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(Above: Soul singer Anthony Hamilton takes a Midland Theater crowd to church in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The titles are almost identical, but the songs couldn’t be further apart. The pair arrived back-to-back about the one-hour mark of soul singer Anthony Hamilton’s Friday night concert at the Midland Theater.

“Prayin’ for You” was a jubilant gospel jam that found Hamilton singing and dancing in the middle of the crowd and featured a nice blues slide-guitar solo. A quick wardrobe change brought the mournful, contemplative “Pray for Me.”

The contrast displayed Hamilton’s chops as a songwriter, vocal abilities and his six-piece band’s versatility. The numbers also managed to capture the crowd’s complete attention in two very different ways. Several moments competed with “Prayin’ for You” as the night’s biggest party, but none was more intimate than “Pray for Me.”

hamilton_FYI_06062014_spf_0126fThe band arrived onstage like it had been shot from a cannon. The three backing vocalists also served as hype men, lathering the crowd for Hamilton’s appearance and opening number “Sucka For You.” A bit of Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” let everyone know the historic theater was hosting a block party tonight. A well-placed piece of “No Diggity” at the end of “Woo” cemented the give-and-take between stage and crowd. Hamilton’s dancing during that number produced many squeals of delight.

Most of the performances extended well past their album length. Hamilton let the band stretch out, incorporating bits of Philly soul, Stevie Wonder, Prince Earth, Wind and Fire and hip hop into his original material. He also wasn’t shy about sharing his band. Everyone in the ensemble got a moment to shine.

One of the two keyboard players dropped some nice “Talking Book”-era talkbox on “Woo.” The bass player sported an impressive Mohawk and prowled the stage like he was the headliner. His bass and the bass drum were the focus of the mix. At times they drowned out the keyboards and guitar and threatened to swallow the vocals as well, but the mix improved as the show progressed.

Hamilton closed the 90-minute set with his breakthrough hit “Charlene,” which segued into the Dells’ “A Heart is a House of Love.” By the time Hamilton started introducing his band people were heading to the exits like someone pulled the fire alarm. They were either hurrying for the announced photo op with Hamilton in the lobby or eager to take the evening’s energy to another environment.

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(Above: The Rainmakers perform “Another Guitar,” one of the more subdued moments in a long, rowdy night.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The Rainmakers took a packed house all over the map Saturday night at Knuckleheads.

Cities like Tokyo, Omaha, Minneapolis, Boston and St. Louis cropped up in “Downstream,” “Snake Dance” and, of course, “Missouri Girl.” Lead singer and songwriter Bob Walkenhorst implored listeners to “walk on the edge of the world” on “Width of a Line” and to visit “The Other Side of the World.”

photo (2)
A Missouri native, Walkenhorst also referenced Carroll County, where he grew up, in setting up “Lakeview Man,” and nearby Ray County, the inspiration for “Swinging Shed.”

The four-piece roots-rock band started in the 1980s but took breaks in the 1990s and 2000s. Partway through the night, Walkenhorst mentioned the group’s 25th anniversary reunion show at Knuckleheads nearly four years ago to the day.

“That was intended to be a one-time, thank-you show,” Walkenhorst said. “But there were just too many new songs that kept coming up that needed a home.”

A second batch of songs were given a home late last month on “Monster Movie,” the quartet’s seventh studio album. Early in the show, Walkenhorst thanked fans who had already picked up the new album and promised everyone else a preview.

He wasn’t kidding. The concert opened with “Monster’s first three tracks, and all but two of its dozen songs were played during the night. The new material wasn’t as familiar, but it didn’t take prompting to get fans to sing along to the title song and dance to everything else.

One new song, “Your Time Has Come,” was dedicated to guitarist Jeff Porter’s son, who decided to celebrate his 21st birthday listening to his dad. Two longtime fans from North Dakota who drove in to experience the band in concert for the first time got a shout-out before “Shiny Shiny.”

photo (1)At more than 2 and a half hours and almost 40 songs, the marathon set gained steam as it progressed. The clock was nearing midnight when the band played around with “Drinking on the Job,” incorporating bits of “Going to Kansas City,” “Hey Paula” and “One Toke Over the Line.”

Admitting he had no idea where the song was heading, Walkenhorst, Porter and bass player Rich Ruth then paused for an adult beverage before finishing “Drinking on the Job.” That number went right into a spirited “Hoo Dee Hoo,” which stormed into “I Talk With My Hands.”

That would have been a perfect ending, but the band decided to make the performance legendary. It returned to burn through another four songs, including a monstrous “Big Fat Blonde,” before finally saying good night.

Even then no one, onstage or off, seemed ready to leave. As the crowd shuffled out, it had more to look forward to, because this show will be almost as much fun to relive in memory as it was to experience initially.

Set list: Sh-thole Town; Monster Movie; Who’s at the Wheel; Tornado Lane; The Other Side of the World; Snake Dance; Save Some For Me; The One That Got Away; Miserable; Missouri Girl; Width of a Line; Long Gone Long; Thirteenth Spirit; Your Time Has Come; The Wages of Sin; Reckoning Day; Believe in Now; Another Guitar; Given Time; Small Circles; Dogleg; Lakeview Man; Swinging Shed; Government Cheese; Spend It On Love; Battle of the Roses; Downstream; Shiny Shiny; Rockin’ at the T-Dance; Information; Drinking on the Job; Hoo Dee Hoo; I Talk With My Hands. Encore: Let My People Go-Go; One More Summer; Big Fat Blonde; Go Down Swinging.

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(Above: 5FDP land a knockout in Lancaster, Penn. on Oct. 13, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

When your band is called Five Finger Death Punch, covering LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” seems preordained.

The surprise isn’t that the five-piece metal ensemble decided to record a hip hop tune, but that it took them four albums to do it. When the band finally decided to put their stamp on the classic rap track, they found perfect person to help out: Tech N9ne.

“Zoltan (Bathory, guitarist) came up with the idea, and the riff was laying around for a couple years,” said Death Punch drummer Jeremy Spencer. “Ivan (Moody, vocalist) and I are big Tech N9ne fans, so we asked our management to reach out. I thought he did an incredible job.”

Although he was on tour, Tech N9ne jumped at the request. The only time his schedule would allow was the very un-rock-and-roll time of 8 a.m.

“I usually get up about 11-ish, 12-ish,” Tech N9ne said. “I was worried about my voice because I had just done a show the night before. It was too early for me to be screaming, but it was meant to happen. I don’t sound groggy at all.”

tech-fiveWith the instrumental track complete and a scratch vocal track to provide direction, it didn’t take the Strange Music MC long to record his part. The hasty departure meant although they collaborated on tape, Spencer and Tech N9ne have still yet to meet face-to-face.

“I got an email from their people about two weeks ago saying they were playing Kansas City and asking me to join them. I just about died,” Tech N9ne said. “I wanted to perform with those guys, but will still be on tour. It would have been such a surprise to Kansas City. But don’t worry, I think we’ll be working together a lot in the future.”

Tech N9ne isn’t the only guest on the new Five Finger album. Judas Priest frontman and metal god Rob Halfort joined the band on lead single “Lift Me Up” and members of Soulfly, In the Moment and Hatebreed also appear.

“We’ve been able to experiment a little bit,” Spencer said. “There are some instrumental interludes that link one song to another, and one song has a spoken-word narration from Zoltan.”

The Los Angeles-based band had the freedom to expand their boundaries when they realized they had more than enough material for one album. Instead of culling the material for one release, they decided to release it all in two parts. “The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Vol. 1” came out in July. Volume two drops November 19.

“When you are touring, there is a lot of downtime. We’ve always had some kind of portable studio or recording device with us to keep that (creative) muscle flexing,” Spencer said. “We went into the studio this time with a wealth of material. When we got to 24-25 songs, we thought they all fit so well we didn’t want to separate them.”

Spencer said the band consciously spread out the tempos and textures across both albums rather than creating a common theme for each volume.

“I think you get a wide variety of emotion on both albums,” Spencer said. “You can interchange songs on either volume.”

The recording studio can be a harsh master that will fray even the best of bands – look no further than the Beatles’ “Let It Be” – Spencer said his band emerged from the process even stronger.

“I don’t want to overthink what happened. We just let the ideas flow and got out of the way,” Spencer said. “We all supported each other’s ideas, and the songs just happened. I definitely feel the group is tighter for whatever reason I can’t put my finger on.”

Thinking twenty-six songs and more than 90 minutes of new Death Punch material might be too much for fans to digest in one sitting, the band opted to pace releases. The glut of new songs also created issues when planning setlists.

“We try to balance the old and new. We don’t want to forget about people who want to hear the old hits,” Spencer said. “It’s kind of a good problem to have this much good new material.”

They may have nearly doubled their catalog this year, but Five Finger Death Punch aren’t resting on their laurels.

“We’ve definitely started talking about ideas,” Spencer said. “It will be exciting to move forward and see where it goes.”

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(Above: Toad the Wet Sprocket perform “I’ll Bet On You,” a new song that would fit comfortably on any best-of collection.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Toad the Wet Sprocket, the ’90s alternative to alternative music, seemed to be the victims of bad timing. Sure, the band scored two platinum albums and a handful of Top 40 singles, but it was too late (and soft) to be considered college rock and too early for indie rock.

The band’s break-up in 1998 didn’t create any waves. There was no critical re-evaluation of its catalog or new fans clamoring to the legend. Toad was just gone.

On Friday night at the Uptown Theater, 16 years after Toad’s last album, the band reminded fans what they had been missing and delivered hope of a promising future as well.

More than half of the 100-minute set drew from the “Fear” and “Dulcinea” albums, Toad’s best and best-selling releases. The sing-alongs came fast and furious, starting with “Good Intentions” and continuing through “All I Want,” “Nightingale Song,” “Brother” and “Fall Down.”

toadNestled among those chestnuts were five tracks from Toad’s upcoming new album. Singles like “New Constellation” and “Bet on Me” didn’t show any of the lapsed time between recording sessions and fit comfortably in the band’s sound. The fans may not have been singing along with these songs yet, but there’s a good bet they will the next time Toad rolls through town.

The old songs sound pretty much like they did two decades ago. Touring guitarist Johnny Hawthorne added nice texture to “Windmills” and “Walk on the Ocean” with his pedal steel. His mandolin was a nice touch on “Nightingale Song” and “Come Back Down.”

Lead guitarist Todd Nichols was given the mic for “Inside” and “Crazy Life.” During “Come Down,” one of the band’s biggest Kickstarter donors was invited onstage to play cowbell.

Singer Glen Phillips seemed as surprised as anyone at the band’s reception. The Kickstarter campaign to fund a new album raised more than a quarter of a million dollars in two months. While the Uptown wasn’t close to full — the balcony was open, but the sparse crowd upstairs could have easily fit among all the empty seats downstairs — Phillips commented on the audience reception several times. Without major publicity, he said, fans have been finding their own way back to the band.

The world may not have been asking for a Toad the Wet Sprocket reunion, but Friday’s show made a strong case for it being a good idea.

Setlist: The Moment; Woodburning; Good Intentions; Crowing; Windmills; New Constellation; Inside; All I Want; Whatever I Fear; Come Back Down; Nightingale Song; Something’s Always Wrong; The Eye; Crazy Life; Jam; California Wasted; Brother; Fall Down. Encore: Come Down; Bet on Me; Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie cover); Walk on the Ocean.
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(Above: ‘Song stylist’ Bettye LaVette captivates a sold-out crowd at Knuckleheads in Kansas City, Mo. with an a capella version of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bettye LaVette didn’t write any of the songs she performed for 90 minutes in front of a sold-out crowd Saturday at Knuckleheads, but she owned every single one of them. It’s hard to imagine the original songwriters — including John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Lucinda Williams and Cee-Lo Green— investing more emotion than LaVette poured into her performance. Her voice ached and cracked with every syllable and her arms and legs writhed on every word.

Chatty and playful, LaVette told the audience the biggest reason why she covered Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was so her grandchildren would think she was hip. By stripping the song of its kinetic energy and slowing the tempo way down, LaVette turned the ubiquitous hit into a cathartic confession. It also illustrated why she’d rather be called a “song stylist” than a singer.

09.03.08_bettye_lavette253At any other concert LaVette’s mournful, pleading reading of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” would have been the showstopper. Saturday night it was only one of many powerful moments that earned pin-drop silence from the crowd. Other stand-out moments included “The Forecast” and the haunting country ballads “Choices” and “The More I Search (The More I Die).”

While many of the top performances were quiet, LaVette and her four-piece band did a great job of varying tempos and textures. A cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” was bathed in a swampy funk. “I’m Tired” was wrapped in a twisted country-rock guitar riff. The band’s best moment came on “Your Turn to Cry” when it successfully re-reated the Muscle Shoals production from LaVette’s shelved, would-be 1972 recording.

LaVette discussed those disappointments frankly, sharing how much she wanted to be on American Bandstand and how crushed she was when the show’s producers found her debut 1962 single “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man” too suggestive. She said that much of her life had been pretty good, except that she was continually denied her biggest joy, the opportunity to sing.

The happiness LaVette has found over the past 10 years when her career finally started taking off was evident in the night’s final songs, “Close As I’ll Get to Heaven” and an a capella reading of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”

Setlist: The Word; The Forecast; Take Me Like I Am; Choices; Joy; Your Turn to Cry; They Call It Love; Crazy; My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man; The More I Search (The More I Die); I’m Tired; Love Reign O’er Me; Close As I’ll Get to Heaven; I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

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(Above: Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears rip up the Riot Room in Kansas City, Mo. on Valentine’s Day, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Thursday may be the first time Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears have headlined a show in Kansas City, but it’s far from the bandleader’s first visit.

The soul and roots music front man has lots of family in the area. For several months in the mid-’90s, his family lived with his grandmother off Cleveland Avenue.

“I was only about 15 or 16 at the time,” Lewis said. “I remember hanging out in the neighborhood playing basketball, hearing gunshots, BBQ. We weren’t there long, only about 6 months.”

black_joe_lewis_soundcheckmagazine_03Just a few years later, Lewis was busking on the streets of Austin, Texas. Five years ago, he started assembling the Honeybears, a five-piece horn and rhythm section welded tight after countless shows and miles touring by van.

Lewis has shuffled in and out of town on family visits several times over the years, but his band is in a vastly different place from when it last stopped in the area.

In 2010, when the group played the Bottleneck in Lawrence, it was touring on the back of its first full-length album, “Tell ’Em What Your Name Is!” In the two years since, the Honeybears dropped their sophomore LP and shuffled members. A third album is underway.

“Our set now is mostly new stuff, but we still play the older songs, too,” Lewis said. “It’s a lot of fun for us. We know fans sometimes want to hear stuff off the records, but they get into it. It will be nice when the record comes out and people will know what to expect.”

Right now Lewis’ plan is to get the six-piece combo in the studio once a two-week tour wraps up, then try to set up a distribution deal. Lewis said he hopes to have the album out this summer but doesn’t have a timeline. Regardless of when it’s released, Lewis can’t wait for fans to hear it.

“I feel like with what we’re doing right now, I’m putting out my first record,” Lewis said. “On a lot of it, we sound like a rock and roll power trio with a horn section.”

Sometimes songs start from skeletons worked up by Lewis or bass player Bill Stevenson. Other ideas come out of jams, either during rehearsal, sound check or a show.

“Somebody might record our jam on their phone and we’ll come back to it, but even when we’re playing live, the stuff that sounds cool, I’ll work on lyrics for it,” Lewis said. “For me the structure of the song is the meat of the song, and the lyrics put it over the top.”

Forces that compromised the band’s sound in the past are gone now. The contract is up with label Lost Highway, which commissioned DJs to create a Honeybears mix with an electronic and hip-hop flavor aimed at the dance floor. Band members who pressured Lewis to clean up the band’s sound are gone.

“To me, those first albums sound wimpy,” Lewis said. “Back in the day, different guys wanted to do different stuff, and I went with it because that goes with being in a band. Now that stuff isn’t around. I get to cut loose.”

A fully unleashed Lewis could be dangerous. There’s not a lot of sheen or timidity in the Honeybears’ catalog. Lewis doesn’t have any trouble channeling Wilson Pickett or Howlin’ Wolf. He isn’t as concerned with re-creating a specific sound or era as are contemporaries Sharon Jones, the Daptone family and Raphael Saadiq, but he works in enough similar circles to draw comparisons.

“Honestly, I think we’re doing something completely different,” Lewis said. “I feel like we’re American roots music with our own twist. Once the new record comes out, the differences will be more obvious.”

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(Above:Robert Randolph and the Slide Brothers bring a whole new shade to “Purple Haze.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Four tour buses lined the streets near the Power and Light District, each painted with classic album covers and photographs. Their bright colors could be seen from blocks away, heralding the arrival of a six-string circus.

Covered with images of Jimi Hendrix, there was little doubt what brought the caravan of nearly 20 musicians to the Midland Theater on Wednesday. The Experience Hendrix tribute clocked in at nearly three hours, or just slightly longer than the time it takes to play the three studio albums Hendrix released in his lifetime back-to-back-to-back.

Hendrix’ army buddy and Band of Gypsy’s bass player Billy Cox opened the night and as expected the guitar pyrotechnics started almost immediately. Byron Bordeaux was the first to impress with his solo on “Machine Gun.” A terrific exchange between Dweezil Zappa and Indigenous axeman Mato Nanji on “Manic Depression” was another early high point.

Eric Johnson’s six-song mini-set was the music equivalent of driving with hands firmly planted at 10 and two on the steering wheel and keeping the needle glued to 55. Johnson’s thin, reedy voice was incapable of creating any energy, a trait especially missed on “Power of Soul.” While technically proficient, Johnson’s fretwork also failed to capture the freedom and spontaneity that underlined Hendrix’ work.

Robert Randolph’s segment nailed the other end of the spectrum. The pedal steel stylist had the crowd dancing for all of his set. Randolph was accompanied by the Slide Brothers, and hearing “Purple Haze” performed by three pedal steel guitars placed the classic number in a new context. When bass player/vocalist Henri Brown tried to wrap up “Them Changes,” a tribute to Gypsys drummer Buddy Miles, Randolph kept on playing, eventually leading the ensemble into a gospel romp.

Between the Johnson and Randolph sets, Doyle Bramhall II provided the only acoustic moment of the night with his riveting solo performance of “Hear My Train A-Comin’.” He was followed by an outstanding blues set by Taj Mahal that found Mahal channeling Howlin Wolf on “Catfish Blues” and jamming with Cox on “Hey Joe.”

Kenny Wayne Shepherd also led his band through a three-song set that included a lengthy performance of “Voodoo Child.”

Although the musicians at the front of the stage rotated, Chris Layton, the drummer with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, manned the kit for the entire night. The evening closed with many of the musicians reunited onstage for “Red House.”

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