Review: Grading the new Northrop

JON BREAM | Updated 6/16/2014

The remodeled venue's first rock show scored high marks — except for the concession stands.

Thousands of people packed the new Northrop for Bob Weir and RatDog.
Kyndell Harkness

Someone at the University of Minnesota forgot to do his or her homework.

The exquisitely remodeled Northrop Auditorium at the U earned a perfect 4.0 GPA for the opening events this spring for dance, classical music, comedy and speeches (from both sides of the aisle — Condoleezza Rice and Bill Clinton). But the first rock concert at the new Northrop on Friday night was another story.

While RatDog’s Bob Weir was onstage singing the Grateful Dead’s famous lyric from “Casey Jones” about “driving that train, high on cocaine,” Northrop had already run out of beer, wine and munchies at one stand. At the other concession stand, the line was 150 people deep. Good thing these good ol’ Deadheads are docile.

To run out of concessions a mere 45 minutes into a concert is, well, the kind of performance that would earn one a grade of F, as in epic Fail.

“They don’t believe you till they experience it themselves,” Northrop operations director Sally Dischinger said of the concession vendor, Surdyk’s. “This is a learning curve. They couldn’t believe the volume. This is the baptism. There are all sorts of fixes now that they realize the problem.”

When your retail outlet is about a mile away, there were probably some quick fixes that a nimble, well-managed food-and-drink service could have pulled off on the fly on Friday.

Let’s grade the other aspects of the $88 million renovation of the 86-year-old Northrop — which trimmed its capacity from 4,800 to 2,700 — from the perspective of a rock concert.

Atmosphere. “It’s intimate,” said Lowell Pickett, proprietor of the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis. “It’s a much better scale than before. It doesn’t feel like a barn.”

“It’s definitely an upgrade,” said Andrea Johnson, a U alum and a new-generation Deadhead. “The look and sound are a lot better. It’s absolutely beautiful. I understand not taking drinks and food inside.”

Northrop now has a capacity comparable to the Orpheum Theatre. The U venue is not as ornate as the Orpheum, but it’s more modern, updated, efficient and comfortable. Grade: A

Acoustics. The stacks of speakers are curved to effectively serve the main floor and three balconies. I sat in the front and back rows of all the balconies, in the last and fifth rows of the main floor and the sound was equally clear and crisp everywhere.

“It used to sound like a cave in here; now it sounds really good,” said Cray McCally of Minneapolis. Grade: A

Sightlines. This is a major improvement over the old Northrop. The balconies may seem steep to some people, but the sightlines are very good. Maybe the best seats are on the sides of the first balcony in the, um, president’s box.

“There’s not a bad seat in here,” said Erin Robinson of Prior Lake. Grade: B-plus

Seating. Unlike the old Northrop, the balconies were not vibrating when the crowd was dancing in full bounce during “Not Fade Away.”

“Instead of a crappy, cramped balcony, they have nice tiered levels,” McCally said.

“The seats are comfy,” said Steve DeLisle of Roseville.

Firm and wide, too. There’s plenty of legroom — except in the front rows of the balconies. Grade: A-minus

Amenities. There are restrooms on every level. And who expected lounges with tables and chairs where you can chill? Grade: A

Signage and ushers. If you climb up those magnificent front steps and enter through the main lobby, there are no signs directing you to the box office. And once inside the auditorium, it is no longer intuitive how to find your seats as it was in the old configuration. Furthermore, ushers didn’t seem overly familiar with the seating scheme either. Grade: B-minus

Summary. McCally, who attends 50-plus shows a year and has seen Elton John, Neil Young and Bob Dylan at Northrop, summarized the feelings of many of the 1,750 concertgoers. “What a job they’ve done here. It’s way better than I expected. It’s definitely a great addition to the concert scene.” Overall Grade: B-plus