September 8, 2011

Bon Iver @ The Orpheum Theatre 9/7/11 (Concert Review)

I like to consider myself fairly well read and rarely ill-informed when it comes to a lot of modern music, but last night, I was completely unprepared for how big a full Bon Iver band could sound. Justin Vernon brought his namesake to Minneapolis' largest theatre for the second of two sold-out shows, and all the adjectives in the world couldn't describe the positive energy that resonated from its seats. There are always bound to be a few shows a year that will live on in "were you there?" lore, and last night was one of them.

Doing with ease what Iron & Wine failed to do with effort a few months back, Vernon's troupe built each and every song into sweltering, encompassing anthems, with every guitar strum or french horn blast or triangle 'tink' executed to perfection. Opening with the understated but pounding "Perth" and [arguably the best song on the new record] "Minnesota, WI," the band immediately asserted their dominance over an awestruck crowd, many of whom were in attendance the night before.  The duel drummers could have come across as cheesy, but instead they sounded epic. No time was this more evident than on "Creature Fear," which morphed into a no holds barred jam session for several minutes as the simple light towers pulsed hypnotically behind Vernon and his eight collaborators. After "Creature Fear" screeched to a close, I was already [pleasantly] convulsing, and I would've been fine just hearing that be played 12 more times.

To help us gain our proverbial footing, we were given a restrained version of "Hinnom, TX" which turned out to be one of my favorite songs of the night. Vernon holds himself with such modesty on stage, even when the output is the antithesis. Shortly thereafter, it was cover time. Admittedly, I've never been a huge Bjork fan, but to hear Vernon reinterpret the vocals to "Who Is It" to fit his famous falsetto was nothing short of remarkable (all while his trombonist/trumpeter/percussionist expertly beatboxed rather than just playing a recorded version of the song's vocal beat loop). Later, a haunting quiet respect befell the crowd as Vernon (and he alone) played a gorgeous rendition of "Re: Stacks." Book-ended by singles “Holocene” and “Calgary,” I'm fairly certain the only thing that was heard from the crowd during that song was the figurative dropping of jaws.

The main set closed with a steadily growing sing-along to "Wolves." Vernon invited the receptive crowd to join the entire chorus, with a booming "what might have been lost." What couldn't have been foreseen was watching members of the audience slowly rising to their feet in random aisles, bellowing the refrain from the top of their lungs, acting as an equivalent to a 'slow clap' in high school movies. After a brief break and some ear-shattering applause, Vernon and his gang took the stage for a relaxed three-song encore, consisting of “Beth/Rest,” “Flume” and possibly one of the most smile-inducing songs of the evening, “Skinny Love.”

But really, you had to be there.

August 22, 2011

SoundTown 2011 @ Somerset Amphitheater (Concert Review)

SoundTown, the 2-day festival marking the musical rebirth of the newly renamed Somerset Amphitheater, has come to an end, and despite possibly the most telling aspect seemed to be a negative (lack of attendance), it can be deemed a success. The Flaming Lips, New Pornographers, DeVotchKa, Delta Spirit, Okkervil River, Sims, Solid Gold, Pink Mink and more charmed crowds varying from a couple hundred up to 5,000+. While the turnout was definitely modest the bands (for the most part) acted as if they were playing to 10s of thousands, something definitely welcome for a festival in its infancy.

SoundTown Artists Mural


Delta Spirit - Coming off a raucous Lollapalooza set a couple weeks back, the impassioned Californians truly broke-in the new massive mainstage with their energetic early Friday evening performance. They weren't the first to play on it (Cory Chisel played an endearing but less spastic set earlier in the day), but they did inaugurate it by truly exploring it's ridiculous size. Matt Vasquez bounded back and forth and hit all the right notes with a crowd eager to start their weekend party.

Sims - This year's breakout Doomtree member packed the Summit Tent for his prime Friday 8:00pm time slot. While he expertly delivered a high-powered set drawing mainly from his new album, Bad Time Zoo, it was hard for the crowd to keep their eyes off of Sims' partner in crime, Lazerbeak, who recreated most of the intense beats for the live setting. (Note: I recorded video of "Burn It Down," but the bass is overwhelming, drowning out everything else. I'll post it if it can be fixed)

The Flaming Lips - The festival veterans and appropriately chosen headliners delivered the kind of spectacle you would expect but could never fathom. Hell, I had seen it before, yet it still induced a jaw-dropping reaction. As they marched through their set, delivering the psychedelic showmanship that has garnered them such a devoted fan base, Wayne Coyne continuously urged the crowd to let their inner wildness loose. The countless balloons, confetti cannons, inflatable catfish and Wizard of Oz themed dancers didn't hurt either. They drew their set (and the festival) to a close with the communal "Do You Realize?," making for a truly sincere moment of appreciation from the glowing crowd.

The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne

The New Pornographers - The people that were complaining that The New Pornographers were without Neko Case or Dan Bejar for their Friday night headlining slot probably haven't seen the band live; the crowd is lucky when either or both of them are on tour with the group. Frankly, after Neko Case's disappointing Rock the Garden set, I was fine without her; Kathryn Calder shines a bit more sans Neko, and her voice pleasantly pierced through the crowd all evening. They played the songs fans would want them to play, even throwing in a Bejar-less "Testament to Youth in Verse," which thrilled the small number of devotees in attendance.

Best of the Rest - Solid Gold gave off the ideal sunny day vibe with their Saturday afternoon set, focusing heavily on new material (which sounds excellent) / Heiruspecs closed off the Summit Tent with authority Saturday night / Pink Mink was blistering as always

Solid Gold


Slick Rick - It didn't help that Doug E. Fresh was a last minute cancellation, but the old school hip-hop icon was out of place and seemingly out of breath, almost remaining stationary during his 30+ minute set. The Lifted Crew proved to be a commendable backing band, but let's be honest, no one was there to see them.

Ghostland Observatory - Their Friday night set looked impressive from afar (lasers! lasers! lasers!) but their synth and beat-heavy output sounded repetitive, obnoxious and dated.

Ghostland Observatory

Okkervil River - After putting on one of the better First Avenue shows I've seen this year, Okkervil River (unlike Delta Spirit the day before them) seemed taken aback by the lack of people attending their main stage set. It took a solid 40 minutes for Will Sheff & company to really hit a groove, but the late inning rally couldn't save the performance as a whole. (Note: bassist and all around good guy Patrick Pestorius hung out with the crowd to catch The Flaming Lips, and graciously offered to go on a backstage beer run for me and my friends...which we of course agreed to with no arm-twisting required)

Other Misses - Roma di Luna's much publicized planned split brought them a nice sized crowd for their Friday night set, but the shock of seeing the band without key/founding member Alexei Moon Casselle was too much to overcome, ultimately giving us a band that was just phoning it in / White Light Riot failed to connect with a crowd trying to rock out while Slick Rick was napping on the main stage.


The Grounds - The new festival grounds were a welcome improvement for those of us that remember the Edgefests of yesteryear. The concrete floor eliminates the risk of mud pits on rainy weekends, while the permanent seating was a nice touch for concertgoers wanting to be closer to the action, but not on their feet.

Drinks - No Bud Light here. SoundTown's main beer stations served up Summit EPA and Summit Pilsener (and rumors of Summit Oktoberfest being available in the VIP area turned out to be true) for a reasonable $5 (in ticket form). For the same price, a variety of bottom tier mixed drinks were available as well, and were poured with a heavy hand.

Local Influence - Minneapolis loves its musicians, and its musicians love Minneapolis. Some of the most rabid sets of the weekend were headlined by local bands/artists, and many lesser known local acts got a nice taste of a larger crowd. The Arms Akimbo played a crisp early Saturday set and Pink Mink rocked as expected, but I was especially impressed by live hip-hop troupe More Than Lights, who delivered an early Friday set that really worked up the crowd.

The Arms Akimbo

Food - Upon arriving back home Sunday morning, the only thing I craved were vegetables, lots and lots of vegetables. The fest's noticeable lack of variety in food vendors was incredibly disappointing (and I'm a carnivore...a Polish carnivore). Next year, maybe tame down some of the stereotypical fair food and focus a bit more on a quality/real ingredients. It took Rock the Garden a couple years to get it right, and I have the same hope for SoundTown.

Restrooms - I'm shocked that it took until Day 2 for my female compatriots to start tweeting about the lack of locks on the new [surprisingly nice] permanent bathrooms. Both sexes' bathroom stalls were sans locks, and that made doing your business all the more adventurous (but hey, still beats a porta-potty). These were a great addition, now they just need to be completed. 

Stages - While all three stages were impressive in their own right, it was the two temporary stages (The Summit Tent and Metromix stage) that were placed all too close to each other. While their speaker systems rarely competed, there was occasional overlap, making it more logical to move the confined tent to the other side of the grounds. The tamer Metromix stage also suffered from the immense sound delivered from the main stage, often drowning out its performers completely. 

SoundTown Festival Grounds
While it would be impossible to not notice this was SoundTown's first year, the experience was overall a positive one. The organizers were absolutely clued in on where to start, and can easily improve on the festival for the future. Throughout the day Saturday, buzz started to pick up regarding SoundTown 2012, to the point where 89.3 The Current's DJs (who introduced many of the bands) pushed fans to head to Facebook for recommendations on next year's lineup. SoundTown was definitely a step in the right direction, and it's comforting to know that the organizers are committed to making it bigger and better in the years to come. We need this kind of festival near Minneapolis, and it's on the right track.

August 11, 2011

Quick Hits 8/11/11 (Album Reviews)

The Head And The Heart * The Head And The Heart - Blushing & sincere folk-pop melodies with a dynamic piano focus that will resonate with a less adventurous crowd. Avett Brothers-lite (B)

I'm From Barcelona * Forever Today - Nothing new from the 186-person band, but entertaining nonetheless. Poppy and uplifting, but without ever surprising or progressing. (B-)

Cass McCombs * Wit's End - "The Lonely Doll" may be the most gorgeous song released this year. The rest of the record oozes with similar earnest, but never quite reaches the level of this fantastic track (B+)

Dawes * Nothing Is Wrong - The sophomore effort from these [not from] Minneapolis favorites sounds awfully familiar, probably because they've been playing nearly every song consistently in their recent stops to the Twin Cities. While they're live shows bring out the energy in the tunes, the record showcases the intricate layering of instruments and vocal harmonies we expect from the four-piece. (A-)

The Elected * Bury Me In My Rings - Rilo Kiley, Salute Your Shorts and Boy Meets World alum Blake Sennett returns with another collection of sunny California-centric tracks to keep himself busy as Jenny Lewis is now traversing the globe solo (or with "Johnny"); only a handful live up to the high expectations he set for himself early in his career. (C+)

Frank Turner * England Keep My Bones - Boisterous and raucous, this is the kind of music you'd expect to hear in a London bar as you're waiting for a pint of bitter to be poured (while getting a chair broken over your back). (B+)

Sims * Bad Time Zoo - Signature Doomtree sound without being redundant. P.O.S. broke out two years ago; Dessa ruled last year. 2011 belongs to Sims. (A-)

tUnE-YarDs * w h o k i l l - I'll forgive the ridiculous grammar of frontwoman/namesake Merrill Garbus on account of the album's thunderous rhythms and intoxicating loops. I really didn't expect to like this album, so color me sUrpR15eD. (B+)

Bon Iver * Bon Iver, Bon Iver - Majestic, encapsulating, epic, and all other synonyms of awesome. A flawless album that will dominate Top 10 lists at year end. (A+)

August 8, 2011

Big Audio Dynamite @ First Avenue 8/7/11 (Concert Review)

Big Audio Dynamite's Sunday night gig at First Avenue was 17 years in the making. If my memory serves me correct, 1994 was the last time ex-Clash member Mick Jones and his band of eclectic jungle beat and ska loving misfits last graced our fair Minneapolis (as part of defunct 93.7 The Edge's Twisted Christmas, which also featured Hole, Grant Lee Buffalo, Dada and Love Spit Love...all sharing a too-giant Target Center stage). That holiday night was my first live taste of BAD, and almost two decades of patience paid off last night as the quintet played a blistering 90 minutes to an elated audience.

Starting off with an extended version of "Medicine Show," the five-piece shattered the eardrums of the eager crowd, who instantly reconnected with songs of decades past, all sounding decidedly more modern than half of the stuff Pitchfork has been declaring 'Best New Music' this year. "V Thirteen" was an early highlight, and saw the Transmission-centric crowd really start dancing for the first time...dancing that didn't stop. Their go-to theme song "BAD" and the brand new "Rob Peter Pay Paul" were equally connecting, the latter of which was not the least bit out of place amongst its mid-1980s counterparts.

As far as seasoned rock veterans are concerned, Jones could be considered one of the least jaded. For anyone that has seen The Hold Steady in concert, you've heard Craig Finn proclaim "there's so much joy in what we do." Mick Jones obviously lives by that same credo as well. Throughout the night, he had a beaming smile and the look of youthful exuberance, something that the aging crowd also shared. He introduced each and every song with accomplished positivity, showing real pride in the music he and his rock brethren have created.

While it could easily be assumed that Jones would be the center of attention, the entire band was eye-catching, bouncing around the stage with the energy one would expect from a bunch of teenagers, not some heavily-traveled group well into their 50s. With dreadlocks hanging as low to the ground as Martin Landau's testicles, multi-instrumentalist and scat virtuoso Don Letts repeatedly ran the whole length of the stage (and up the stage left stairs to the sound booth) spitting out indecipherable but engrossing interludes.

The second half of the set saw BAD elevating their game even further, pounding through the upbeat and in-your face "Sightsee M.C.!" and "C'mon Every Beatbox," before ultimately closing the 70-minute main set with a spastic rendition of "Rewind." With that, they left the stage to one of the largest, continuous ovations I've heard in Mainroom over the past two years. I think we all knew we were in for a treat, but were given more than we could have imagined.

As their guitar techs did some quick tuning in anticipation of an encore, BAD pretty much just hung out stage right at the base of the stairs. I made quick eye contact with Jones as he waited, then reached out and 'cheersed' beers with him, which was an obvious fanboy highlight for me. The troupe took back to the stage and delivered the crowd-pleasers "The Bottom Line" and "E=MC2," before exiting the stage once again. As the applause became even more deafening, they sprung to the stage one last time. Jones stared blissfully into the crowd, grabbed his mic and boomed 'If I had my time again,' busting into a raucous version of "Rush" that worked the appreciative crowd into one last frenzy.

We waited this long once, so let's hope we're not on hold for another 17 years before their next local performance.

July 30, 2011

Cloud Cult @ Orchestra Hall and Ike Reilly Assassination @ First Avenue (Concert Review)

Three weeks ago I was at Orchestra Hall for the opening of Sommerfest and an evening of Waltzes. While enjoyable, it was a tad stuffy at times...what you'd expect when you're the youngest one in the crowd by 25 years listening to centuries old pieces. Last night was decidedly more hip and saw a median age that didn't remember watching the moon landing live, as Cloud Cult brought their robust sound to the typically understated room.

Caroline Smith opened up the show with a half-dozen songs over the course of 25 minutes, introducing herself to what seemed like many new fans. Her poise and booming voice are almost unmatched on the local scene, and her performance last night, most notably a stunning cover of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me," proved exactly that.

Next was Cloud Cult, who understood Orchestra Hall's penchant for breaking up performances into several sections. The first 45 minutes of the set didn't catch the band taking a single break...songs flowed seamlessly, all tied together with a recurring Light Chasers theme (their latest album). Anyone that has seen Cloud Cult lately may have found it curious that they busted out "There's So Much Energy in Us" as their second song of the evening. The 7+ minute epic has been a staple closer of their live sets, but here they gave us one of the most emotional and uplifting songs in their catalog to essentially kick off the show.  Shortly thereafter, we were treated to one of their recent singles, the churning push of "Running With the Wolves," which was accompanied by a lovely stop-motion animated video on the mammoth screen behind the band. This became a recurring theme throughout the evening as another 3-4 songs had their own specially created videos as well.

After the monstrous 45-minute song weaving kicked off the show, frontman Craig Minowa admitted that they had to do an acoustic set to take advantage of the beautiful room. As the crowd took their seats (yes, an Orchestra Hall crowd had been standing), Minowa made it known how special it was that his 95 year old Grandma was in the crowd. After he encouraged her to stand up and wave, he jumped right into a touching song about his Grandpa, her late husband. While the beginning of the show focused heavily on new material, the acoustic portion featured all pre-Light Chasers songs, stripped down to perfection. If pushed for a highlight, it'd be hard to ignore the cleverness of "The Ghost Inside Your House." Back in January, Cloud Cult was supposed to play The Current's 6th Birthday Party, but those plans were derailed after Minowa's health scare (which has since been rectified). Trampled by Turtles filled in admirably for Cloud Cult, and even did their own rendition of the aforementioned song to pay tribute. According to Minowa, he and his bandmates liked it so much that they decided to play it that way from now on. While it lacked the banjo and a few other bluegrass elements that TbT is know for, Cloud Cult still presented it commendably, along with a thoughtful tip of the hat.

Cloud Cult picked up the energy one last time before heading off the stage, but it wasn't until they came out for the first of two encores that you began to realize how much the crowd really loved them. As they walked back onstage, all 8 members (painters included) seemed to take a mental snapshot of what they saw in front of them. Minowa said that they didn't know what to expect from an Orchestra Hall show ("would people clap?") and that this crowd blew away any expectations that they could even dream. He continued in typical uplifting Cloud Cult fashion, inviting the crowd to sing along (and consciously remember their deceased loved ones) with the reflective "Dance for the Dead." After losing my Mom a little over two months ago, I held this sentiment especially close, and found myself tearfully chanting in refrain while a volunteer choir curiously did the same from the stage. After this heart-wrenching moment, Minowa and company jumped right into their "theme" song, the frenzied "Everybody Here Is a Cloud," which would've served as an appropriate closer were it not for the fact that the crowd and band alike had no intention of going home. After a brief pause, we were treated to one more encore, consisting of the anthemic "Love You All" and their most recognizable hit as of late, the emotionally intense "You'll Be Bright." As the band members lined up to take a bow, they were given the most floor rattling applause I've ever heard in that room.

After nearly 2 hours of Cloud Cult, I would have been content just calling it a night. Rather than packing it in, though, I headed over to First Avenue to catch Ike Reilly playing all of his seminal album, Salesmen and Racists, in full. Throughout the last decade, Minneapolis has adopted Ike as one of its own, and in that time, fans of the Chicago-born singer songwriter know what to expect from an Ike show...songs about women, drugs and drinking. Always the wisecracker, Ike decided to play the record back-to-front, much to the chagrin of my friend Kristen who always pines for "Last Time," the album's opening number (hell, the only other time he's played it recently was last year's Thanksgiving Eve show where Kristen ran into him at O'Donovan's beforehand and threatened to murder him if it wasn't on the set list). Needless to say, it was played...and no charges were filed.

The hour long tribute to Salesmen and Racists was entertaining, but offered little in terms of surprise. The crowd was most manic during the songs that Ike has been mixing into his sets for years, most notably "Hip Hop Thighs," "Commie Drives a Nova" and the participatory "Wasted Friends" & "Duty Free." The tracks that Ike seldomly plays live, like "Crave" & God Damn Shame," ultimately fell short. After the 13 songs off his breakthrough record were finished, I couldn't help but think that this type of show wasn't necessary; Ike shines when he offers a little more mystique to his sets, and that's something that was missing last night. After a brief break, Ike hit the stage again (um, in a bathrobe) to give us plenty of new songs, but frankly, none of them can really hold their own against much of Salesmen and Racists. As he jumped into "Suffer for the Trust" a little before 1:00 am, I decided to call it a night, but not before I watched two bros attempt to arm wrestle each other on the curb outside of the Record Room.

Yup, that happened.