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(Above: Rodrigo y Gabriela bring their main set at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo., to a joyous end with “Humana.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

About a third of the way through her set on Friday night, Gabriela Quintero explained her pact with the Uptown Theater crowd. She and Rodrigo Sanchez promised to play only acoustic guitars if the audience let the pair play whatever they wanted.

The audience in the crowded theater responded enthusiastically to almost everything thrown at it in the 100-minute set. The rapt attention the acoustic instrumental music commanded spoke to the pair’s skill and ingenuity.

The music was a mixture of Mexican, Irish, African, metal and folk, leading to another of Quintero’s maxims: They don’t label their music because then they’d be trapped playing to that label. With no classification, they can — and do — play anything.

Rodrigo y Gabriela started performing together in their native Mexico in the late ’90s. By the new millennium, the pair had relocated to Dublin and caught the eye of Damien Rice and David Gray. Their first album came out in 2002. In the dozen years since, they have released an album almost yearly, alternating studio material with live albums.

rygFriday’s performance touched on many of those albums and also previewed material slated for release next year. With no new album since 2012’s “Area 52,” Sanchez admitted there wasn’t really a reason for the duo to be touring. They just wanted to play.

While both guitarists are virtuosos, Quintero displayed an especially strong right hand. Viciously strumming without a pick, she summoned a plethora of textures and rhythms. Often treating her guitar like a percussive instrument, she was easily able to generate as much kick as a bass drum. Quintero’s skill with a wah pedal also added to her arsenal.

Against this backdrop, Sanchez showed amazing dexterity with his left hand, lacing songs with intricate riffs and solos. Sanchez also wasn’t shy about showing off his metal roots. He tossed Metallica riffs between songs a few times, and threw in some Megadeth for good measure. A full cover of Metallica’s “Orion” showed why the pair have earned the respect of their metal heroes. A right-turn cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” generated the biggest applause of the night.

The sound was immaculate. Both instruments were close mic’d, adding the squeak of fingers on the fretboards and sound of Sanchez’s pick hitting the strings to the mix. When inattentive fans started talking, the rest of the audience had no qualms about shutting them up.

Although their songs have no words, Sanchez and Quintero had no trouble keeping the crowd involved. At one point Sanchez had a three-part clap circulating around the theater. The two’s infectious energy — Quintero relished jumping around the stage — kept fans on their feet for most of the last half of the set.

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Review: Alejandro Escovedo

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Making Movies is making waves

Setlist

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(Above: Roman Numerals fill in for the Guards at the RecordBar on the second night of the 2013 Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Note: Sigur Ros pulled me away from covering the first day of MoTM, but I was at the RecordBar on Friday and the outdoor stage on Saturday (with a quick reprise back at the RecordBar).

Friday

In some unfortunate scheduling, Spirit is the Spirit, a Lawrence-based quintet, was forced to compete with Grizzly Bear. It’s too bad fans of laid-back, analog rock were forced to chose, because many Grizzly fans would likely appreciate Austen Malone’s easygoing, reassuring approach.Spirit’s 40-minute set recalled the earthier moments from the Band and the relaxed vibe of “Workingman’s Dead.” The quintet performed several songs from its new EP and was finally able to coax the sparse crowd to dance on the set-closing “Pillows.”

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Indie rock supergroup Divine Fits rock the Middle of the Map outdoor stage on Saturday.

Roman Numerals are technically a local band, but Friday’s abbreviated set felt more like a homecoming. The four-piece band was playing with drummer Pete LaPorte for the first time in five years and singer/guitarist William Smith had flown in from his home in New York City.

Stepping in at the last minute for the Guards, who called in sick, the Numerals delivered a gripping 30-minute preview of their set planned for Saturday on the outdoor stage.

The RecordBar crowd swelled considerably for the Numerals, but it didn’t approach feeling full until fans started appearing at the conclusion of Grizzly Bear’s set, in anticipation of Deerhoof.

By the time Deerhoof went onstage at midnight, the RecordBar had a line out the door. A packed house watched the avante-indie quartet make its Kansas City debut (although the band did open for the Flaming Lips mini-residency at Liberty Hall in Lawrence last summer).

Cross Sonic Youth with a Japanese game show and you’re in the ballpark of Deerhoof’s unique sound. The diminuitive Satomi Matsuzaki’s enchanting vocals served as a counterpoint to the chaos, while Greg Saunier’s drumming anchored the seemingly free-form songs.

The biggest responses during the 70-minute set came early for the catchy “Panda Panda Panda” and Flaming Lips’ drummer (and Lawrence resident) Kliph Scurlock’s surprise guest appearance behind the kit.

Saturday

Beautiful Bodies had no problem sustaining the momentum from Roman Numerals’ incredible set-closing cover of Joy Division’s “Transmission.”
Bodies singer Alicia Solombrino spent more time in the crowd than she did onstage. She wasn’t always visible, but it was easy to gauge where she was by the disproportionate amount of hands (and phones) in the air.

Fans further away found plenty to like from the five-piece band’s high energy, half-hour set. The parking lot hosting the outdoor stage was only a third full, but the balcony at nearby Buzzard Beach was packed.

Sandwiched between Beautiful Bodies’ grrl-power pop and Futurebirds’ alt-country, the Soft Reeds were a palate cleanser.

The quintet’s 30 minute set previewed material from an upcoming new album. Bursts of free jazz sax highlighted the opening number, and songs like “Finding Patterns” and “Moving in Time” recalled the nervous energy of the Talking Heads. The band also covered Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain.”

Fans missing Uncle Tupelo will have an instant friend in Futurebirds. The five-piece alt-country band from Athens, Ga. made an impressive KC debut.
Their too-short 50 minute set was grounded in the earthy jangle of three guitars and driven to the stratosphere by the cry of a pedal steel.
A cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” highlighted the band’s strengths, a perfect balance of smooth yet ragged. The one-two of “Wild Heart” and the anthemic “Yur Not Dead” closed the set on the highest moment of the day so far.

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The Futurebirds make their Kansas City debut at the 2013 Middle of the Map festival.

Divine Fits had its work cut out following Futurebirds. The supergroup comprised of members of Spoon, Wolf Parade and New Bomb Turks proved up to the task. The quartet performed all but one track from their sole LP during the one-hour set, with a new song, “Chained to Love” and a cover of Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky.”

Both diversions blended well with the group’s sound: driving indie rock built over basic synth patterns. The material blossomed onstage gaining raw energy and losing the sterility of the recorded versions. Frontmen Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner alternated vocal and lead guitar duties. Two of the band’s most neurotic numbers, “What Gets You Alone” and “Shivers” also provided the night’s best moments.

It was hard not to miss the Beaumont Club throughout the weekend, the outdoor stage offered several benefits. Although capacity never rose more than two-thirds full, it offered much greater capacity. It also provided the opportunity to simultaneous enjoy great music and beautiful spring weather.

Tennis
It seemed no one wanted to leave the RecordBar after Making Movies. The venue was one-in, one-out well into Tennis’ set and the room didn’t start to thin until around 1 a.m.

The husband and wife duo of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley were augmented by a two-piece rhythm section for their 50-minute set. The band’s jangly indie pop and confessional, introspective lyrics made them seem like the cool aunt and uncle to Best Coast. Songs were filled with complex lyrics and romantic devotion typical of a married couple who met in a college philosophy course. The biggest responses went to “Petition” and “Origins.” The response to “Petition” was so great that Moore joked that know she knows how Taylor Swift feels.

The final notes had barely died before the house lights were thrown on and patrons were ordered out. Middle of the Map 2013 was officially over at the RecordBar.

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Review: F*cked Up at MoTM

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By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Sigur Ros’ performance at Starlight on Thursday night felt more like being cast under a spell for nearly two hours than seeing a rock show.

The Icelandic trio rarely spoke to the crowd and preferred to sing Hopelandic, an imagined language. Carried by singer Jonsi Birgisson’s angelic falsetto, the linguistic structure only enhanced the trance. Unencumbered by English, the songs could be about whatever you wanted them to be.  Augmented by three piece horn and string sections and a pair of multi-instrumentalists, the group created heavenly textures that juxtaposed near operatic beauty with stains of hard rock.

The M. Night Shyamalan of ensembles, Sigur Ros patiently builds layers and moods before suddenly whisking the listener around in another direction. This was especially true on “Hrafntinna” which build tension from discordant horns before ending with a lush brass coda that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Kauffman Center.

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Arrangements are designed so that each part complements without drawing attention until suddenly the key instrument emerges at the perfect moment. Despite the presence of so many musicians, the mix was pristine. On “Festival” I could hear bass player Georg Holm’s pick hitting the string on each heavy downstroke.

Sigur Ros ended a three-year hiatus with the release of their sixth album, “Valtari,” last year, the band has already moved on. One quarter of the setlist drew from the new record “Kveikur,” which is scheduled for release in June. The material blended well with the older songs, but also showed a new, darker dimension. The title track featured digital textures, exotic percussion and heavy drums. “Brennisteinn” opened with a nasty, distorted synth bassline and sounded like a musical wrestling match between good and evil.

The setting was nearly as expansive as the sound. The first two numbers were delivered behind a trio of sheer veils, which cast wild shadows and broad colors. When the curtains fell, a video screen spanned the width of the stage, projecting images of nature. The slow pan of craggy rocks gradually revealing a mountain range on “E-bow” made the stage seem like it was moving. The low-50s temperature reinforced the mood cast by pictures of rainstorms, bleak landscapes, flashlights in fog and other monochromatic patterns.

Starlight was three-quarters full, optimistically, and the audience soaked up every moment in reverie. There was very little talking and most applause was held until the end of a piece. The big exceptions were the one-two of “Hoppípolla” and “Með Blóðnasir” which spontaneously had the crowd on its feet with evangelistic fervor. The joyous horns at the end of “Festival” rang out like church bells on Christmas Day and inspired a few pockets of dancing.

Setlist: Yfirborð (new song); Ný Batterí; Vaka; Hrafntinna (new song); Sæglópur; Fljótavík; E-bow; Varúð; Hoppípolla ->Með Blóðnasir; Kveikur (new song); Olsen Olsen; Festival; Brennisteinn (new song). Encore: Glósóli ; Popplagið.

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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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Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

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(Above: Thievery Corporation gets the whole room jumping by firing “Warning Shots.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Dance ensemble Thievery Corporation took fans around the world and through its considerable catalog during its inaugural performance in Kansas City on Wednesday night at the Midland.

Although Thievery Corporation functions as a duo in the studio, onstage CEOs Rob Garza (turntables and keyboards) and Eric Hilton (guitar) expanded the board to include a horn section, a full rhythm section and a division of vocalists. Boston MC Mr. Lif brought a hard energy to “Culture of Fear” while mid-Atlantic Rastafarians Ras Puma and Sleepy Wonder imported Jamaican riddims and patois to “Overstand” and “Amerimacka.” Nearly every singer was onstage jumping around during the powerful “Warning Shots.”Many of the best moments, however, belonged to the women. “Garden State” soundtrack staple “Lebanese Blonde” featured Natalia Clavier’s silver tongue paired with Hilton’s sitar. French singer LouLou delivered a spellbinding “La Femme Parallel” in her native tongue. LouLou also was featured in the most organic moment of the night, when Hilton and Garza strapped on six-strings for the ballad “Sweet Tides.”Despite the globetrotting nature of the night, many of the songs featured similar downtempo beats and relied on textures to keep them fresh. As the band moved through trance, bossa nova and dub, detours into reggae, hip-hop and dancehall were welcome. “Vampires,” an anti-International Money Fund screed set to Afro-Beat, was especially energetic. I’m not sure whether the political message got through, but it was hard to find anyone not dancing.

The small crowd fit comfortably on the first three tiers of the Midland floor. The engaged crowd made the most of the ample space, letting the music inspire large, sweeping dances with plenty of room to move around. With no backdrop and a basic light show, Thievery Corporation relied on its music to inspire the audience, and it definitely worked. The constant movements seemed to close in the cavernous room and make it feel more full and energetic.

With the band and audience in complete simpatico, it seemed a little soon when the musicians called it a night after nearly two hours. It felt as though the spell could have lasted all night, especially given how long many fans had waited. It took 15 years and seven albums for the band to finally find Kansas City. Hopefully it won’t take that long for it to come back.

Setlist: “Web of Deception,” “Lebanese Blonde,” “Sol Tapado,” “Take My Soul,” “Liberation Front,” “Culture of Fear,” “Overstand,” “Radio Retaliation,” “Illumination,” “All That We Perceive,” “La Femme Parallel,” “Amerimacka,” “Vampires,” “The Heart’s a Lonely Hunter,” “Unified Tribes,” “Assault on Babylon,” “Warning Shots.” Encore: “Sweet Tides,” “The Richest Man in Babylon,” “Coming from the Top.”

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(Above: Missy Higgins performs “Nightminds” sans band at the Beaumont Club in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Four years after she walked away from the music industry, Australian singer/songwriter Missy Higgins brought some of the people who helped her record again onstage at the Beaumont Club on Saturday night. It could have been a comfort blanket, but it was probably just too much fun to resist.

The triple bill of Higgins, Katie Herzig (who co-wrote one of the songs on Higgins’ new album) and Butterfly Boucher (who co-produced the record) created a communal, free-wheeling vibe. All of the artists appeared in each other’s sets. When Boucher’s opening set was done, she and drummer Will Sayles stayed on as the rhythm section for the other two sets.The laid-back nature of the night created several fun moments. When Higgins was late missing her cue to join Herzig, it created some dead time onstage as everyone waited. Later, when it was Herzig’s turn to return the favor, she was nowhere to be found. Higgins joked that her friend was already in her pajamas, doing yoga. The one-song delay while Herzig was located was well worth the wait. The voices of Higgins, Herzig and Boucher blended beautifully on the poppy “Tricks.”Higgins’ 90-minute performance drew from her comeback album, “The Old Razzle Dazzle,” but mostly delivered a nice cross section of her catalog. Fans didn’t have any problem singing along with the new song “Hello Hello,” but they were especially excited by “Scar,” Higgins’ debut single. Before “Everyone’s Waiting,” Higgins discussed the motives for her sabbatical. A solo version of “Nightminds” was one of the night’s most inspirational moments.

The rows of chairs neatly lining the dance floor and atmosphere generated by the confessional music made lattes seem more appropriate than beers. Incredibly, the sound in the Beaumont Club — a venue long notorious for muddy mixes and inaudible vocals — was pristine. Each instrument was both audible and in perfect balance in the mix.

Herzig’s music has probably been heard by more people on TV than on the radio. Her 45-minute set included the infectious “Hey Na Na,” used in the first “Sex and the City” movie. Higgins guested on “Wish You Well” and “Lost and Found,” both of which have been featured on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Cellist Claire Indie and multi-instrumentalist Jordan Hamlin created the perfect space for Herzig’s songs. Hamlin’s amazing backing vocals pushed a mash-up of “Sweet Dreams” and “Seven Nation Army” even further into the stratosphere and generated one of the few rocking moments of the night.

Setlist: Secret, The River, The Hidden Ones, This Is How It Goes, Hello Hello, The Special Two, Tricks, Going North, Peachy, Where I Stood, Nightminds, Everyone’s Waiting, Sugarcane, Watering Hole, Unashamed Desire, Scar, Warm Whispers, Steer.

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(Above: The Corin Tucker Band cap off a great show with an encore cover of The Selecters “Three Minute Hero” at the Record Bar in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Corin Tucker disappointed Sleater-Kinney’s small but passionate fanbase when she put the band on hiatus in 2006. Now touring in support of her second solo album, the excellent “Kill Your Blues,” the riotgrrl brought the small but dedicated Friday night crowd at the RecordBar up to speed on her life.

“I took some time to be a mom and have some kids,” Tucker sang on “Groundhog Day,” also comparing  herself to “Rip Van Winkle in a denim skirt” on the same verse.

Tucker’s solo work is more expansive, but also retains most of her trademarks. “None Like You” opened with a creepy synthesizer riff that was almost gothic. The breakdown on “Neeskowin” was almost disco, with drummer Sara Lund riding the hi-hat while bass player Dave Depper roped a funky bassline.

The song “Constance” may best exhibit Tucker’s growth and confidence as a songwriter. The imagery of a child ready to leave home and anxious parents not ready for her to go draws from emotions born of Tucker’s motherhood. At the same time the melody treads between a Nirvana-inspired chorus that would have been at home on any number of Sleater-Kinney albums, but also features nuanced choruses built around tiny organ riffs that points the music in a new direction. Later, Tucker wasn’t afraid to let “Joey,” a tribute to the late Ramones singer, flow with tenderness.

While the night was peppered with poppy moments, Tucker’s voice still flips and snarls like an angry acrobat when it needs to, punching and kicking notes with joyful abandon. Her minimalist guitar noodling played nicely off the large noisy wash from Seth Lorinczi’s guitar. At times, Lorinczi’s guitar sounded like an aggressive takedown of the Ravonettes.

Between songs, Tucker reminded people to vote, intentionally – and hilariously – confusing senate candidate Todd “legitimate rape” Aikin with American Idol Clay Aiken.

The 70-minute set leaned heavily on “Kill Your Blues,” featuring all but two of the album’s dozen cuts. The remaining spots in the setlist were filled with songs from Tucker’s 2010 solo debut, “1,000 Years.” For the encore, Tucker turned the ska bounce of The Selecter’s “Three Minute Hero” into a furious punk song.

Almost a year ago to the day, Wild Flag, the band featuring the other two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney, delivered an incredible performance for a sold-out crowd that hung on every note. The fans who made it a point to see the highly anticipated Wild Flag set, did themselves a disservice by missing Tucker. She may not have the NPR hype machine behind her, but Tucker is making music just as inventive and vitals as her former bandmates. Hopefully next time she’ll be playing to the full room she deserves.

Setlist: No Bad News Tonight, None Like You, Summer Jams, Half a World, Handed Love, Groundhog Day, Tiptoe, Riley, Constance, I Don’t Wanna Go, Kill My Blues, Joey, Neskowin, Doubt. Encore: Three Minute Hero (The Selecter cover).

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(Above: Metric get raw for “Monster Hospital” on August 12, 2012, at the Beaumont Club in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

It took a few songs for Metric’s set to get off the ground Wednesday night at the Beaumont Club, but once the band finally took off they soard.

An abundance of new material and time getting the mix right contributed to the muted start, but the biggest issue was personnel. On their next tour, the four-piece Canadian indie pop band should consider bringing someone else to help with keyboards. Frontwoman Emily Haines is far too charismatic and has too great a stage presence to be wedged behind her synthesizers.

Although recent single “Youth Without Youth” got a warm response, the first big moment came during “Empty.” It is telling that this is also the first time Haines was feed from her station for a significant amount of time. Effortlessly prowling the front of the stage, Haines flipped her blonde locks from side to side with the beat and cooed a charged call and response from the crowd.

Once she had the crowd, Haines never let go. The icy synthesizers on “Clone” seemed to subconsciously draw the two-thirds full room closer to the stage. Radio hit “Help, I’m Alive” drew a predictably strong response and got most of the audience dancing and singing along.

For most of their 90-minute set, Metric shuffled a glorious deck of influences. At certain times strains of Brian Eno, New Order, Pet Shop Boys and U2 were plainly audible. During the encore the band showed another facet, dropping the synthesizers and playing straight-up rock and roll. “Monster Hospital” almost sounded like a punk song and the slyly political “Gold Guns Girls” featured Haines on electric guitar.

The setlist drew heavily from this year’s “Syntheitica” album. After reeling off five of its tracks in a row to open the show, Metric eventually performed all but three of the album’s cuts. Of the remaining songs Wednesday night, all but two came from 2009’s much-loved “Fantasies.”

Final song “Gimme Sympathy” turned the room from a discotheque to a campfire. With the rhythm section departed, Haines and guitarist James Shaw turned the fan favorite into a quiet acoustic number. On the chorus Haines posed the challenge music nerds have been debating for a generation: “Who’d you rather be/the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” The answer, of course, is that there is no wrong answer. By revving up the crowd with jackhammer dance beats and getting everyone to sing along a cappella, Haines proved that she can have it both ways as well.

Setlist: Artificial Nocturne, Youth Without Youth, Speed the Collapse, Dreams So Real, Lost Kitten, Empty, Help, I’m Alive; Synthetica, Clone, Breathing Underwater, Sick Muse, Dead Disco, Stadium Love. Encore: Monster Hospital, Gold Guns Girls, Gimme Sympathy.

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(Above: The re-tooled BoDeans cover the Boss at a recent stop on their American Made tour. This is the band’s first outing without founding member Sam Llanas.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The urgency in Kurt Neumann’s voice was so strong that he repeated the phrase twice before ending the show: “Buy ‘American Made’ and we’ll come back and play for you.” Translation: we need you to buy our new album to keep going.

Neumann has a lot pushing against him right now. His band, the BoDeans, had a handful of near-hits and big opportunities in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but Neumann is determined to be something more than a nostalgia act.Sunday’s 90-minute concert at Knucklehead’s was a defiant statement. Neumann confidently mixed songs from “American Made” with the band’s classic. Most importantly proved he could carry the BoDeans without founding member, songwriting partner and stage foil Sam Llanas.

Llanas may have been missed on the setlist – there was no “Feed the Fire,” “Far Far Away” or “Runaway” – but the fans flooded to the dance floor for “Texas Ride Song” and kept it crowded for most of the night.

The setlist bounced between four decades of work, but the songs all carried the same earthy rock feel that defied time. The new group of players Neumann assembled in the wake of Llanas’ departure brought a freshness to the material and were playing with something to prove.

Percussion player Alex Marrerro enhanced Neumman’s lead vocals with his high harmonies. The interplay between Warren Hood’s violin and longtime member Michael Ramos’ accordion and organ often recalled the roots/zydeco sound of John Mellencamp’s heyday. During “The Ballad of Jenny Rae,” guitarist Jake Owen slipped in a tribute to Deep Purple’s Jon Lord.

Between songs, Neumann was chipper, explaining how a snowstorm in Montana inspired “Idaho” (the title state provided an easier rhyme) and plugging new single “All the World,” which is getting some airplay on CMT. The introductions to the Johnny Cash-inspired “Flyaway” and “Paradise” revealed similar themes of a positive mindset as the ultimate freedom.

Neumann was smart enough to know that the road to the future will be paved with his past, closing with four fan favorites that got everyone on their feet. He called it a night with “Closer to Free,” the song that served as the theme to “Party of Five” and landed the band in the Top 10. As the audience sang along, it’s hard to imagine the message didn’t resonant with the players onstage as well.

Set list: Stay On, Texas Ride Song, Good Work, Flyaway, The Ballad of Jenny Rae, Tied Down and Chained, Paradise, Idaho, All the World, Angels, American, Fade Away > Good Things. Encore: Still the Night, Closer to Free.

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(Above: Steve Martin’s comedy chops are beyond reproach. For proof of his banjo skills, check out this clip of “The Great Remember.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

It’s hard to tell if Thursday night’s performance by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers was a comedy show hijacked by bluegrass music or the other way around. Either way, it was a success.

The 100-minute show in front of a sold-out Midland theater was a convergence of two of Martin’s passions. The banter between songs was full of the one-liners and comic sensibilities that have made Martin a movie star and inspiration to comedians since the 1970s. It also showcased the Martin’s banjo prowess, an instrument he picked up at 17.

Martin was quick to mock his celebrity status. Then he checked e-mail, sent tweets and playfully berated the five-piece Rangers between songs. While many of Martin’s songs had humorous themes, it was clear music was serious business.

It didn’t take long for the Rangers to prove themselves worthy musical and comedic foils. Showcasing Martin’s original material, the night opened with three instrumentals. For the bittersweet “Daddy Played Banjo,” Martin turned the mic over to Rangers’ guitarist Woody Platt’s pleasant tenor.

Later, “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” had a nice moment when the performance dropped to just Martin and Graham Sharp on banjos before rebuilding.

Knowing the evening was either an introduction to bluegrass or the first bluegrass show some had attended in a while, Martin took a few moments to explain the genre. Before the nostalgic “The Great Remember,” Martin demonstrated the difference between the Earl Scruggs style of playing — fast-paced with three fingers wearing picks — and the claw hammer style, which is slower and played sans picks.

After showing how the acoustic instruments can provide a natural percussion, Martin lamented, “There’s a downside to traveling with no drummer — no pot.”

Martin gave the Rangers two solo numbers. The first song, an instrumental, featured dramatic flourishes on Mike Guggino’s mandolin. The second was a gorgeous a capella version of the gospel song “I Can’t Sit Down” that had all the Rangers singing into one mic.

Not to be outdone, Martin returned and led the Rangers through his own a capella hymn, “Atheists Don’t Have no Songs.” Martin gleefully punctuated lines about atheists always having Sunday free and keeping “he” lowercase. His enthusiastically off-pitch stanzas punctured the song’s carefully constructed harmonies.

The set ended with two new songs, “Me and Paul Revere,” a story about the famous ride from the horse’s point of view, and “Auden’s Train.” The latter was a showcase for Nicky Sanders’ absurd fiddle playing, in which he not only mimicked the sound of a locomotive, but played a lengthy solo that incorporated bits of “Norwegian Wood,” the “Hallelujah Chorus,” “William Tell Overture” and “Live and Let Die.”

Some of Martin’s best non-musical bits were good enough to stand alone. A sampling:

“The next song is a sing-along. It’s also an instrumental, so good luck.”

“I think of my banjos as my children, which is to say one of them is probably not mine.”

“I guess I’m doing two of my favorite things now — comedy and charging people to hear music.”

“If you’re not having fun tonight, you’re wrong.”

He was right.

Keep reading:

Review: Bela Fleck’s Africa Project

Review: Robert Plant and Allison Krauss

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

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