The calm amid the chaos backstage at First Avenue

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On stage
Stage Manager Conrad Sverkerson making plans for an upcoming show at First Avenue.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

For the people who consider First Avenue hallowed ground, "Conrad" is an icon. Or, as stagehand Miles Kennedy puts it, the icon known as "Con." And Kennedy says it's not just in the Twin Cities.

Kennedy describes himself as "a guy who's traveled a lot of the world" and, he says, "people ask you where you work and I say, 'First Avenue.' The first question is, 'Well how's Conrad?'"

First Avenue
The First Avenue nightclub in downtown Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Why are they asking? Because working effectively behind the scenes at a live music venue is a relatively rare gift. The demands of artists, management and the public are bearing down, often at the same time. It requires patience, sensitivity, and substantial people skills. To those who attend and work at First Avenue, Conrad is one of the best.

Conrad Sverkerson used to have dreadlocks down his back; when he sheared them off this year, it made news in local music circles. His face looks weathered, worn down by countless nights amid smoke clouds and high decibel levels.

In more than 18 years at First Avenue, Conrad has developed a zen-like presence. People who meet him are instantly on a first-name basis. It's only partly because his Swedish surname is hard to pronounce.

"It's SVER-kur-sun," he says. "Or backwards it's Nosrekrevs. It would be Darnoc Nosrekrevs."

Conrad's official title is stage manager or production manager, but he says that doesn't mean he has any significant expertise in these areas.

Working in the rain
Sverkerson unloads band gear on a rainy day.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"I don't really do sound. I don't do lights," he says. "I just try and facilitate the artists when they're here."

Facilitate. Delegate. Mediate. Babysit.

Conrad's work day starts usually a half-hour before the musical act arrives and ends a half-hour after the stage has been broken down and the band has left. Often that's 3:00 in the morning.

In between, his duties include everything from getting a certain musician has a full-size towel to wrap around his naked body during a sound check to making sure the reggae band's conga drum is perfectly positioned. Something is bound to go wrong, it's just hard to predict what, where and when.

Sometimes unruly audiences are a problem. Other times it's pop stars who need some level of coddling. This week, in his head, Conrad is preparing for the rap group Jurassic Five's arrival and the bountiful back stage spread it requested.

"It starts off," he says, "with two cases of water, Laura Scutter's natural peanut butter, raspberry jam small and grape, fruit platters, 100-percent whole wheat bread (Roman meal), honey bear-shaped)....."

It's a list he'll try to supply, within reason.

But if Conrad is almost universally revered by musicians it's because of the respect and care he gives them, regardless of their level of fame. Bill Batson, frontman for the Mighty Mofos, a local rock band that's played First Avenue many times, admires Conrad's approach.

Bill Battson
Bill Batson is frontman for local stalwarts the Mighty Mofos.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"He treats everybody the same whether they're selling out or sucking on stage," Batson says. "At least while they're in the room, he's gonna be nice to you."

Now those musicians are giving back to Conrad. This past spring, he broke his spine and punctured his lung in an accident away from work. He had two titanium rods inserted in his back, was in the hospital for more than three weeks and out of work for more than two months. Even though he has insurance, his co-pays and other expenses were enormous.

Conrad's musician friends practically fell over themselves volunteering to play in a benefit concert to help Conrad pay his bills. Members of Trip Shakespeare and the Jayhawks will be among many who will perform. At Conrad's request, part of the money will go into what's being called the Twin Cities Music Community Trust to help others in similar circumstances.

First Avenue stagehand Miles Kennedy says that's fitting.

"It's kind of the way Conrad is," he says. "We're trying to set up a fund that basically funds the things that Conrad would do to take care of people."

Conrad is 47. When asked how many more years he has to give to First Avenue, he says that's a tricky question.

Conrad Sverkerson
Longtime First Avenue Stage Manager Conrad Sverkerson.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"I do like my job," Conrad says, "even though, like everyone else, I tire of dealing with people from time to time. But I'm kinda getting to that weird age in my life where I'm like what else would I do? I don't know, what would I do?"

So it sounds as though Conrad will remain a fixture at First Avenue, a place and community he has even more affection for after an outpouring of support when he needed it most.

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