads a house band that backs five artists on each of two nights: Friday, Sept. 2, and Saturday, Sept. 3. He and First Avenue talent buyer Sonia Grover conceived of the showcase, which launched in 2019. "It's super exciting," said Church, "collaborating with everybody and with all different kinds of music. There's country music, there's hip-hop ... just such an expansive repertoire of stuff."

The event "feels like a summer camp every year," said Church. "It makes me feel super close to the music community ... This is the way it should be, people just getting together and playing."

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Each of the 10 featured musicians could lead a bandstand show in their own right. Among the artists joining Church and his house band, "the Congregation," on stage are Thomas Abban, Ness Nite, Mae Simpson and Kiss the Tiger's Meghan Kreidler. The latter singer "is going to do some pretty rad covers," said Church. "She picked a Patti Smith song and a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song."

Kreidler has her own Northland connection, noted Church: Her father is from Duluth, and her parents have a house here. Church's brother also still lives in Duluth, and has still never been to the State Fair.

"I'm like, dude, if you don't go this year when I'm playing," said Church, "you're not a Minnesotan. You can't call yourself a Minnesotan."

A promotional flyer for First Avenue Goes to the Fair features an illustration of Fairchild, the fair's gopher mascot, wearing a First Avenue shirt and cap.
Promotional flier for "First Avenue Goes to the Fair," 2022.
Contributed / First Avenue

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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